In the 2015 general election, according to elections expert extraordinaire Professor John Curtice, Labour carried the Tees Valley by 43.4 per cent to the Tories’ 29.8 per cent. Since then, Curtice told a press briefing last month, there’s been a four point swing from Labour to the Tories. Were that to hold true in next week’s mayoral election, that would suggest a Labour victory margin of about six points.
At least, that’s the theory. In practice, some in Labour are starting to panic. The party is by all accounts getting a poor response on the doorstep. And in a Middlesbrough council by-election in mid April, the partly lost a previously safe seat to the Tories. Labour’s Sue Jeffrey should win the Tees Valley mayoralty – but if she loses, it could presage a Labour wipe-out in June’s general election.
That, though, is a worry for another day. For now, we need to explain: what exactly is the Tees Valley?
Once upon a time – to be specific, between 1974 and 1996 – there was a country called Cleveland. It took its name (literally, “cliff-land”) from an area of hills in the North Riding of Yorkshire.
The new Cleveland straddled the Tees, which divided Yorkshire from County Durham, and was almost called Teesside. Although nobody quite admitted as much, it was a sort of Greater Middlesbrough, including Stockton-on-Tees, Hartlepool and Redcar.
The Tees Valley is almost, but not quite, the same area: it also includes Darlington, the next borough to the west.
It is by far the smallest of the city regions getting a metro mayor this year, with a population of around 663,000 at the time of the 2011 census. (Even Cambridgeshire, not a city region, is bigger, with just under 850,000.)
So how did it manage to jump ahead of several bigger cities (Leeds, Newcastle , et al.) to get a devolution deal? The Centre for Cities’ Edward Clarke puts it down to four things: a clear consistent plan; local consensus; boundaries which matched economic geography, and not deluding itself it could get powers without accepting the need for a mayor. (Read more on that here.)
In the red corner
The front runner should be Sue Jeffrey, the Labour leader of Redcar & Cleveland Council. In her speech launching her manifesto she praised the Tees Valley for being the only city region in the eastern half of England to land a devolution deal, and then made clear what was at stake:
For too long, London has made decisions for the North, and for too often the north to them was either Manchester or Newcastle. Now we are stepping out of their shadow.
Not everyone lives in Newcastle, you know.
Reading through that speech today, I’m struck by two things: that Jeffrey has a good handle on the powers of the mayoralty, and the fact it’s more of a bully pulpit than a cockpit; and that her sane, sensible plan for governing the region doesn’t make a particularly eye-catching platform to campaign on.
She’s promised to focus on job creation, by “giving the Tees Valley a new voice” – that is, banging the drum for the region to get investors to invest, both in renovating the region’s city centres, and in investing in new industrial capacity in sectors including metals and materials and carbon capture.
In terms of transport, she pays lip service to the idea of about reviving the plan for a Tees Valley metro system. But she’s clear that the main priority in the short term would be to use the powers in the buses bill to sort out the local buses.
Jefrrey is also talking about going back to London for later rounds of devolution (as the mayor of the capital itself has done). On the whole, it’s quite a thoughtful plan for the region and Jeffrey would probably be quite a good mayor. She’s also by far the most likely woman to be elected in what promises to be a fairly bloke-y field.
But don’t get too excited, because it feels entirely plausible she’s about to lose.
In the blue corner
If she does, it’ll almost certainly be to Ben Houchen, the Tory group leader on Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council. He seems to be taking the exact opposite approach to Jeffrey: no manifesto, best one can tell; limited engagement with the realities of being mayor; but a load of eye-catching policy announcements, that he may not be able to deliver on but which have fired up a lot of attention during the campaign.
One is a pledge to scrap the scandal-prone Cleveland police force, and replacing it with some other body yet to be determined. This won some headlines (well, it would); but the new mayor will not in fact have any power over the local police, which will remain in the hands of a Police & Crime Commissioner.
Houchen’s other big policy pledge is to – this is confusing from a Tory – nationalise Durham Tees Valley Airport, which barely has any flights and where passenger numbers are in freefall:
It’s also almost served by Teesside Airport railway station, which is a mile away, served by just two trains a week and, in 2012-13, was used by just eight passengers. (By 2015-16 this had recovered to a more respectable, but not much more respectable, 98.)
Anyway: Houchen argues that an increase in the number of flights, and re-introducing direct flights to London, will boost local businesses by improving links to the wider world. Jeffrey, boringly sensible as ever, thinks it’d be silly for the region to buy up a loss-making business.
In the other corners
The LibDem candidate is Chris Foote-Wood, the former Bishop Auckland councillor, author and brother of the late comedian Victoria Wood. He wants to build a hyperloop test track and a “super bridge”, though he’s been a bit hazy on how it would be super. He’s also, incidentally, telling his voters to use the preferential system to pick anyone but Jeffrey. From Callum Munro on Twitter:
Click to expand.
Then there’s UKIP’s John Tennant, whose main policy as mayor will be abolishing himself. If elected, he’ll call a referendum on scrapping the job.
This has been done before: Hartlepool, one of the Tees Valley’s constituent boroughs, had a mayor from 2002 and famously elected a man dressed as a monkey, but abolished the post in 2013. We at CityMetric, of course, oppose this policy.
Anyway. Fear not, for if Tennant wins the election but loses the referendum, he’s promising to build the Tees Valley Metro once promised by New Labour, too. Here’s a map.
Mmmm. Trains. Click to expand.