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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Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.