Ben Houchen chastised over his language after claiming councillors were playing 'silly buggers'

Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen was chastised for his language after he claimed councillors were playing “silly buggers”.

Tory Ben Houchen was under fire from councillors on the Tees Valley Combined Authority Overview and Scrutiny Committee after a row broke out. The mayor was responding to Labour’s Councillor Steve Nelson, who sits on Stockton Council.

Politicians were discussing upcoming scrutiny topics for a sub-group of the committee to take a deep dive into when Coun Nelson asked about the resources available to support the work. TVCA chief executive Julie Gilhespie said the committee were only allowed reasonable use of officers’ time.

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Coun Nelson hit back: “Where does it say that in the constitution? I asked the question specifically because I knew this was going to come up. This committee needs to be properly resourced.”

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen.Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen.
Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen.

In response, Mr Houchen said: “It is properly resourced but what you’re asking us to do is to double the size because you want to play silly buggers and have a meeting every week, that’s not going to happen.” Committee chair Labour’s Coun Ian Haszeldine, who sits on Darlington Council, waded in and told the mayor, “there is no need for language like that.”

Mr Houchen added: “We have a very good and competent governance and resource team. It is as competent and as broad as any of the local authorities. That does not allow for daily or weekly meetings. You are allowed reasonable use of officers’ time.

“This combined authority is there to deliver for the people of the Tees Valley. Our primary objective is to achieve outcomes for the people of the Tees Valley, their primary resource will be spent on delivering for local people. We absolutely will be scrutinised but do you not agree that the primary requirement of a local body is to provide for local people?”

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The meeting then erupted into politicians talking over each other with Mr Houchen repeatedly demanding to know whether it was the view that a local body is there to provide for local people. He also took a swipe at Stockton Labour claiming that Conservative Coun Tony Riordan should be the local authority leader rather than Coun Bob Cook as the Tories are the biggest party.

However, as no group has a majority, Labour is now in minority control with support from seven independent councillors, working on an “issue by issue basis” without a formal coalition. Coun Nelson then accused the mayor of being afraid of scrutiny, to which Mr Houchen said: “I’m not, ask me a question Steve, I’m sat here.”

The chair then intervened in the fiery exchanges to go back to Mr Houchen’s first comments and state that no-one had said that the scrutiny committees would meet daily or weekly. Labour’s Coun Matt Storey also made the same point and suggested that there should not be speculation about how many there would be over the year.

Coun Haszeldine added: “I am the biggest scrutiny buff in the country. And I think we need to get it to work…We are not the enemy, I am not after people’s heads, I want us to be a critical friend.”

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Stockton Labour councillor Pauline Beall also interjected, calling on the mayor to leave his political allegiances to one side during scrutiny meetings and claiming his comments about Coun Riordan were “totally uncalled for” and incited a lot of ill-feeling. Mr Houchen said he would speak freely while at the meeting.

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