Who will be mayor of the Tees Valley?

The Tees Valley from above. Image: Google.

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?

The region

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.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become part of the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, agreed in the 1950s and opening in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.

Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simple: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.