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Ben Houchen interview: Tees Valley mayor on why a Yorkshire-wide devolution deal can never work

Ben Houchen, Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, by the Infinity bridge in Stockton-on-Tees.
Ben Houchen, Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, by the Infinity bridge in Stockton-on-Tees.
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Yorkshire’s devolution plans face an uncertain future, but bordering the region is a newly-elected metro mayor who is relishing the powers handed to his office by central government. Political Editor Rob Parsons went to meet him.

It left him with three fractured vertebrae in his back and unable to do any physical activity for 18 months, but the painful accident sustained during a rugby match in 2002 may have been the making of the young Ben Houchen.

Ben Houchen, Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, at his office in Stockton on Tees.

Ben Houchen, Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, at his office in Stockton on Tees.

The Leeds Tykes academy player, who was part of the England RFU Development squad and dreamed of turning professional, was playing against rivals Bradford & Bingley when he suffered the injury.

“I was in a ruck, so I sat down on the floor and a big prop forward hit me and he had me in a headlock. It was an accident. I couldn’t twist so my back just kept on curling and [there were] big cracks,” he says.

The two weeks spent in hospital and the lengthy lay-off afterwards meant he never recovered enough to resurrect his rugby career, and was forced to reconsider what the future might hold for him.

Some 15 years on, he is speaking to The Yorkshire Post from his modern Tees Valley Combined Authority office building in Stockton-on-Tees, with a half a billion pound budget at his disposal and representing a constituency of nearly 750,000 people.

The problem with somewhere like Yorkshire is that, with the best will in the world, people from Thirsk and Northallerton have absolutely no community connection with people from Bradford, Rotherham and Sheffield.

As the directly elected Mayor of Tees Valley, he’s arguably one of the most powerful Conservative politicians outside London and, alongside fellow city mayors like Manchester’s Andy Burnham, London’s Sadiq Khan and Liverpool’s Steve Rotherham, has influence the like of which politicians over the border in Yorkshire can only dream.

At the age of 31, it’s been a remarkably quick ascent. His time at university, avoiding the talking shops of student politics, preceded a five-year spell as a solicitor before starting his own business, sportswear firm BLK.

And in May this year, with less than three years under his belt as leader of Stockton Borough Council’s Conservatives, he pulled off a major shock by winning the mayoral race in an area considered to be a traditional Labour stronghold.

Reflecting on his current position from his desk overlooking the River Tees, in an area comprising the unitary authorities Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland and Stockton-on-Tees, he describes the experience so far as “absolutely brilliant”.

Ben Houchen, Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, at his office in Stockton-on-Tees.

Ben Houchen, Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, at his office in Stockton-on-Tees.

“I have loved every single minute of it,” he said. “It’s been the best six or seven months of my life but also the most difficult and tiring six, seven months of my life, but you are quite happy to work from first thing in the morning to 9,10, 11 at night when you feel like you are actually making a difference.”

Under the deal agreed with the Government in 2015, the Tees Valley had a variety of economic growth powers handed over to its combined authority, along with the funding to support the plans, as part of the devolution agenda pushed forward by George Osborne.

Mr Houchen is, he reveals, now working on a second devolution deal with the Department of Communities and Local Government that would see a host of new powers and funding transferred from Whitehall.

He is coy on the details but says one proposed power for his office would be to deal with planning applications for power stations rather than having to wait for approval from central government, a move he says would make the process more accountable by putting it in the hands of an elected official.

It’s hard not to imagine civic leaders in Yorkshire, where a devolution deal for the whole region has yet to be agreed and a Mayor will be elected in May for the Sheffield City Region with no powers after Barnsley and Doncaster withdrew their support, with anything other than envy.

And Mr Houchen has few words of comfort for those in his native Yorkshire (he went to school in Yarm and now lives there with his wife Rachel) hoping to secure a devolution deal for the whole of the region. Such a deal, he says, just isn’t going to happen.

“There is an economic sense to Redcar being linked with Stockton being linked with Darlington, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough”, he says. “In effect it is a single economic bloc, but in and of itself that is not enough, the second part you have got to have is a single community or a sense of a single identity across that area.”

He goes on: “The problem with somewhere like Yorkshire is that, with the best will in the world, people from Thirsk and Northallerton have absolutely no community connection with people from Bradford, Rotherham and Sheffield.

“The theory of a standalone Greater Yorkshire devolution deal is nice in theory but in practice it can never work. Even if you were able to get it over the line it would never hold together, because you would always get places in North Yorkshire saying ‘why are Sheffield getting that’ or vice versa, there wouldn’t be that community bond of ‘we are all part of a single entity here’.”

Yorkshire’s devolution failure was put into even sharper relief last month during the Budget, which was notable for its focus on metro mayors. Mr Houchen’s office was handed a £59m fund to improve public transport and £123m to transform the former SSI steelworks at Redcar.

As far as he is concerned, Yorkshire’s voice isn’t at the table at the moment when the main decisions are being made, and Mr Houchen says he feels obliged to represent the views of Yorkshire during talks with government as the only mayor east of the Pennines.

He doesn’t know what the solution is to Yorkshire’s devolution impasse, but suggests “the door is always open for North Yorkshire and the districts to enter into talks with the Tees Valley if they want to”.

He hasn’t been afraid to pull up trees during his tenure so far, appointing a 23-year-old former Parliamentary assistant as his special advisor and publicly criticising the owners of Durham Tees Valley airport, an under-performing asset he says is in serious decline and that he wants to bring back to public ownership.

He hopes to bring his experience in the business world to bear on his new environment in the public sector, including plans in his first mayoral budget for an access to finance fund to bridge the gap in support he says many firms feel due to a lack of working capital from first-tier lenders.

Some £200m has been released from the Teesside Pension Fund and conversations are ongoing with the UK Bond Agency about releasing municipal bonds, to raise much-needed money for infrastructure and economic growth.

Also in his budget will be a challenger fund, offering millions for whoever can come up with solutions to some of the region’s most intractable problems, such as the relatively poor performance of Teesside’s secondary schools compared to its primaries.

“It is having the confidence that sometimes we will fail, but only through taking a risk will you take big strides forward,” he said. “If you play it safe, you will never go anywhere.

“Trying to instill in this organisation that kind of mindset, is it extremely frustrating, because it moves far slower than I ever want it to move, but in certain instances like this I am quite excited about what it will achieve.”