Ben Houchen didn’t waste much time with “Happy New Year”s. He was straight out of the box on 2 January with his re-election campaign, armed with an imaginary stash of £1 billion from the HS2 cancellation and a dizzying array of infrastructure press releases and photo ops. But do Houchen’s promises stack up? What about the price tag? And who will do the maths?
Redcar Level Crossings
The most preposterous stunt of 2024 (so far) was sending Redcar MP Jacob “Lemon Top” Young down to Redcar Lane Level Crossing to make an Instagram post about how the Conservatives were going to use some of the HS2 cash to “fix” car delays there and at the West Dyke Lane crossing, enabling his elderly car-driving voter base to spend an extra two minutes a week in Morrisons. Houchen and Young provided net zero detail about how this was going to be done. Unless they’re going to permanently close the railway line, the only solution is to build road bridges or tunnels over/under them. Between the two sites, Network Rail would need to compulsorily purchase and demolish about 100 houses and shops, and take out the Redcar Lane allotments into the bargain. At West Dyke Road this could include the demolition of Morrison’s car park. Whoops. Planning permission could be a tall order though, given the way Redcar residents banded together to oppose Houchen’s attempted hydrogen boiler project. The thought of two giant bridges looming over the town would make the boiler protests look like the parkrun in Locke Park.
ESTIMATED PRICE TAG £400 MILLION
Teesside Airport Railway Station
For those who don’t know Teesside well, the prospect of a railway station at Teesside Airport is an obsession with Ben Houchen’s Facebook fan club. Ben’s announcement on 2 January was catnip to them, just as he planned it. But the wider public are baffled by the prioritizing of the revamp of the least used station in Britain, a 15-minute walk from Britain’s worst tinpot airport. Back in the day, when the UK had something resembling an adult government, such a proposal would have been subjected to a rigorous cost/benefit analysis by HM Treasury, and they would have killed it stone dead. But this is 2024, the era of post-truth politics, and such niceties don’t apply any more.
ESTIMATED PRICE TAG £20 MILLION
Teesside Park Railway and Bus Station
Yet more epic Houchen spin and bluster on on the same day as the Teesside Airport announcement, with tall tales of a new transport centre at Teesside Park shopping park. As ever, the transport announcement was conflated with something about a “major new care and health zone”. The HS2 bonanza is now £978 million instead of £1 billion, but I quibble about small £22 million details. A simple study of human behaviour would confirm that people wouldn’t be prepared to take a 20-minute walk from a shopping centre to a “transport” hub loaded with shopping bags, then walk home with them when they got off the train. No doubt the project will be “reviewed” if Houchen is re-elected.
ESTIMATED PRICE TAG £150 MILLION
The Big Steel
But will these new railway stations use British Steel? I hear you ask. Well, you’d think that this would be a given, but Houchen is always on hand with his Union Jack to remind us that plucky British Steel from good old Blighty is being used at Darlington Railway Station, Middlesbrough Railway Station and the SeAH offshore wind plant at South Bank Quay, to name but a few.
The Conservatives assume that Teesside voters have short memories. Here’s Houchen promising a new hospital to replace North Tees Hospital, omitting the inconvenient fact that the original plan was cancelled by austerity ghouls David Cameron and George Osborne in 2010. Leaving aside the small matter that health falls outside the purview of Metro mayors, we’ll respect Ben’s authoritah for a minute and assume that he’ll go through with it this time. Back in 2010 the project was budgeted at £464 million but hyper-inflation in the construction sector has made mincemeat out of that, and you’d need to build in a good margin of error in case the scheme went over budget in the way that, for example, HS2 itself or Hinkley Point C power station have done.
ESTIMATED PRICE TAG £1.5 BILLION
Teessiders are familiar with plans to build a tunnel under the River Tees, because cynical, lying, populist politicians have been unveiling them before every General Election since 1970. 2024 is no different, and it’s Ben Houchen’s turn to breathe new life into this ageing boondoggle with a £1 million feasibility study.
ESTIMATED PRICE TAG £1 MILLION
Previous studies for a Tees Tunnel have favoured a route between the Old Station Road junction on the A66 at South Bank and the A178/A1185 roundabout at Seal Sands, including a 3-kilometre twin-bore tunnel. It would be difficult to put a cost estimate on this, but it would be somewhere between the second (single-bore) Tyne Tunnel, which cost £139 million 20 years ago and Boris Johnson’s Irish Sea Tunnel, estimated at £209 billion.
ESTIMATED PRICE TAG: £2 BILLION
So, within the space of two weeks, Houchen has blown more than £4 billion of the £1 billion which he claims to have been allocated to him. Forget about the National Audit Office, Mr Micawber will be revolving in his grave. Perhaps Houchen could address the £3 billion black hole in his infrastructure plans by tapping the private sector, possibly an endowment from billionaire philanthropist Ray Mallon and his Teesworks Benevolent Foundation.
Since Brexit we’re struggling with the bananas, and we’re certainly not a republic, but a serious government wouldn’t give Ben Houchen a penny more until the Teesside Freeport corruption enquiry reports. You’ll recall that Michael Gove body-swerved the National Audit Office on 24 May 2023 and hand-picked a team lead by Lancashire County Council chief executive Angie Ridgwell to investigate the Teesworks shenanigans. No doubt Ridgewell has access to, for example, the evidence of Private Eye’s Richard Brooks given to the House of Commons Business and Trade Committee on 12 December 2023. Perhaps she’ll also listen to Richard’s 10 January Page 94 Apple Podcast starting at 23:42 minutes. Cynics have speculated that Gove is not only writing the report himself but is intentionally delaying its publication until after the Tees Valley Mayoral Election in May. At the very least he’s interfering with it but he could, of course, demand an interim report from Angie Ridgwell at any time by picking up the phone. However he lent his phone to Lord Bethell, it’s never been returned, and hell will freeze over first.