With the Conservatives tanking in the polls, some are expecting -and others dreading – a political sea-change after Thursday’s local elections, nowhere more so than in Tees Valley.
The 2019 polls saw a collapse of the Labour Red Wall, locally and nationally. Formerly a bulwark of socialism, the Tees Valley lost all its Labour political control. Darlington council is dominated by Conservatives. In Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Redcar coalitions of Independents and Tories beg the question : are Independents actually Tories by another name? Stockton’s Labour administration hangs by a thread, its control managed by a delicate diplomacy.
The townsfolk of Middlesbrough will choose not only their ward councillors but the elected Mayor as well.
The current Mayor, Independent Andy Preston, 56, is standing again to retain the position he first won four years ago. He has three rivals for his crown: the Labour alternative Cllr Chris Cooke; Independent Cllr Jon Rathmell; and John Cooper for the Conservatives.
Andy Preston made his fortune as a London stockbroker. “I haven’t needed to work for 20 years,” he claimed in a recent interview. He earned enough to buy a high-value Georgian townhouse in Islington. The Financial Conduct Authority register shows that he worked in City finance for seven years to 2008.
In 2008 his investors and employers GSA Capital Partners decided “to liquidate Preston Capital Management LLP”, Preston’s investment vehicle. (GSA company accounts year to November 2008). That same year Preston tried his luck as a property developer in Middlesbrough.
By this time he had purchased Otterington Hall, the £1.7m monument to landed wealth outside Northallerton with enough bedrooms to make cleaning a nightmare. But when he stood for Mayor in 2015 he used his dad’s address in Acklam rather than the new pile’s. He failed to win that time.
Every politician brings their former experience to the job and Preston sees local regeneration through the lens of the property developer. However, retail and leisure building loses its effect as an engine for economic growth when most local people have minimal spending power.
The new Mayoral Development Corporation (MDC) provides new property development opportunities. Although on the MDC board, Mayor Preston has a personal financial interest in eight properties in the Middlehaven MDC development zone, reported the Financial Times.
Preston’s abrasive working style, picked up perhaps from his Square Mile days, has made him few friends. In May 2021 most of his Cabinet walked out unable to work with him.
But the loyal Tory councillor for leafy Nunthorpe Mieke Smiles hung on, and was rewarded with the newly-vacant Deputy Mayor post. (This was a time for Smiles’ personal advancement as three months later she completed the purchase of an exquisite five-bedroomed abode on Nunthorpe’s Connaught Road. It’s at the top of the hill, above the sprawling Wimpey estate where I grew up).
In July last year an audit by Ernst and Young (EY), warned that the poor relations between Mayor, councillors, and officers was hampering the council’s performance. It was a warning echoed in the Best Value Notice delivered on the council in January this year which threatens imminent government intervention.
The Chief Executive Officer Tony Parkinson, known to be at loggerheads with Preston, left in March.
Perhaps Preston’s antagonistic style is a symptom of a lack of empathy. At a recent council meeting he argued that one would have to accept the town’s “pockets of deprivation”. It’s hard to tell the ultimate source, but was Preston responsible for a recent proposal to cut streetlighting in a town riddled with street crime?
Preston’s latest dispute is with charity worker Susan Gill who works with the homeless, over who bullied whom. Ms Gill was served with a Cease and Desist Notice from the Council that was later withdrawn with an apology. The conflict seems to be over Ms Gill publicising the deaths of her homeless clients.
In fact Preston is a master of information control and his extensive social media (29,000 Facebook followers) is a delight of good news. The EY audit criticised his administration’s employment of a political officer for a non-political post.
The Mayor has the advantage of getting on with Tory Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, whose support guarantees widespread positive publicity and puts him in line for central government grants – for property developments.
Waiting in the wings is Labour hopeful Cllr Chris Cooke who couldn’t be more different. For the past four years, Cllr Cooke has represented Newport, one of the most deprived wards in the country and home to many of Preston’s “pockets of deprivation”.
Aged 32, married and with no children, Cllr Cooke grew up in the care system. He and his sister were finally fostered by an 80 year-old couple who came out of retirement to take them on. He worked in IT for schools until he was elected, then quit to work at Streets Ahead, an information centre in Newport for local residents. With the rise in rough sleeping he goes out with the council team to help the homeless get housing. He works at the drop-in night service run for people with chaotic lives.
Cllr Cooke has a laundry list of policy initiatives he is impatient to launch. His economic measures echo the successful Community Wealth Building of many Labour councils, also known confusingly as the Preston Model (named after the town – not Andy).
Those economic policies, currently deployed around the Western world, are based on buying, hiring and contracting locally, and making the most of council assets.
Cooke’s action plan includes: council apprenticeships; allocating empty council shops to small businesses; house building and renovation; council scrutiny; police and safety; and family support.
The summary of policies Cooke sent me had 22 points. There’s a noticeable amount of concrete detail in Cooke’s offer such as:
“Local procurement forum helping the public sector to use local businesses and contractors.”
A way of saving money is to run the council better, thus saving on expensive audit consultants, he told Teesside Live:
“There have never been governance issues in Middlesbrough Council previously. We have never had CIPFA or any organisation like it come in, we have never had a best value notice. That’s never been anything that has happened under any previous administration, Labour or Independent, but it has happened under Mr Preston.”
The other Independent running for office is Jon Rathmell who shares Nunthorpe ward with Cllr Smiles. Their relationship could be described as tense, with accusations of bullying.
Rathmell has been a Nunthorpe councillor for eight years. Formerly in Yorkshire, the comfortable suburb is miles away from the town’s poorer quarters. (Cllr Smiles, Executive Member for Children’s Services, is currently painting the black street bollards red – herself).
At 44, Cllr Rathmell worked in insurance after the army, and is a former Special Constable.
Cllr Rathmell’s pledges, printed in blue, include cutting council overspend; improving relations with the police; and delivering a local plan that protects greenspaces. And tellingly: “stop the wannabe celebrity mayor culture and protect council staff”.
Cllr Rathmell blotted his copybook in 2021 when he admitted to misconduct in public office over misrepresentation of emails and a payment of £1,500.
The Conservative candidate John Cooper, is retired, after a career in the energy sector. He saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan in the TA, according to Teesside Live.
He stood for councillor in the Berwick Hills and Pallister local by election last year, losing to Labour’s Ian Blades by 361 votes to 53. He also lost in the 2019 locals to Labour.
The Conservative candidate does not enjoy the complete support of his party. Cllr Smiles – one of only three Tory councillors – supports Independent Andy Preston as does local Tory MP Simon Clarke. The Middlesbrough Conservatives page doesn’t even mention his name.
45% of Middlesbrough’s children and young people are growing up in poverty.