In the Limelight: Mayor of the Tees Valley

Alison Cowie looks back at Ben Houchen’s first year as Mayor of the Tees Valley

A year ago, Ben Houchen, who grew up in Ingleby Barwick and now lives in Yarm, appeared on the cover of the June 2017 issue of North East Times.

At the time, he was ebullient to have become the first elected Mayor of the Tees Valley. As the Conservative candidate, his election was considered a shock by many.

Mayor Houchen marked his one-year anniversary in office by making a speech on May 11 at logistics firm AV Dawson in Middlesbrough.

The event, where the Mayor was introduced by AV Dawson’s managing director Gary Dawson, was attended by representatives of the private and public sectors as well as by the media.

Stood on a plinth in a vast warehouse housing hundreds of rolls of sheet metal, Ben Houchen spoke about his election being “an honour of a lifetime”, before reflecting on the “record of job creation, growth and investment” the Mayoral office and the Tees Valley Combined Authority had delivered over the last year.

“We ploughed £51 million into projects last year, supporting the creation of 4000 new jobs,” he told the audience.

He also echoed the claim that he told me 12 months ago that he and the Tees Valley were now at the “top table of power, sitting side-by-side with London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool”.

The Mayor used his one-year anniversary speech to announce more than £40 million worth of new spending commitments. This included a £13 million access to finance fund for small and medium-sized enterprises to “back out job creators, innovators, entrepreneurs and risk-takers”.

A further £3 million would be used to create a careers initiative TeesValleyCareers.com to target every school and college in the Tees Valley, almost 100,000 young people.

The Mayor added it had also set a target to get 1000 businesses engaging with 11-to-18 year olds “to inform them of local job offerings and career opportunities”.

As well as the announcement of a £25 million commitment towards the cost of redeveloping Darlington Station, Mayor Houchen also provided an update on the future of Durham Tees Valley Airport – a key focus of his election campaign.

He confirmed a proposal had been submitted to Peel Airports, and a non-disclosure agreement has been signed and agreed, while also announcing a separate NDS has been signed with a well-established airport operator.

“I wish I could say more,” he said, “but what is clear is we’re moving in the right direction.”

Speaking to the Mayor after the speech, he described the last 12 months as “a bit of whirlwind,” but that he is proud of the “good stuff” he has achieved.

He maintained that there’s “a huge amount more to deliver,” and that “the size and the scale of the projects means they’re not going to happen overnight,” adding that they are necessary to get the “step changes we want in the Tees Valley”.

But not everything has run quite to plan for the Mayor since he was last interviewed for North East Times – a matter of weeks before the 2017 General Election.

“The General Election didn’t go as expected; no one would pretend that it did,” said the Mayor. “But [The Conservative Party] still won, we’re still in Government and we’re still driving a positive agenda.”

In his May 11 speech, Mayor Houchen, a supporter of the leave campaign, described “Brexit as the single biggest issue facing us for a generation”.

He also talked at length about the Tees Valley increasing its profile on the world stage – but made it clear that this recognition lay beyond the European Union. He singled out Far East-based companies including Nifco, Lucite, Lotte Chemical, Samsung, Fujifilm and Nissan that are continuing to invest, employ, train and export in the Tees Valley, before announcing an imminent trade mission to Japan and South Korea.

Afterwards, I challenged the Mayor on the issue of tariffs post-Brexit and the concern that new rules may cause delays for North East manufacturers and their supply chains. It is something that repeatedly came up as I produced North East Times’ International Issue, out last month.

In contrast, the Mayor described the tariff issue as a “false flag”, adding “it’s an argument that’s the last bastion from these very ardent Remainers”.

Instead, he talked about the potential of major manufacturers such as Nissan increasing their share of UK-based supply chain products. He also extolled the virtues of Teesport winning free port status (where goods could be imported, manufactured and then re-exported from within the zone without incurring customs tariffs) which, he says, “could save the supply chain a huge amount of money”.

The next 12 months promise to be challenging for The Conservative Party as it continues to thrash out the detail of the UK’s divorce deal from the EU, but Mayor Houchen maintains that’s the concern of politicians “above his paygrade”. Instead the Mayor will be focused on achieving “more job creation, more support for businesses, more foreign direct investment” for the Tees Valley to “better the local economy so that people have more money in their pockets to provide for themselves and their families”.

“That’s what my job is about,” he adds.

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