Ben Houchen did not set up the Tees Valley Combined Authority. He is not responsible for the fact that the statutory arrangements for overview and scrutiny are inadequate to the task. The blame for that omission lies squarely with George Osborne and David Cameron. They initiated the programme of English devolution. For Houchen and his advisors, however, this weakness provides a welcome opportunity to game the system.
Overview and scrutiny are inadequate
Given that combined authorities are of recent origin, their workings are not generally understood. There are two reasons for this. One is that Osborne and Cameron set them up in such a way that there is no uniformity between them. Each has different devolved responsibilities, and presumably the ability to set up structures of governance as they each see fit. The only things that appear to be statutory are that each must have committees for audit, and overview and scrutiny. The other reason we don’t know much about how they operate is that the press, focused wholly on Westminster, has shown little or no interest in them.
So here, briefly, is an explainer. A combined authority is essentially an agreement to cooperate between a group of adjacent local councils. Once this agreement is in place, the government agrees funding for it. In the case of the Tees Valley Authority (TVCA), the European Structural and Investment Fund enlarged this. The latter provided 37% of the original funding for the authority and which, unbelievably, will continue to provide funds until 2023, a detail that is contained in the report presented at the TVCA cabinet meeting held on 29 January 2021.
The cabinet in the Tees Valley Combined Authority
Cabinet? Yes. The mayor chairs the cabinet with a membership of local council leaders as well as the chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). So, it’s a bit like Johnson’s cabinet except that the members don’t need to know anything in particular. In addition it only meets six times a year. Their 29 January meeting largely discussed the report of the director of finance and resources, most of which is as entertaining as it sounds. Two things stand out, however. One is how the authority is funded – £15m annually by central government grant (which is invested) and the rest by application for specific funds for particular projects. The other is the content of appendix 8.
Concerns about scrutiny
Appendix 8 reports on the discussion between TVCA finance officers and a sub-committee of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Now, that may not seem too promising at first sight, but it reveals the core weakness in the system. The members of the sub-committee are curious about the progress of Teesside Airport (TIAL). Here are their concerns:
“The sub-committee felt that they have not been given the opportunity to look at TIAL in as much detail as they would have liked to and have therefore not been able to fully scrutinise the budget allocations in this area. Officers advised that the responsibility for TVCA in relation to TIAL is in respect of the allocations within the TVCA Investment Plan and budget. The responsibility of TVCA does not extend to detailed budget review of a separate company.”
Where was Houchen?
There are two things to question here. One is the question of where Houchen is while this conversation is going on. This conversation doesn’t include him. This is not like PMQs. The Overview and Scrutiny Committee isn’t there to scrutinise and question the mayor. It’s there to scrutinise the authority and its officers. If Houchen was even in the room at the time, he was sitting in a corner eating the chocolate biscuits. The meeting really had nothing to do with him. So he does not have to explain why the committee is not entitled to information about an enterprise that is consuming a significant amount of the authority’s budget.
The second thing is this. The answer given by the official is wholly unacceptable. Consequently a FOI request has now been submitted to the authority to explain this). While TIAL is a private company, the taxpayer funds it. There is a holding company – Goosepool 2019. Their job is to assess the performance of the airport company (TIAL) and report back to the authority. So, the correct answer should have been, “here is the detailed information that the holding company has provided.” Except that the officers don’t do that because the holding company is not wholly publicly owned. This means that the committee can, to a certain extent, scrutinise what the company has done, but not what it’s planning.
Scrutiny and being sidelined
The scrutiny committee members understood that they had been sidelined. That made it into the papers. And when it comes to scrutinising the work of the South Tees Development Corporation, they will encounter the same problem. Within its governance structure are two private companies – Teesworks Ltd and DCS Industrial (South) Ltd , which are similarly unaccountable. And still no one will question Houchen, because there is no one whose job it is to question him.
No checks or balances
The mayoral system is essentially a presidential one. Except that it is a presidential system without checks and balances in place. And, speaking of presidents, Houchen has learned a great deal of his craft from Trump. Like Trump, he is expert in the use of social media. His PR team puts out a constant stream of news. Information and misinformation neatly entwined.
Flights: spot the difference
This week, as Ryanair scrambles to organise flights to Faro in Portugal, the only European holiday destination on the government’s green list, Houchen’s team have been at work. Compare the announcement of these flights on Twitter, which is official, and Facebook, which is his own.
Spot the difference. On Facebook the distinct impression is that the new flights are the product of successful negotiation with Ryanair, and are now scheduled on account of the loyalty of local people to their airport. It is worth noting that neither post observes that the other destinations shown are in amber list countries.
Houchen is running a good news channel, in parallel to the TVCA. So, when Loganair sets up at Teesside Airport, as it did in November 2020, Houchen appears on their advert. The fact that it is operating services already offered by Eastern Airlines is hailed by his supporters as the advent of competition. When Eastern Airlines withdraws most of its services from the airport in January 2021, Houchen’s statement to the Gazette bizarrely presents what others might see as a setback as a step forward.
“Eastern Airways is a long-standing and valued airline which helped us launch a number of exciting new routes from Teesside Airport last year.”
But ‘valued’ by whom? By Houchen, who advertised the services of a rival airline?
Who will challenge?
And who is there to challenge this? No one. It all just goes into the melting pot to help create an image of success around Houchen. What he has learned from Trump is that the re-election campaign goes on 365 days a year. It never sleeps.
Houchen has had manifest success in a number of areas, for example securing the location of three government departments in Darlington and including the award of freeport status among them. We therefore have to wonder why his PR team feels the need for the kind of exaggeration that we see in his Facebook posts. The answer has to be in the “we have delivered for you – you are backing us” axis. What his team is doing is building loyalty. The carrot of “we appreciate your loyalty” is balanced by the stick of ‘use it or lose it’ as Houchen announced about the airport in January 2020.
But it goes beyond promoting personal approval for Houchen. It also encompasses the promotion of the values for which he stands. Hence the ludicrous campaign in December 2020 to change the name of the Council of Europe Boulevard in Stockton to ‘Stanley Hollis Road’ in memory of a local war hero. This leads to Houchen being credited with the following:
“There is hardly a more prominent, but inappropriately named road in Teesside than ‘Council of Europe Boulevard.” The Gazette, equally inappropriately, claims that “The name recognises the contribution made by European funding to developments in much of the surrounding area, including the nearby Infinity Bridge.” This portrays Houchen as would-be patriot and anti-European all in one in a contrived piece of theatre.
Labour never stood a chance
So, when the election nears, his Labour opponent launches her campaign, and does all of the things that candidates normally do. This includes making speeches and getting her picture in the paper standing next to ordinary local people who support her. It also involved her standing next to people with interesting jobs. In addition she goes round the doors.
The Labour candidate never stood a chance. In order to stand any chance of winning she needed a media machine that was commensurate with Houchen’s. And she needed an image that was commensurate with his, and a stage on which to present it. She had none of these., and no individual local candidate has the resource to build such a machine. Therefore, Labour, essentially, hung their candidate out to dry.
Does that mean that, had Labour provided Jessie Joe Jacobs with a PR machine similar to Houchen’s then all would be well? The answer to that has to be, in the medium term, no. What is needed is not for there to be some kind of ‘PR levelling-up’. Instead what is needed is for the misuse of social media to lose its potency. That is possible only if there are structures of governance in place that are fit for purpose, so that proper scrutiny can take place. Scrutiny both of mayors and of authorities, a bulwark against the image builders and their exploitation of a low-information electorate.
Without such reform there is a risk that mayors in other authorities see that employing Houchen’s method makes them almost unassailable, regardless of their party affiliation. And where does that lead English devolution?
It is worth noting that in one crucial respect Houchen’s strategy differs from Trump’s. Trump is a whinger who spends as much time browbeating his critics as he does making spurious claims about his success. Houchen’s messaging is much more positive. Announcements of his ongoing success are so enthusiastic that they are reminiscent of the reports of the success of the Third Five-Year Plan. In other words, Houchen is ultimately the servant of two mentors. One of these is Trump. The other is Stalin.