Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.
The concept and the reality of metro mayors is not clearly understood. Devolution deals give specific powers to each Mayor for their own area, but the role of Mayor is so much more than the responsibilities devolved by Government. It’s a clear statement of intent that the UK is too centralised.
For too long powers have been consolidated in London and decisions made for our regions, like the Tees Valley, by people in Whitehall who have no real idea about the facts on the ground. The devolution deals change that.
Even in areas that are not specifically defined as the responsibility of the Mayor, I am a conduit and a voice for the area I represent. Whether it be in discussion with ministers to inform their strategy for the country, or helping civil servants to understand the consequences of a national scheme for a local area, Mayors must be much more than just another layer of local Government. Devolution is not just a reorganisation, a reallocation of powers, it’s creating something new.
More than any MP, a Mayor is able to take a wider, strategic view of economic strategy. It’s a position which covers multiple constituencies and multiple local authorities, and can provide a wider strategic vision for the area. Local authorities by definition do not look far beyond their boundaries, but Mayors now have the opportunity to think and act regionally, in the same way businesses do. A new role, a new mandate, and a new enthusiasm, gives us the opportunity to become more reactive to investment opportunities and the ever changing nature of the economy in a way local Government and central Government cannot.
It may be ambitious, but I see my role as creating the Department for the Tees Valley. The powers I have are devolved down from Government, not up from local authorities. My role in the Tees Valley is to drive economic growth in any way I can. The whole mindset of my Office and the Combined Authority team is to ask how we can improve the economic outlook and future of the area, to help create an environment for local businesses to grow so that they can create work opportunities that mean the people of the Tees Valley have good quality sustainable jobs that helps them to provide for themselves and their families.
An exciting real time example of this in the Tees Valley is the establishment of the first Mayoral Development Corporation outside of London. As I write this I sit in my office, built on the exact spot Margaret Thatcher was famously pictured in her walk in the wilderness. It is through her vision, the establishment of the Teesside Development Corporation, that the area has seen massive investment and prosperity. The proposed Mayoral Development Corporation will dwarf the TDC.
An area covering four and a half thousand acres, it is a huge step forward for the area. Government has given me the power to help regenerate and support new investment in the SSI steelworks site, which is already seeing investors wanting to locate their businesses there, and why wouldn’t they? We have huge availability of developable land, a willing and highly capable local workforce, an excellent road network, a great rail network and the deepest port on the east coast.
We can already boast of housing Tesco’s and ASDA-Walmart’s major distribution centres for the UK and in a post-Brexit Britain I want to make sure that the Tees Valley uses its natural position to help lead the charge on building a greater export-led trading relationship with the rest of the world.
I am confident that the Tees Valley is the sleeping giant of the North and the devolution deal, over time, will finally help us realise our potential by putting our destiny in our own hands.