The Tees Valley Review was reported on 29 January 2024. No corruption or malfeasance, nothing to see, move on. Instead of referring allegations of corruption to the National Audit Office, Michael Gove had instead hand-picked three public officials, led by Angie Ridgwell, CEO of Lancashire County Council, to conduct a “review”, and the result was a foregone conclusion. However, Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald concluded, more accurately, that the TVCA has now been put into special measures.
Paragraph 1.2 of the Executive Summary of the Review Report is worth repeating in full:
“Teesworks is one of, if not the largest, brownfield remediation projects in Europe. To date £560mn of resources, including £246mn in government grants and £257mn prudential borrowing. This is planned for investment in the site by end of 2024/25 and has delivered
• 17% of the land under contract with a further 40% at Heads of Terms
• 940 construction jobs plus a further 1,950 recently announced
• 2,295 direct and 3,890 indirect jobs created once sites operational
• 450 acres of land remediated or in remediation
• £1.3bn business rate income potential over the next 40 years with a further £1.4bn at Heads of Terms
• A new 450m Quay”
So why would an “independent” reviewer of Teesworks come up with such grandiose, disingenuous fan mail? Scott Hunter of the Tees Valley Monitor suggests that the tone of the Executive Summary is so different to the rest of the report that it couldn’t have been written by Angie Ridgwell and the review panel. I would go further and suggest that it might have been written by her boss, The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State at the DLUHC. Little wonder that civil servants refer to Executive Summaries as the “Janet and John” bit. It’s the only bit that most of the media report, and so naturally it’s all Ben Houchen wants to talk about.
Conservative MPs had had two days notice of the report. Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP Simon Clarke was on BBC’s Politics North on Sunday 28 January, crowing that the report had exonerated Ben Houchen (Spoiler alert: It hadn’t). On the day of the House of Commons announcement, Michael Gove had a prior commitment in Scotland, which was convenient, so it was left to Minister of State, Lee Rowley to run the information. Simon Clarke and others such as Darlington’s Peter Gibson and Sedgefield’s Paul Howell had been provided with their scripted talking points, and the eulogies of Ben Houchen soon flowed.
Breaking it down
But the Executive Summary of the Review Report bears further scrutiny. First of all the speculation about £1.3bn in future business rate income over 40 years is so specious as to be comical. But the two bullet points about job creation are worthy of even more derision . These points could have been lifted verbatim from any one of several hundred Ben Houchen press releases over the past seven years. Details of the “1,950 recently announced construction jobs” would have been useful if Angie Ridgwell/Michael Gove could have provided them. But construction jobs, while welcome, are temporary. Ben’s braggadocio about jobs doesn’t talk about temporary construction jobs. He talks about permanent, well-paid, highly-skilled jobs. 20,000 of them – the report itself refers to this ambition in Paragraph 3.12 on Page 7.
Scores on the doors
So after almost seven years of announcements about 20,000 jobs, how are things actually going? We can disregard all of the bluster from Facebook posts, press releases, photo ops and obsequious party political broadcasts in local media outlets, and go to more authoritative sources. A Lancaster University study from November 2023 puts things in perspective. Almost 1 in 3 workers in Middlesbrough are in severely insecure work, living pay cheque to pay cheque. In Darlington, often touted as the superstar performer in the Tees Valley, nearly 27% of their workers are in a similar predicament. A more detailed report contains a link to a pdf which is essential reading. Middlesbrough’s unemployment is nearly twice the national average. Redcar’s unemployment rate is much better, but the average weekly wage in Redcar is 24% below the national average.
Highly skilled jobs™
Those 20,000 highly skilled jobs are on the way, and we’re preparing the workforce to fill them. Or perhaps not. Middlesbrough has the third highest proportion nationally of the 10% most educationally deprived neighbourhoods in England. Hartlepool, Darlington and Redcar perform slightly better, but they’re all well below the national average
Highly paid jobs™
The average person in Middlesbrough is now more than £13,200 poorer since the Conservatives came to power in 2010 thanks to “levelling down”, new research suggests.
But we’ve got our health, right?
Well Middlesbrough doesn’t. 57% of its neighbourhoods are in the nation’s first (most deprived) health and disability decile, though it is still not as unhealthy as, for example Blackpool or Liverpool, so Ben Houchen is doing something right. The entire North East region is blighted by poor health, with our neighbourhoods being 2.8 times more likely than average to be in the most deprived health decile. Almost seven years of the Houchen mayoralty has had zero impact on health outcomes in the Tees Valley.
Loading the dice
Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove are determined that Ben Houchen and Teesside Freeport will be perceived as a success, and they’ve loaded the dice in his favour considerably:
South Bank Quay at Teesside Freeport was the very first recipient of a loan from the UK Infrastructure Bank – £107 million.
Rishi Sunak pushed for UK Export Finance (UKEF) and South Korea’s export credit agency Korea Trade Insurance Corporation (K-Sure) to help SeAH Wind to secure £367mn in bank financing to build their monopile factory at South Bank Quay.
When Ben Houchen and Michael Gove discovered that GEC were cancelling their deal to build a wind turbine factory, Michael Gove moved fast and ensured that SeAH reneged on their deal to build a monopile factory at Humber Freeport and switched it to Teesside Freeport instead.
Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak ensured that Darlington was selected as the location for relocated UK Treasury jobs.
South Bank is the quay
Prior to Ben Houchen’s decision to award the South Bank Quay project to the Martin Corney/Chris Musgrave Joint Venture, he received an offer from Peter Stephenson’s Able Ports Ltd. This is discussed in paragraph 14.9 of the Tees Valley Review Report, on Page 41:
“The offer was considered by the STDC board on several occasions on one of which KPMG presented a summary of Able Ports financial robustness as part of the STDC process of due diligence. However, ultimately, the STDC board rejected the proposal because they weren’t convinced that Able Ports had access to sufficient finance to deliver a project of this nature”.
Ben Houchen would have known that Peter Stephenson of Able Ports Ltd is one of the richest people in the North East of England, with a known personal wealth of in excess of £500mn. Ben’s decision to reject Peter’s offer on financial grounds is inexplicable. Bearing in mind that Able Ports Ltd was also the lead contractor for the SeAH wind farm factory in Humber Freeport before it was abruptly switched to Teesside Freeport, Peter Stephenson would have reason to feel aggrieved.
Skin in the game?
Gove effectively admitted to a conflict of interest when giving evidence to Liam Byrne, chair of the House of Commons Business and Trade Committee, stating that, despite having commissioned his “independent” review of Teesworks he remains a champion of Ben Houchen. For example, here’s Gove waxing lyrical at the Tory Party Conference. Without question Ben is the poster boy for Freeports. There may be a couple of reasons for this:
Thanks to the infiltration of the UK Government at every level by the Atlas Network and their Tufton Street thinktanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, Freeports and charter cities are now top of the agenda for Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove.
They’ve already set up three charter cities in the Tees Valley – Teesside Freeport, Middlesbrough Development Corporation and Hartlepool Development Corporation. It could be argued that Teesside Airport, which forms part of Teesside Freeport, is a charter city within a charter city.
TVCA CEO Julie Gilhespie has a senior role in all of the above entities. Given her role in the Teesside Freeport “magic roundabout” scandal evinced in the Tees Valley Review Report, some people may question the wisdom of this. More on this here.
Middlesbrough relegated again?
Meanwhile Ben Houchen and Simon Clarke seem to be doing their level best to drive Middlesbrough Council into bankruptcy and turning THAT into a charter city. Fortunately Middlesbrough Mayor Chris Cooke has managed to sidestep them so far.
The most influential of the thinktanks has been the Policy Exchange funded by, amongst others the, “libertarian” John Templeman Foundation and the Charles Koch Foundation. It started life in 2002, with Michael Gove as co-founder. Rishi Sunak worked there in 2014/2015. The stock-in-trade of Policy Exchange is climate denial, influencing government policy to delay the phase-out of fossil fuels by introducing bogus technologies such as Carbon Capture and Hydrogen. Ben Houchen is a frequent contributor to Policy Exchange articles and regularly attends Policy Exchange events, so people shouldn’t be surprised by his seeming obsession with bringing this sorcery to Teesside.