Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.
Over the Christmas period, the sight of your postie walking up the driveway fills many with joy. Armed with cards from relatives and last-minute purchases from Amazon, you can sometimes forget this isn’t always the case throughout most of the year. As we enter 2018, it is worth remembering that each day this particular visitor can fill people with stress and anxiety.
In a few weeks’ time, that dreaded brown envelope containing a council tax bill will land on the doormats of millions across the country. In the Tees Valley, which I represent, our local Labour authorities charge some of the highest rates in the UK. While the average salary here is £18,000 after tax, families in Band D properties in Middlesbrough will be asked to cough up as much as £1,500 a year to town hall chiefs. I needn’t remind readers that this figure is considerably lower in well-run, Conservative administrations.
As I worked through the Combined Authority’s budget for the year ahead, I was presented with the option to add a ‘mayoral precept’ to household bills across the area. I was informed that devolution legislation allows five of the six metro mayors to levy a tax on local people to help fund our functions. Only my good friend Tim Bowles, the West of England Mayor, is without this power – presumably because right-minded Conservatives in the West Country prevented such a clause from being included in their region’s devolution deal. I’m pleased they had the foresight to do this.
Without a second’s thought, I made it clear to officials there and then: I didn’t stand for election to increase taxes – that’s not why I’m here. Our local Labour councils already charge an arm and a leg, and I will never add to that burden for as long as I’m fortunate to represent the area I grew up in and love.
Metro Mayors are a new concept in English local government. With Tees Valley home to ceremonial mayors, parish mayors, and a directly-elected borough mayor, very few genuinely understand or appreciate what Metro Mayors do, and how we differ from other local political leaders. Indeed I spend half of my time trying to communicate what powers I do have, and those I don’t. For me, I didn’t want people’s first interaction with my office to be a line on a bill demanding cash.
At the election last May, turnout was exceptionally low here. During the campaign, many viewed the role as superfluous and questioned why we needed a Metro Mayor at all. It is clear now as it was back then: people haven’t fully bought into this brand of devolution. So frankly, to ask local people to fork out even more would not just go against Conservative philosophy, it could threaten the existence of the Metro Mayor model itself.
There’s precedent in my part of the world for the public to turn against directly-elected mayors, as they did in Hartlepool in 2012. I owe it to my constituents, and the government’s devolution agenda, to demonstrate some of the fantastic benefits that come with having a visible, outward-facing, regional leader with a war chest behind them to invest in priorities we determine locally.
As they say, sometimes the best powers are the ones you don’t use.