Interview

Exemplar of devolution 

Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) was established in April of this year and Andrew Lewis was appointed as its managing director three months later.

The new organisation merged the powers of the five local councils (Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland and Stockton) with the region’s existing Local Enterprise Partnership – Tees Valley Unlimited – and was tasked with continuing to secure investment and jobs in the Tees Valley, while paving the way for devolution, which promises greater local governance and £450 million of funding over 30 years.

According to Andrew, the creation of the combined authority was essential for the smooth transition of devolution and the future development of the region, as he explains: “The Tees Valley has a track record of collaborative working with the LEP and before that, the joint strategy unit. So the combined authority is more of an evolution than a revolution.

“We haven’t had to start from a blank piece of paper but the combined authority does present a number of new opportunities. “We are now a statutory legal body, which means we can take on responsibilities and powers from central government while offering more transparency to the public, democratic decision making and scrutiny.”

Andrew’s previous roles include 15 years working as an economist at The Treasury, a director role at the Northern Way (a predecessor of the Northern Powerhouse) and, most recently, the position of assistant chief executive at Newcastle City Council.

In taking on the role at the new Tees Valley Combined Authority, Andrew has inherited a region with its own unique economic footprint and combination of opportunities and challenges.

“The Tees Valley has a very proud industrial heritage going back decades and, in some sectors, we are internationally significant with a strong export orientation,” Andrew reflects. “We are particularly strong in the chemical and processing industries and have a large skill set and potential for growth in several new sectors including biotechnology, digital and green energy.

“That said,” he continues, “the region’s heritage has also created substantial social and economic problems that the combined authority and its partners must address.”

While the North East unexpectedly rejected devolution in September this year, Tees Valley has pressed ahead with its plans, joining the likes of Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and London.

For Andrew, there is no doubt that devolution will bring benefits to the region.

“There is a lot of frustration about how slow Government can be in responding to local area’s needs, and also how short-term and irrelevant interventions can be for the Tees Valley as they attempt to fit it into a national agenda.

“The devolution deal will allow us to take responsibility and make many more decisions locally – which were previously made behind closed doors in Whitehall – in a transparent way and in partnership with and for the benefit of the people who live and work here.

“In addition, it will also allow us to draw down funding from central government and get preferential access to investment.”

Much of the activity of the TVCA this year has been focused on preparing for more devolved powers, while building on the existing work of Tees Valley Unlimited.

The authority recently launched Tees Valley Business Compass, a major expansion of its support service for business, along with the Youth Employment Initiative to help young people train and access jobs, marking the first project in preparation for taking full responsibility for adult education by 2018.

In gaining increasing responsibility for transport, the TVCA has also taken the lead on a number of specific interventions to alleviate poor service and congestion hotspots.

This has included working on the redevelopment plans for Darlington (which will be part of the High Speed Rail Network) and Middlesbrough’s train stations, improving the region’s bus services, alleviating congestion on the A19 and partnering with Transport for the North to radically improve the quality of transport services across the North of England.

TVCA has also been heavily involved in the response to the closure of the SSI steelworks – causing the redundancies of more than 2200 direct workers and having an impact on a further 1000 contractors.

Working with Redcar & Cleveland Council and the SSI Task Force (chaired by the council’s chief executive Amanda Skelton), the combined authority has supported former employees in retraining and finding work, helped the companies in the supply chain seek new business opportunities, and also assisted the wider community.

“We haven’t been able to completely mitigate the devastating consequences of SSI’s closure but a report by the SSI Task Force, released recently, shows that the steps that have been taken have got people into jobs, created business opportunities and made a difference,” says Andrew.

The team at TVCA has also had to deal with the fallout of Brexit and the future end of European funding, a large amount of which has been received by the Tees Valley.

“There was an immediate implication after the EU referendum result that put a real brake on the commitment that we able to enter into using European funding,” Andrew explains. “At the time, the Tees Valley’s European programme was set to benefit from more than £170 million of European funding over the following few years and so we lobbied Government to provide the guarantees which would allow us to continue our efforts.

“We did get the assurances we needed and it was recently announced that our European funding would actually be extended, which has given us the confidence to continue to invest in the region.

“However,” Andrew adds, “this only takes us up to the point when the UK leaves the EU, and so we will continue to make sure alternatives to EU money are secured for the Tees Valley.”

Next year, Andrew says, the TVCA will continue to embrace devolution and the first £15 million annual instalment of funding, announced by the Government on September 29, will be used to continue support for young people to develop their skills, levy national money to bring mass access to superfast broadband, and develop proposals to bring more culture and tourism to the Tees Valley.

The combined authority will also oversee the election of the Tees Valley mayor – a condition of devolution – who will become chairman of the TVCA and form a cabinet of council leaders to deliver a constitution that Andrew describes as “based on collaboration and co-operation”.

He continues: “The choice for mayor is clearly a matter for the electorate but I’m hoping the election creates an opportunity to open up a debate and to engage the citizens in the big choices that we are going to have to make for the Tees Valley economy.”

Asked what the biggest challenge for TVCA will be in 2017, Andrew replies: “It will be the same as the one the authority, the LEP, and the councils have always faced: answering how we secure investment and job creation in the Tees Valley.

“Devolution is not the end – it’s the means to an end. It will be there to help us in our effort to improve our local authority and bring prosperity and jobs to the region.

“We will continue to strive for this but I do think that next year, the Tees Valley Combined Authority will have more opportunities to make a difference and build a successful response to the challenge.”

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