June 9, 2017
On May 5, Conservative candidate Ben Houchen was named the first elected Mayor of the Tees Valley, in what was described as a ‘shock’ result. The 30-year-old former lawyer and business owner is now charged, alongside the new Combined Authority, to deliver Devolution across the five Labour-run local authorities of the area. Just weeks into his new role, Ben talks to Alison Cowie about his election, his priorities and working across party divisions to deliver a stronger future for the residents and businesses of Teesside
Firstly, congratulations on your win. How does it feel to be the first elected mayor of Teesside?
Fantastic! The comment I made directly after the election result was that I felt the weight of responsibility on my shoulders but it’s one that I wear with pride. I can think of nothing better than to represent the community where I have lived my whole life.
Tell me a bit about yourself…
I grew up in Ingleby Barwick and I now live in Yarm. I studied Law at Northumbria University and worked as a solicitor at law firms in Stockton and Middlesbrough. I left private practice after six years and did some legal and business consulting work for a client. This led to an opportunity to run my own professional sportswear business, BLK Sport. I’ve taken a big step back from that business now so I can focus my time on my role as mayor.
What led you into politics?
I’ve always been interested in politics and my earliest memory of was the 1997 General Election when was 11 years old. I was aware I wanted to go into politics but I wanted to go to university, get a career and run a company first. I felt it was important so that I would be able to understand the pressures that businesses face. A year ago, I made a concerted to move into politics as I thought it was the right time.
How did you find the election experience?
It was fascinating. I signed up to be a mayoral candidate in December 2016. Initially, it was about flying the Conservative flag in an area that’s traditionally been a tough hunting ground for the party. But within weeks it was clear that there was a movement away from the traditional Labour roots towards the Conservatives.
I first noticed it when I worked closely with James Wharton, the MP for Stockton South, before his election in 2010. The groundswell really seemed to build in the months leading up to the mayoral election. The announcement of the General Election shortly before the vote seemed to accelerate that even more. I think a lot of people were linking the role of the mayor with national politics.
Your election was described as a ‘shock’ result. Presumably, you don’t see it that way…
It would be remiss of me to say that the win was expected but I knew that we had a good chance, especially as time went on and I could see this surge of support. I was confident when I went into election day – and the count the day after. It wasn’t expected but it certainly wasn’t a surprise.
Now you’re in post, what are your priorities?
I want to allow the people of the Tees Valley to provide for themselves and their families long term, and to achieve this we need a strong local economy and strong private sector businesses to support jobs. My job as mayor, along with the Combined Authority, will be to create a framework by which private businesses can flourish and be world leaders.
Part of my job will be an ambassadorial role – not just internally within the Tees Valley but nationally and internationally. I want to show people the benefits of the Tees Valley as the place to live, work and build a life, and for businesses to bring investment into the area.
I’ll soon be attending a two-day conference in London with mayors from across the Commonwealth and I am scheduled to go to New York to meet mayors from Europe and America to see how we can work better together.
Now we have a Tees Valley mayor, we have a seat at the table and my role is to make my voice heard and share the fantastic things we have in the area.
Buying back Durham Tees Valley Airport was a key pledge of your campaign. Why so?
The people of the area are very much wedded to a strong regional airport. Durham Tess Valley Airport was on its way to becoming one but, for a number of reasons, that’s disintegrated. People want a thriving airport, not just because people want good, accessible flights to holiday destinations but, as a business hub and an economic powerhouse, the Tees Valley needs one. From an inward investment perspective, it is one of the things that people will look for. Creating this strong regional airport is a priority for us and it was crucial to delivering my mayoral victory.
What progress have you made so far?
Last week I met with the chairman of Peel Airports which owns the Durham Tees Valley Airport. It was a very positive and constructive meeting and there are a number of potential options on the table. I am now looking forward to the negotiations and delivering what’s best for the airport and its community.
The Government’s Devolution agreement promises the mayor and the Combined Authority increased powers in several areas. You’ve only been in post a few weeks but what is the position of the following:
The mayoral office and the Combined Authority has an established infrastructure plan, of which transport is a key aspect, and we are committed to delivering that plan. Devolution will allow us to challenge funds at a local level to support infrastructure improvements, such as the widening of the A19 and providing more access to, for example, freight and logistics access to the Redcar [former SSI] site.
Homes and communities:
The Combined Authority has established a land commission and one of the key roles of this is to try and consolidate all public land across the Tees Valley into Combined Authority ownership. This will allow for greater strategic planning and access to those pieces of public land for regeneration. We have to work very closely with HCA [Homes and Communities Agency] on this and I will be lobbying for further funding and powers. It will be a difficult ask but it’s important to take a more local view of housing.
Skills and education:
Under Devolution, we’ll have a budget within the Combined Authority to manage all post-19 years education by 2018. The mayor won’t have direct control over the governing bodies and the colleges across the Tees Valley, but an important role for me will be in coordinating the skills and the courses that those institutions offer. We’ve had an area-based review and we very clearly need consolidation and a rationalisation of the courses being offered in our colleges and FE providers. It’s all very well having a qualification but unless that qualification provides access to a job, in my opinion, that doesn’t serve anyone.
Business growth and investment:
Something that I will be dedicating a lot of time to – and have had some very positive feedback from the business community on – is the establishment of an investment fund for the area.
Along with the guaranteed £15 million pounds funding from Central Government, I will be looking to work with local businesses and experts about ways we can leverage private investment. But we need to look at more ingenious ways to do that.
I’m hoping to pull together a working group of local businesses and people with expertise to be able to, firstly, bring that fund together and then to advise on how this is handled.
I strongly believe that the mayoral office and the Combined Authority should be a single shop front for businesses to access support and help and we have to be more creative in this support. We need to go beyond saying “here’s a £10,000 or £100,000 grant, make sure you tick a box to say you’re going to create ‘X number of jobs’”. Potentially, we could create joint ventures of the Combined Authority where we will buy equity into the business.
It’s about thinking of new and modern ways of being able to invest in businesses, rather than this traditional way where you write a cheque and hope for the best.
If all these things come together we could have a real war chest to be able to reinvest into our area.
As a Conservative mayor, you now preside over an area of five Labour-run councils. How will you overcome political divisions to deliver your role?
I’ve already had one-to-one conversations with all the leaders of the area and they have been very receptive. I’ve made it very public that I’m happy to work collaboratively with them because, ultimately, what’s best for the Tees Valley is best for all of us, irrespective of political persuasion.
A lot of the Strategic Economic Plan and the Infrastructure Plan is non-political and the leaders have given me their assurances that they’re happy to deliver on the plans that are already set up.
On the few flashpoints where there may be some conflict, I’ve always impressed that it’s very dangerous for any political leader or politician to go against the mandate of the people. I have been given a mandate and the local authority leaders understand that’s the case. I’m here to deliver on my promises I’ve made to the Tees Valley people.
While the Tees Valley has embraced Devolution, an agreement has not yet been achieved in the North East Combined Authority area. In the local business community, I repeatedly hear the need for the North East region – including Teesside – to work together to become a stronger force nationally and internationally. Do you agree with this and, if so, how can more collaboration be achieved?
I think this goes wider than the North East. The Tees Valley has to work collaboratively across the whole of the North of England. The concept of the Northern Powerhouse hasn’t gone away and I will be working hard to get our voice heard. A sub-divide of that is the East coast, where I am the first municipal mayor. We will need to work collaboratively across the region, not just north into Newcastle and Sunderland, but also south into Yorkshire.
What I would say is that, when it comes to the mayoralty, there are some jealous eyes looking at the Tees Valley; people think we’re getting ahead of the curve. I do feel we’ve stolen a march on a lot of other areas and, as an area, we need to capitalise on that. I’m unashamed that I want to make sure the Tees Valley gets the best for its community. We’ve been given our own autonomy and our own devolution and the people of the Tees Valley have grabbed it with both hands.
As this is the leadership issue, I must ask what you think makes a good leader?
There are various types of leadership but, personally, I think a leader must be humble and aware of their own limitations. They must have the right team around them and, as the mayor, I am looking to surround myself with the right advisers both politically and from business.
Ultimately, though, the buck stops with me. Like all leaders, I will have to make difficult decisions. I am making a very conscious effort to work collaboratively across many different sectors and industries, but I will have to take a view personally on what’s best for the region. As a leader, you must have a sense of direction and a strength of purpose. I think that I’m well equipped to make the right decisions, having been born here, grown up here, gone to school here and worked here. I know what the Tees Valley is about. It’s in my blood. I understand it. I get the businesses and I get its people.