At a Council Extraordinary Meeting on 24 February, Middlesbrough councillors voted against the establishment of a Mayoral Development Corporation (MDC) for the borough.
Middlesbrough’s Independent Mayor Andy Preston, together with Tory, Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, expressed their rage across social media, lashing out at the Labour councillors who voted unanimously against the idea.
Houchen said: “The people of Middlesbrough deserve so much more than the negative and bitter Labour politicians who currently represent them.”
Boro Matters, a local Labour Facebook page argued:
“Middlesbrough Labour tonight voted to protect our town’s future and to safeguard our assets.
“The Tories and Independents chose to sell off the family silver and pay a ransom for funding and investment we rightly deserve.”
Mayor Preston’s report to the meeting pointed out the benefits of the MDC, claiming it would speed up regeneration.
The proposed MDC – a “smash and grab”
Houchen’s Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) would transfer £10 million to the MDC and £8 million would be supplied from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for the development of Gresham.
The MDC would focus on the regeneration of Middlesbrough town centre and the nearby Middlehaven area.
Objectors questioned the proposed transfer of council assets to an unelected MDC.
Cllr Antony High said it was a “smash and grab on Middlesbrough Council’s assets”
The 11 assets, with a total book value of £14.7 million, include car parks, retail units, office space, the bus station and a cinema. Several assets had multiple buildings. Also included is the Middlehaven site at nearly 39 acres, which is valued at £6.8 million.
There were also concerns at the loss of democratic council control over issues like planning regulations and approvals, when the MDC aim is to cut red tape. Then there is the question of the council potentially losing rates income that could have been spent meeting the townsfolk’s needs.
The Shadow Development Corporation Board is already established, comprising local businesses plus mayors Houchen and Preston (despite the latter’s conflict of interest), and Cllr Smiles. There were concerns expressed at the meeting of a lack of expertise on the board.
When asked on Twitter if the town could have the £18 million anyway, Preston was scathing about his own council’s capacity for running large projects. He tweeted,
“Councils are so busy with statutory services that they don’t have the mindset for major regeneration” (6)
The meeting ‘s proposal lost by four votes. The 16 votes against were all Labour, their councillors voting without the whip. There were 12 votes for the scheme – from two Conservatives and 10 Independents.
The low voting numbers beg the question: how could such an important proposal fail when the council is run not by Labour but by an alliance of Independents and Tories?
The answer is that although the borough has 46 councillors, many didn’t turn up. At the start of the meeting a lengthy list of apologies from absentees was read out.
Even the town’s mayor, Andy Preston, who was scheduled to present his report to the meeting, stayed away.
The Evening Gazette revealed that he absented himself on the Monitoring Officer’s advice due to a conflict of interest. He owns a building within the MDC zone. Preston is a property developer by trade.
He later tweeted:
“There were no abstentions. The meeting was poorly attended due to it being rearranged at very short notice and being on a Friday night during half term when many people are away.”
Deputy Mayor Mieka Smiles, the Tory councillor for outlying, leafy Nunthorpe messaged an apology that she was “stuck in traffic”. By the time she arrived, she had missed the registration of interests agenda item and so was barred from voting.
The Conservatives have only three councillors. Apart from three non-aligned members, the Independents are organised into two groups: the ten-strong Middlesbrough Independent Councillors Association and the Middlesbrough Independent Group with nine representatives. If this alliance of 25 so desired, they could knock the 21-member Labour Group into a cocked hat.
Tensions between Preston and the independents
Preston’s relationship with his Independent allies has been turbulent. In May 2021 five Independent members of his cabinet left their posts calling on him to resign.
Last month, Middlesbrough received a Best Value Notice from central government. The leadership is required to improve relations between employees, mayor and councillors.
Despite the tensions between the Independents and Preston, there are questions whether the vote was stage-managed in order to present an anti-Labour narrative in the run-up to the May’s local election.
Middlesbrough Council has no right of veto on the MDC proposal, so the project will probably become a reality anyway.