Ben Houchen: Tees Valley is at the centre of “a political earthquake”

The first-ever mayor of Tees Valley, an out and out Conservative, talks about turning Labour’s heartlands blue.

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The election of the inaugural Tees Valley metro mayor should represent one of the easier pub quiz answers to remember, by virtue of the fact it was so surprising. The Conservative candidate, Ben Houchen, beat Labour’s Sue Jeffrey by over 2,000 votes last May, describing his victory as “a political earthquake” in the opposition’s heartlands.

All but three parliamentary seats in the north east of England voted in Labour representatives in the 2015 general election, some with majorities exceeding 10,000; but the three that didn’t – Berwick and Hexham in Northumberland, and Stockton South in Teesside – elected Conservatives. Perhaps, then, Tory tremors were already happening before Houchen’s win.

After the declaration of his victory at Thornaby Pavilion, the former solicitor said: “What we have seen in recent years is fantastic trends towards the Conservatives across the Tees Valley and today it is, I believe, at a tipping point.”

Despite Labour’s strong performance in the snap general election that followed in June 2017, which saw it narrowly regain Stockton South, with the Conservatives still in central government, Houchen maintains that the party’s unexpected surge in the North can be sustained. Labour is losing its grip on the North, Houchen argues, because the party has become rooted in the capital and has “forgotten the working-class Northerners” on whom it has historically depended. Houchen says the “Islington clique” to which he claims Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn belongs is a turn-off for “soft-left” Northern voters, whose interests, particularly within the context of investment and infrastructure, have been deprioritised in favour of what he calls the “failed European project”.

Brexit thrusts the North into the spotlight

The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, Houchen says, has blurred the lines between left and right-wing thinking. Political ideology in the North, he suggests, has become less about socialism versus capitalism, and more about social issues such as immigration, or infrastructure concerns such as transport connectivity. “I think there’s a strong core in Teesside of soft-left and perhaps centrist voters. This idea about him [Corbyn] being from Islington and not really understanding the rest of the country has some truth to it. I like to think that Teesside is a bit of a bellwether for the rest of the UK. Places like Stockton and Middlesbrough in particular did buy into that ‘take back control’ mantra surrounding Brexit, because they wanted their share of investment and attention.”

The Tees Valley Combined Authority contains some of the country’s most deprived areas. Some of these areas have received tens of millions of pounds in funding from the EU’s European Social Fund (ESF) – a financial arm of the bloc focused on increasing labour market participation, promoting social inclusion and developing the skills of the potential and existing workforce in member states’ poorest parts. Areas in the Tees Valley Combined Authority accessed around £96.7m of ESF funding during the 2007-13 programme, leading to 1,912 jobs being created, the safeguarding of a further 1,332, and the launch of 470 businesses.

Nevertheless, Houchen, whose wife is a modern languages teacher, campaigned on a heavily pro-Brexit ticket. He notes Labour’s comparatively lenient stance on immigration while also pointing towards a frustration with EU-mandated legislation affecting the SSI Steelworks in Redcar. Over 2,000 people lost their jobs following the closure of the SSI Steelworks in 2015, something which he describes as a “human tragedy”.

EU state aid rules do not allow for emergency loans or government guarantees to steel manufacturers in financial difficulties. The European Commission says this is owed to its past experience with steel, and taking into account the features of the EU steel industry – in particular its overcapacity. A Tees Valley Combined Authority, Houchen claims, would have defended SSI Steelworks with far more conviction. “People who voted for Brexit wanted control over their own destiny. I think people were supportive of the idea that local government could have done more with a proactive role in defending the steelworks. Brexit presents us the opportunity for the first time in half a century to take back control of our industrial strategy.”

The importance of being a local lad

Houchen, 31, says he is not in the business of slating central government for its past; rather, he backs it to learn from it in the future. The modernisation of the Conservative Party, he thinks, has been important in rolling out devolution and in appealing to a section of the electorate it couldn’t previously have hoped to reach. Houchen, himself Stockton-born and his accent fully intact, is evidence of the latter point especially. He says: “Teesside is in my blood and it’s an honour to represent an area I grew up in and love.”

Indeed, Houchen is a far cry from the typical Tory toff image he admits has undermined the party for too long. He grew up in one of the first 100 houses on the Ingleby Barwick estate and attended the comprehensive Conyers School in Yarm before studying law 40 miles up the road at Northumbria University in Newcastle.

“You need that local link,” Houchen says, “if you’re to do your job properly. My party understands that and the local members who selected me get that too. The Conservative Party has come a long way since the wilderness days in opposition. Our candidates are getting younger and they’re no longer exclusively pale, male and stale.”

Why connectivity is key

Transport in the North remains a sore point for many people across the region. While London enjoys its extensive underground rail network and six international airports, maintained and politicised under the banner of national interest, the North’s major cities are too often, according to Houchen, seen as “an afterthought”.

Of all the pledges made in his mayoral manifesto, Houchen says “the most eye-catching” was to use the Combined Authority’s budget to buy the struggling Durham Tees Valley Airport (DTVA). “How can we say that we are truly well-connected unless we have a strong, thriving airport? We are working with a number of private sector aviation operators, who are interested in partnering with us to do that.” Houchen says that his ambitions for the airport extend “far beyond just a few flights to the Costas” and instead tie into a wider agenda to redistribute flights, commercial or otherwise, further up the country and minimise the pressure on the capital. The Heathrow expansion debate, Houchen reckons, would have been resolved far sooner had Northern airports been “given the attention they deserve”.

While Houchen’s position on the DTVA hasn’t faltered, delivering on the pledge is proving easier said than done. The chairman of DTVA owners Peel Airports, Robert Hough, told The Northern Echo that he is “not inclined to sell” and highlighted the recently revamped £250,000 terminal as evidence for this. Houchen, though, is not giving up and says that talks are ongoing with Peel about “a deal that would be best for Tees Valley”.

Improving the North East’s rail links is also on Houchen’s agenda and he has set his sights on regenerating Darlington Station. “I have a £464m war chest to invest in local priorities over the next four years. I am proud to say that my plans for growth and investment can be funded through money devolved to us.” Houchen is aiming to spend £100m on transforming Darlington Station into a “modern rail hub”.

The so-called Darlington 2025 proposal sets out new plans for the rearrangement of the rail infrastructure around the station, which Houchen says will lead to faster and more frequent services in the Tees Valley, County Durham and North Yorkshire. This is important because “as soon as you reduce that travel time between cities, you stand to transform the entire Northern economy. It’s not just about getting from A to B quicker; it’s about integrating those communities and workforces effectively.”

An unarguable policy

Whatever perceptions people might have had about the Tories and the North, Houchen says, they should not fail to appreciate that the Northern Powerhouse agenda was brought into mainstream political discourse by a Conservative government. In recognising the potential of the North, he thinks that the Tories are onto something that Labour can’t afford to argue with. “The priority has to be to make sure that devolution is a success so the UK can be self-sustainable post-Brexit. The Northern Powerhouse agenda, while established under George [Osborne] and David [Cameron], has ultimately got to be embraced across the political spectrum. It’s part of the devolution remit in a big way and is being taken forward by people like myself and [Labour mayor of Greater Manchester] Andy Burnham. It has to be taken seriously or we will all, including people in the South, be worse off for it.”

Does having a Conservative central government make Houchen’s job easier? “This [the metro mayor movement] is about as close to consensus as you’re going to get, to be honest. I think there is a plan about strategic economic growth and self-sustainability in the UK.” Houchen is confident, he says, because “having worked with several Labour-led local authorities, I know that balance is possible”.

Balance, however, is not conducive to the “tipping point” Houchen craves. How do the Tories make sure they translate any auspices about immigration and railways into parliamentary seats? “It comes down to jobs. People will ultimately vote for jobs, and transport and infrastructure are certainly crucial to delivering them.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman