Ben Houchen: Metro mayors must make our voices heard
Metro Mayors must seize this historic opportunity and deliver tangible results for the regions, writes Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen
It was an honour for me to be elected as Mayor of the Tees Valley, my home region, in May of this year. It was a significant milestone, not just on a personal level, but marked also the beginning of a new experiment in devolved government – a model which I believe has the potential to evolve into a significant part of the UK’s political governance in years to come.
The introduction of the first six metro mayors has been a vital part of the government’s devolution agenda. We are specifically tasked with bringing economic growth to our regions, and have been granted the tools to do this with powers over business investment, transport infrastructure, employment and skills, and culture and tourism.
As one of the first cohort of metro mayors, I know I am not just fighting to achieve the best deal I can for the Tees Valley, but also working to prove that the role itself is a worthwhile one. We have to show that it adds new value and does not just expensively and pointlessly duplicate existing structures.
One necessary element of this, and a key part of my role as the first Tees Valley Mayor, is to raise public awareness of the role. Everybody understands the function of the ceremonial mayor, and many are aware of the roles and responsibilities of the London Mayor. Yet far fewer are clear on the new role of the metro mayor.
I know that actions speak louder than words, and it is only by delivering tangible results that the public will judge the experiment worthwhile. As a politician promoting what I do comes naturally, but I know that I have a responsibility to create a recognisable brand, around the position not the personality, and there’s no doubt that the ambassadorial part of my role is a significant one.
Nothing quite speaks to people like delivering results. Tees Valley is home to a number of forward-thinking businesses across a wide range of sectors. The economic outlook for the region is very positive and I am confident we can build on our recent successes and continue to maximise our devolved powers to drive forward my ambitious Plan for Growth.
Increased success, alongside increased visibility in my position means that the people of the region can view me as a conduit, a voice to ministers from those that I represent. I can act as a figurehead and as a point of contact for the Tees Valley region in a way that MPs cannot always do. Such awareness also gives the role a mandate in the eyes of the government that granted those devolved powers, helping to ensure they listen to what I and the people of the Tees Valley have to say.
But it is a two-way street, and I know that an important part of my role is to assist Westminster politicians in showing their commitment to our region. I am lucky to have worked closely with the government in the last few months. A real highlight was the prime minister’s visit to the region this summer, which launched the South Tees Development Corporation, the first Mayoral Development Corporation outside of Greater London. This new body, which I chair, aims to transform a 4,500-acre area, south of the River Tees, into a hotbed of industry and create 20,000 jobs over the next 25 years. It is the single biggest regeneration opportunity in the UK and a concrete demonstration of the government’s commitment to the Northern Powerhouse.
Indeed, our voice was heard in the Budget and the government announced a £123m injection to help kick start the initiative. I’ve been working very closely with Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister, and we are confident we will see some significant announcements in the new year.
In my experience, the government has signalled its willingness to work on a second devolution deal in the Tees Valley and I’ve had many positive discussions with ministers on this. Whether a similar deal will be struck with other metro mayors remains to be seen.
I have no doubt that the devolution observed in Tees Valley today will be unrecognisable in the future. However, one thing is for certain, metro mayors across the country must grasp with both hands any opportunity, big or small, to get our voices heard.
Ben Houchen is Mayor for the Tees Valley