End of term report: How is Ben Houchen doing as mayor of the Tees Valley?

The Tees Valley. Image: Google.

Continuing the Centre for Cities’ round up of the first half-year of metro mayors, we look at Ben Houchen, Conservative mayor of the Tees Valley.

To many observers, it came as a surprise when Tees Valley succeeded in securing a devolution deal and mayoralty ahead of bigger places, prompting Centre for Cities to bill the city region as the “dark horse of devolution”. However, an even bigger surprise came with the election results in May, when Conservative candidate Ben Houchen defeated the favourite Sue Jeffrey (Labour) by just 0.5 per cent of the vote.

This Conservative victory in a Labour stronghold suggested that Theresa May’s government was set to sweep the board in June’s general election, by making serious inroads into Labour’s traditional areas of support across the north. In the end, of course, the Conservative hopes raised by Houchen’s victory went unfulfilled at the polls.

But after seven months, has the mayor himself been more successful in building on the promise of his triumph? Here we assess the progress made by the Mayor, and the opportunities and challenges he faces.

Progress

Houchen’s election commitments were distinctive among other candidates both within the Tees Valley and the other city regions. They included a pledge to take control of the local airport (which was surprising from a Conservative) and to open a commission into the local police force. Neither of these pledges has so far come into being, but in a message to mark his first 100 Days, Houchen said that progress was being made on both – including announcements on new investment and routes for the airport.

The mayor has also had a notable presence on the national political stage, aided in part by his significance as a Conservative city leader in the north. For example, he joined his northern mayoral counterparts Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram in negotiations with the Chancellor about the Northern Powerhouse.

He also hosted the Prime Minister Theresa May in August, who came to Tees Valley to launch the South Tees Development Corporation. This will be the first mayoral development corporation outside of London, and more progress should be evident on this next year, with a masterplan due to set out how initial interest from investors might make the best use of the land. The site includes the former Redcar SSI works, where around 3,000 jobs were lost when the steel works closed down two years ago. As such, there is a strong political and economic imperative to transform the site, and Houchen’s progress in doing so should earn him considerable political capital in the city region.

Other concrete activity which has taken place thanks to the mayor’s influence includes the introduction of a £6m pilot with the Department for Work Pensions, Routes to work. It will target people over the age of 30 facing significant barriers to getting into work, such as long-term unemployment, or physical and mental problems. This funding at the local level should allow support to be tailored to individuals across a range of local services. Mayor Houchen has also persuaded the Teesside Pension Fund to invest £200m in projects to support economic growth in the city region.


Challenges and opportunities

Progress has been slower on local public transport issues in the Tees Valley. In part, this reflects the fact that a number of larger transport projects were specified in the text of the devolution deal. So far, Houchen’s transport announcements have largely focused on getting to work on these and other road development to deal with bottlenecks, which is an appropriate priority in the short term.

Longer term, however, the mayor also needs to ensure that improving and expanding the bus network across Tees Valley is a top priority. As can be seen in our Metro Mayor data dashboard, this is a key issue in a city region where bus journeys have fallen by 20 per cent since 2010, much faster than the national average. Budget cuts have also seen bus subsidies withdrawn by every local authority except one in the city region. Nonetheless, buses are the most used form of public transport in the region and should be the priority for the metro mayor and combined authority above other forms of transport.

And while Houchen isn’t taking over control of a city-region transport body, as other mayors have (such as TfGM in Greater Manchester, TfWM in the West Midlands or Merseytravel in Liverpool), the Bus Services Act does offer the mayor considerable scope to either put in place directly or encourage a more integrated, efficient and affordable bus service across the city region.

Another key challenge – and opportunity for the mayor to have an impact – will be making more of Middlesbrough’s city centre. This is the densest area of economic activity in the city region, but is underperforming thanks to the dispersed nature of the local economy, driven by both economic history and policy which has favoured out-of-town business development.

Mayor Houchen has pledged to support every town centre in the city region, but as our briefing on the economic geography of Tees Valley made clear, focusing efforts and investment in Middlesbrough city centre will have the greatest impact in attracting the high-knowledge, high-wage jobs that the city region needs. It will also be key in retaining and attracting high-skilled workers and graduates to the city region.

Prioritising Middlesbrough will be difficult politically, but if done alongside efforts to improve transport links across the city region, will help to create more opportunities for people living everywhere in Tees Valley. On the other hand, spreading investment across each local authority will be politically safe but would dilute the benefits that a strong Middlesbrough city centre would bring in terms of providing long term and sustainable economic development.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.