5 lessons to learn from devolution in Tees Valley
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Last updated Aug 5, 2020
Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen.
Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen.

Amid the debate around devolution for North Yorkshire and whether the county should have an elected mayor, one area that is frequently brought up is the Tees Valley.

The region is the closest example of a devolved authority to North Yorkshire and serves a population of 701,818.

Since 2017, the area has operated with elected Conservative Mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, and combined authority to make big decisions on areas such as transport, employment and housing.

So what lessons can North Yorkshire political leaders learn from neighbouring Tees Valley over devolution?

Turnout for Mayoral election was poor

Just 21.3% of voters turned out for the election – a mere 1% more than had turned up to vote for the Cleveland Police and Crime Commissioner the year prior.

The result suggests a lack of engagement and understanding of the newly created mayor position, despite the governments insistence that devolved powers require one.

Mayor Houchen was elected to serve a three year term, but coronavirus has pushed back elections until 2021.

From there, mayoral elections will take place every four years.


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Houchen declines mayoral tax

The introduction of directly elected mayors to local government comes with a need to fund them.

As a result, mayors can introduce a precept to council taxpayers known as a “mayoral tax” which funds the office and what it does.

However, the move has proved to be controversial and a number of new mayors, including Andy Street in Birmingham and Dan Jarvis in Sheffield, have ruled out introducing the precept in their areas.

Ben Houchen has done the same in the Tees Valley and pledged not to charge ratepayers any extra for his work.

Mayoral development corporations

Most of the powers given to devolved authorities are around areas which create jobs and boost the economy.

Among the biggest powers that a mayor has is to create a mayoral development corporation which can buy, sell and hold land in a defined area.

Mayor Houchen made creating the South Tees Development Corporation one of his decisions while in office.

It became the first of its kind outside of London and has already purchased land at the former Redcar steelworks, which was closed by former owner Thai-based SSI in 2015.

While there are only four corporations currently operating in England, more can be expected and may prove to be vital for areas in need of economic growth and regeneration.


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Buying back an airport

Devolved authorities have a single pot used to invest in skills, transport and other investments.

Whatever a Mayor wants to invest in has to have the agreement of his cabinet and this was best demonstrated when Mayor Houchen made bringing back Durham Tees Valley Airport back into public ownership his key manifesto pledge.

The airport was losing £2 million a year and Mayor Houchen bid £40 million for the airport in what proved to be a tricky decision for his cabinet.

The cabinet, five of which were Labour council leaders, found the investment difficult to back in what they described as a “vanity project”.

However, the deal was eventually agreed last year and the Tees Valley Combined Authority purchased a 75% stake in the airport and rebranded it Teesside International Airport.

More powers

Securing a devolution deal for the Tees Valley was the first step in reclaiming budgets and key decisions from Westminster.

Now that it has powers over transport and regeneration, Mayor Houchen wants more and has set his sights on health and social care budgets as his next target.

Mayor Houchen told Teesside Live in January that he wanted powers similar to Greater Manchester where the combined authority has control over its £6 billion health and social care budget.


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