It was news to Ben Houchen that he has been nominated for a peerage, apparently. And it was news to us that it was news to him, because we’ve been expecting it for months. Houchen, on the other hand, told the Northern Echo yesterday morning, that his focus “is on doing what I can to help the people of Teesside Darlington and Hartlepool”.
Much as usual he omitted to specify which of the people of Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool he is doing what he can to help. And, much as usual, the Echo didn’t press him on it.
It does report, however, that Johnson has asked the MPs he has nominated not to take up their seats in the House of Lords until after the next General Election, so as to avoid the need for by-elections. This is because a serving MP cannot sit in the House of Lords.
Houchen’s position on this is less clear, however. While he is in elected office, he is not in the House of Commons, and there is no precedent for a serving metro mayor being elevated to the House of Lords. So, we started asking questions.
We began with the House of Lords itself. They referred us to the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office referred us to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities didn’t respond to our email. Which could either be because they didn’t get the email until mid-afternoon and they didn’t have time to respond, or possibly because they don’t know the answer.
But it looks as if Houchen is going to save them the bother of trying to work out the constitutional niceties, because he has indicated that he is, in any case, staying put. But the episode does at least serve to indicate the extent to which Houchen is the poster boy of English devolution, and the Tees Valley the epicentre of levelling up.
It should come as no surprise that he is staying put, as his departure, when it comes, is fraught with danger for his reputation. His PR is second to none. He is the person who, by his own account, is bringing prosperity to this region. And the make-believe works. Only last week he put up a post on facebook announcing the appointment of someone to a job at Teesside Airport, the first woman to hold this particular post. When we saw it, a few hours after it had been posted, it had 1,500 likes. One job.
The flip side to his PR is the veil of secrecy that surrounds every part of his enterprise. Try to consult the minutes of meetings for the Tees Valley Authority, The South Tees Development Corporation, or the Free port and they are all but blank. Discussion declared to be commercially sensitive or confidential and redacted. While an Audit and Scrutiny Committee is supposed to hold him to account, he rarely turns up to their meetings. Anyone who challenges him on social media is immediately blocked.
As he brought the airport back into public ownership, he gave 25% of the shares in the holding company – Goosepool 2019 – to a private company, Stobart Aviation. A company that is not 100% in public ownership is not subject to freedom of information legislation, so the public cannot scrutinise what is going on there. The airport has become a significant drain on the finances of the Tees Valley Authority, yet no one knows precisely how the money is being spent.
But, as we reported earlier this year, a glimpse of their departures board at the height of the summer season is enough to reveal that this airport is doing very little business. Commercially, it is a complete failure. A failure because of inept management and preferential contracts being awarded to favoured companies. Yet public money continues to pour in.
Teesworks is financed by public money, £107 million for the South Bank Quay alone. There are, as yet, no businesses operating on the site, yet the two businessmen to whom Houchen gave 90% of the shares in the company are making hefty profits.
For Houchen, the risks are that either the whole project implodes before he comes up for re-election – that people realise that the talk of ‘jobs! Jobs! Jobs!’ is all just hot air (except for those people for whom warehousing is a career aspiration). It is possible that people will begin to question where all the regeneration money going, as Houchen creates more and more opportunities to make it disappear – from the development corporations in Middlesbrough and Hartlepool, to the charity – Teesside Airport Foundation – that was set up to take the shareholding in Goosepool 2019 left behind when Stobart Aviation walked away (without giving any explanation of why they no longer wanted to be associated with Teesside Airport).
On the other hand, it could be that he manages to keep the make-believe going right to the end, and it is left to his successor to open the accounts and see what has really been going on.
Either way, the people of the Tees Valley lose. By the time Houchen heads off to the House of Lords, they will have been held up for years as a shining example of levelling up, while, in reality, the regeneration money is being squandered, disappearing in the pockets of the chosen few.
But that’s not the only problem. The mayoralty itself is in jeopardy. While many would agree that devolution has the potential to have enormous benefits for this region, there is an irrecoverable weakness at its core.
How many people can name anyone connected with the Tees Valley Authority other than Houchen? Possibly CEO Julie Gilhespie, but that is probably all. Houchen, it appears, is a micro-manager. And, like Johnson, he surrounds himself with loyalists. Puddings, as you might say. It was not Houchen who created the structure in which there is only one elected person and the rest are salaried officials; the government did that. It is a system that is powerless to cope when the elected one goes rogue, as has happened in the Tees Valley.
Take Houchen away and the whole enterprise crumbles. Without Houchen, the acolytes who staff the upper echelons of the Authority are useless. Acolytes, not civil servants. In fact, they are more akin to Downing Street aides than civil servants. People who do his bidding, that is all. And the boards stuffed with Jacob-Young-grade placemen will be of no use to his successor either.
On the day that Houchen leaves office he will leave behind only chaos. Much like his mentor, Johnson.