The Tees Valley has been labelled the ‘dark horse of devolution’ – and our hustings in the city region in late March gave local residents the first chance to hear from all the candidates hoping to take the reins as metro mayor.
The five candidates making their case at the event, organised in partnership with the Institution for Civil Engineers and Teesside University, came from the four main national parties – Sue Jeffrey (Labour), Ben Houchen (Conservative), Chris Foote-Wood (Liberal Democrats) and John Tennant (UKIP) – as well as John Tait from the regionalist North East Party. (No Green Party candidate has been announced as yet.)
Chris Foote-Wood caught attention early with his big infrastructure plans, including a proposal for a hyperloop test track (which could transport people and objects many times faster than high-speed trains) and a “super bridge”. The latter would complement existing plans for a new Tees bridge for which the Combined Authority has already completed a feasibility study – though Foote-Wood did not offer any more detail about what the super bridge would actually entail.
UKIP’s John Tennant also set himself apart early on by emphasising his opposition to the mayoral role, which he believes will bring an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy – and vowing to call a referendum on scrapping the role if he wins on 4 May.
However, he also outlined policies he would implement if he wins the election, but loses the referendum. These included introducing a Tees Valley metro (like that of Tyne and Wear), which would be funded by scrapping both HS2 and the renovation of Darlington station. Tennant also called for a greater focus on vocational skills and apprenticeships, which he argued would serve students and the region far better than the overwhelming focus on university as the next step beyond sixth form.
Improving skills and fixing the further education system was a top priority for the Conservative candidate Ben Houchen (a councillor in Stockton-on-Tees and a local businessman). Houchen bemoaned the “dizzying” profusion of grants and programmes for firms trying to access training funding and talented graduates, which he feels are making these policies unworkable.
Skills was also a theme picked up by John Tait of the North East Party, who pointed out the disjuncture between the increasing demand among firms for skilled graduates and workers and the relatively slow reaction of the further and higher education systems. He praised Teesside University as a “gem of the region” and symbol of the sort of practical, engaged and locally focused ex-polytechnics that are helping to bridge some of the huge skills gaps in the region.
Sue Jeffery, the Labour candidate and leader of Redcar and Cleveland council, emphasised the excellent position the city region had put itself in by agreeing its devolution deal in the first place. She also highlighted her frustration at the lack of borrowing powers in the deal, and pledged to address this if she becomes mayor – enabling the city region to get started on major projects, such as the aforementioned new bridge over the Tees.
A significant part of the event focused on the future of Teesside Airport, which has seen passenger numbers decline dramatically in the past decade. Houchen called for it to be nationalised, while Jeffery argued it would be foolish for the region to burden itself with an already loss-making business. Other candidates remarked on the strangeness of this apparent exchange of traditional ideological positions by the Conservative and Labour candidates, while also highlighting the practical problems arising from the significant distance between the airport and its nearest train station.
The difference of opinion on the future of the airport followed an earlier disagreement over the cost and wisdom of bus franchising. Houchen warned this would tie a financial millstone around the mayor’s neck; while Jeffery outlined her shock to have discovered there were no longer any subsidies for bus routes across the Tees Valley. (There may have been a little misunderstanding here, as the Buses Services Bill explicitly forbids local authorities from actually owning or running services, while free bus passes for pensioners essentially amount to a subsidy for many people in the city region.)
One point of agreement among the candidates was the importance of supporting cycling and walking in the city region. Some of the ideas put forward in the debate included making the roads safer for those on two wheels, integrating transport systems to make walking or cycling easier as part of a longer journey, and ensuring new developments are planned so that they do not necessitate car ownership.
My question on whether any of the candidates would consider concentrating investment in Middlesbrough as a way to boost the wider Tees Valley economy was very politely rejected out of hand. As our recent briefing on the Tees Valley shows, investing in the centre of Middlesbrough would help to attract more high-skilled, high-paying jobs – therefore boosting wages in the city region, and encouraging more of its graduates to stay in the area.
However, John Tait argued this idea is was based on what he described as the “failed theory” of agglomeration. Others suggested that many of the region’s problems actually stem from too much investment being funnelled into Middlesbrough in the first place. These issues will undoubtedly be hotly debated in the Tees Valley as the mayoral elections on 4 May draw closer.
Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.