We’ve all heard by now about the Labour landslide in the 5 May local elections, not least in the North East. Surely this means a rebuilding of the Red Wall in the Tees Valley, challenging the region’s Tory Metropolitan Mayor Ben Houchen and blighting his chances of re-election next year?
The answer, you would think, lies in the maths, in that the party with the most councillors controls a council. More councils under Labour control should mean better scrutiny of Houchen and his Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA). And enable a more critical view of the businessmen who were given 90% of Teesworks Ltd, a company charged with remediating the public-owned Teesworks site and reaping the rewards from the sale of its scrap.
But in the smoke and mirrors of Tees Valley politics, nothing is quite as it seems. Only one council has a clear Labour majority. The other four are coalitions or minority administrations.
Up the Boro
Middlesbrough Labour overturned the sitting Tory-Independent alliance with 25 seats against the Independents with 15; Conservatives with four; and Lib Dems with two.
Labour’s Chris Cooke seized the reins of elected Mayor from the property developer, Independent Andy Preston with a margin of 760 votes.
At the seaside, Labour in Redcar and Cleveland won 23 seats; Independents and “others” 13; Tories 12; and LibDems 11. Labour agreed a non-aggression pact with the LibDems, taking over from an Independent-Tory coalition. The agreement, which Labour stresses is not a coalition, was announced at the Council Annual Meeting on Thursday 25 May. Labour had the go-ahead from its NEC which has banned official coalitions with Lib Dems and Greens.
On the same day, Labour in Darlington announced a “partnership” with the Lib Dems, taking over from the Conservative administration. Labour won 24 seats, Conservatives 15, Greens seven, and Lib Dems three, with one Independent.
Hartlepool deja vu
Up in Hartlepool, it’s deja vu – the same Tory-led coalition with a slightly different name – The Conservative and Independent Coalition. Only 12 seats were up for grabs as this council puts a third of its council seats up for election every year.
Labour is the largest party in Hartlepool, with 18 of the 36 seats. The Conservatives have 12 councillors.
With Labour losing Hart Ward by two votes after two recounts, Hartlepool was only three votes from turning red. The turnout was just 24.2%.
The coalition has 18 members, and the council’s casting vote is held by Mayor Shane Moore (Independent Union and ex-Tory, UKIP and Brexit parties).
Joining the new coalition is ex-Tory Gordon Cranney who had hidden a new conviction for assaulting his wife until nearly the close of polls last year. His seat was not up for re-election this time.
Expelled from the Conservatives, Cranney sits as an Independent together with Independent ward colleagues Leisa Smith and Sue Little. The latter had complained to Tory leaders about his harassment of her. Yet the two women have joined Cranney in the coalition.
Will Hartlepool’s council last? As Labour Cllr Ben Clayton told us, “I will be shocked if it lasts the full year.”
The coalition can’t afford one member to miss a meeting. Two coalition members, we are told, are seriously ill at the moment.
In Stockton the town remains under “No Overall Control”, with the Council Leader, Labour’s Bob Cook managing the borough with a delicate diplomacy.
Due to the death of a candidate, polling at Hartburn ward has been postponed until a by-election on 22 June. The Conservatives are expected to win the three seats, making it the largest party. But seven Independent councillors have already sided with Labour, allowing it to maintain its minority rule.
How will the changes of leadership affect Houchen at the TVCA?
The post-election political make-up of the cabinet and South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) Board as well as the Audit and Governance and Overview and Scrutiny Committees, will be announced after a cabinet meeting in June.
The cabinet, chaired by Houchen, comprises representatives of the five constituent councils. It was formerly packed with Houchen yes-men: Shane Moore, Darlington Tory Jonathan Dulston, Redcar Leader and number one Houchen fan Mary Lanigan, and Andy Preston. Now Bob Cook, formerly the sole Labour member, is joined by two other Labour leaders and Middlesbrough’s elected mayor.
Even the Hartlepool Tory Leader is an unreliable ally, as Houchen is reputed to have forced Mike Young to resign his Deputy Mayor role last year. The reason given was that Young had sought talks about a proposed government undersea nuclear waste dump- although it could have been a symptom of a party rift.
Can the new cabinet scrutinise the actions of Houchen and his cronies? The cabinet minutes on the TVCA website are riddled with redacted agenda items, withheld under the Local Government Act. Can the cabinet vote to have those items published, in the public interest?
But the TVCA Constitution does not permit committee members to view exempt or confidential information.
Can the cabinet members press for an audit of Teesworks Ltd, 10% owned by STDC, itself a body established by TVCA?
The TVCA also has a number of committees, some of which have elected members. For example the Transport Committee has six councillor members.
Before the May elections the Freeport Board had only one councillor, Redcar Leader Mary Lanigan. Tory MP Jacob Young also sits on that board.
The Local Enterprise Partnership which has representatives on various committees has around 21 members, with just the council Leaders as elected members.
Audit and Governance Committee
The TVCA Audit and Governance Committee should have a scrutinising role. Chaired by Houchen, it has five Tees Valley councillors and meets three times a year.
You would think that its political composition would reflect the parties that run the councils. So Redcar’s new Leader Alec Brown was surprised to see that his borough’s seat would be occupied by a Conservative. He complained. The seat was changed to Labour. Then it was changed back to Conservative again. He was told it was due to “proportionality”.
We emailed the TVCA Governance Team for clarification. According to the TVCA Constitution, political balance on committees is determined using a five-step calculation that takes into account the political make-up of the whole region.
Before the elections, the Audit and Governance Committee had two Labour, two Tory and one Independent councillor members. Now we hear that the committee will have three Labour councillors and two Tories.
The same committee has five “independent members” – unelected, unpaid volunteers who attend the meetings to share their wisdom. This is an opportunity for experts to advise on TVCA’s performance and plans. They include a finance consultant and costing engineer, both with impressive CVs.
Then there are the others. Jonny Munby, an accountancy lecturer at Teesside University, wrote a glowing review of Tory policies on the university website and is the brother-in-law of local Tory MP Jacob Young.
There’s also Ian Robson, Group Finance Director at the construction SME ADL Developments, which helped build the SKYBAR and the Draken hangar at the TVCA- owned Teesside Airport and has offices there.
About the fifth, Andrew Evans, there are no details. He hasn’t completed his Members’ Interests form.
Overview and Scrutiny Committee
The Overview and Scrutiny Committee has 13 members – all councillors. Before the May elections Tories, Labour and Independents had four places each, and there was one for the LibDems.
Houchen has faced criticism for his attendance at this committee, or lack of it. He attended no scrutiny meeting between February 2019 and July 2022. Faced with negative press publicity he has attended three of the past four meetings.
When he does turn up Houchen can always use his charisma to control a meeting.
At the January meeting a Labour councillor asked about attracting new airlines to Teesside Airport. Houchen, attending by Teams, protested that the representative was being “political”.
The Development Corporations
The purpose of the TVCA’s three development corporations is to “turbocharge” investment to drive regeneration, using public assets to attract private investment. A look at the make-up of the three Tees Valley development corporation boards shows that accountability does not seem to be a consideration.
The STDC Board is composed of local firms within the STDC area and TVCA officials, plus Houchen as Chair. The company representatives attend to promote the interests of their employers: who protects the interests of the people?
The STDC has its own Audit and Governance Committee. Its members are not listed on the TVCA website. From the committee’s minutes, it seems to have no councillor members.
This committee does however have members representing Teesworks Ltd – which is unusual as the company reports zero employees in its Companies House filings.
On the board of the new Middlesbrough Mayoral Development Corporation, Houchen has given a place to Labour Middlesbrough Mayor Chris Cooke. The town’s former Deputy Mayor Mieke Smiles, one of four Tory councillors, keeps her place despite complaints from the town’s new administration. The rest of the board are local businessmen. The MDC has taken assets worth £14.7mn from Middlesbrough Council.
Another new body is Hartlepool Mayoral Development Corporation. The Council Mayor Cllr Shane Moore, from the Tory-Independent coalition, is the only elected board member apart from Houchen.
At the last meeting, Cllr Brenda Harrison, the Labour Leader at Hartlepool, attended as a member of the public. On the issue of education she asked if she could ask a question. “No you cannot,” Houchen, the Chair, replied. Cllr Harrison has a 30- year teaching career under her belt. In her letter of complaint to Houchen she wrote:
“In three decades of teaching and seven years as an elected member I have never experienced such discourtesy by someone who holds public office.”
n the spirit of transparency (not), the value and list of publicly-owned assets to be taken from the council by Hartlepool MDC was kept secret. Under pressure from the Financial Times the list (but not the value) was recently released. It includes the Civic Centre, Magistrate’s Court and the main leisure centre.
What difference will the slightly-red Tees Valley make to Houchen’s rule?
There might be opportunities to ask more questions at the cabinet, audit and scrutiny meetings.
There might even be an outside chance of opening an investigation of Teesworks with skillful deployment of the TVCA Constitution – available on their website.
But beyond that the odds are against elected councillors having any impact.
There’s a reason for this: the TVCA is not a democratic body.
In the devolution referendum of 2004 the North East rejected the idea of a regional assembly. The North East Says No (NESNO) campaign, run by Dominic Cummings with his Uncle Phil as Chair, was so successful that the idea of a regional democracy was abandoned.
There’s some devolution but even less accountability.
Without the conventional checks and balances, all the power is in the hands of the Mayor. What we’re left with is that rare contradiction, an elected monarchy.
King Ben rules.
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