No stopping the momentum

May 1, 2020

The enduring coronavirus pandemic may be causing unprecedented business uncertainty, but it hasn’t stifled the ambitions of Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen. The man charged with bringing fresh prosperity to the region says his growth plans remain firmly on track, with fresh announcements in the pipeline. Steven Hugill finds out more

“Houchen! The man with the Midas touch strikes gold!”

When Coventry City’s Keith Houchen wrote his name into FA Cup folklore, BBC commentator John Motson ensured his inscription carried an extra lustre.

The Middlesbrough-born attacker’s diving header in the competition’s 1987 final was a career-defining moment and remains an iconic image of the cup’s long and colourful history.

Now, more than three decades on, Keith’s nephew Ben – himself a rugby union player of England youth recognition – is aiming to leave a similarly lasting legacy.

Having substituted the pitch for politics, the Tees Valley Mayor is focused on bringing fresh investment and job creation to the region.

The coronavirus outbreak may have delivered new inertia to a business community still weary from Britain’s protracted EU divorce, but the Mayor says his growth blueprint remains on track.

Indeed, such is the positivity around discussions with investors that he still expects to make substantial announcements about two of his blue-ribbon endeavours – the former SSI UK steelworks site and Teesside International Airport – in the coming months.

The ex-SSI UK base, a rusting monument to the firm’s painfully fleeting revival of the Redcar blast furnace, has stood hollow since October 2015 when the business collapsed into liquidation.

However, having secured multi-million-pound Government backing to support his South Tees Development Corporation’s (STDC) vision around transforming the sprawling site, Mayor Houchen says the area stands ready for a renaissance.

With STDC having wrested control of 840 acres of land from SSI UK’s Thai parent company earlier this year – on top of more than 1000 acres it bought from Tata Steel – Mayor Houchen says the picture is becoming increasingly upbeat.

Factor in plans to develop an electric arc furnace to rekindle the region’s steelmaking heritage and Mayor Houchen, a former solicitor at law firms in Stockton and Middlesbrough, says his strategy is primed to deliver a “huge confidence boost”.

“I think in the next three to four months we will be making some significant announcements around the SSI UK site,” he says.

“We are speaking to three different investors – three international steelmakers – about bringing the industry back.

“Until the steelworks are pulled down, they will remain a millstone around the necks of the people who live in Redcar.

“But, if we can come out in the next few months and announce steelmaking is coming back, that will be a huge confidence boost.

“We are getting ready to kick on again with the same purpose we had before the crisis; coronavirus will not stop our momentum,” he continues.

Mayor Houchen’s positivity is mirrored when he talks about Teesside International Airport.

Returning the transport hub to public ownership was a central cog in his 2017 election campaign wheel and the Northumbria University law graduate was quick to make good on his promise. After appointing Stobart Group as the site’s operator, Mayor Houchen subsequently announced a raft of new flights, with sunshine breaks complementing a portfolio of domestic services headlined by the return of a London link to the airport.

He has also overseen the start of work on a £200 million logistics and manufacturing park at the base, which he says has the capacity to deliver more than 4000 jobs.

“The airport will see flights again once we are out of lockdown; it will not suffer,” he says.

“We are speaking to investors – these are people who are still very keen to do deals with us to bring jobs and investment to the site.

“We are in a fantastic position,” continues Mayor Houchen, who grew up in Ingleby Barwick, near Yarm.

“The expansion space for the logistics and manufacturing park makes the airport much more sustainable long-term, and we have fantastic partners in KLM and Eastern Airways too.”

However, while he remains focused on the future, Mayor Houchen is equally conscious of the fact that tomorrow’s achievements will only come by ensuring the successes of today.

To that end, he worked with Tees Valley Combined Authority and Stockton’s Lemon Business Solutions to establish the Tees Valley Business Support Line.

Signposting organisations to relevant guidance amid the coronavirus pandemic, the service is now running as a 24-hour, seven-day operation after attracting more than 1000 firms in its first week alone.

“Many businesses are continuing to keep moving forwards and doing what they can,” says Mayor Houchen, “but many need someone they can call for support.

“We had Brexit uncertainty, but coronavirus has brought a whole new level of uncertainty and it is vital organisations access a single point of truth,” he adds.

“We are making sure our businesses can bounce back on the other side of coronavirus because there will be large opportunities for them to seize from the uptick in the economy.

“This is an area that is moving forwards.”

Ben Houchen

*Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the next Tees Valley Mayoral Election, originally scheduled for May this year, will now take place in 2021

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