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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.