Ben Houchen: “Teesside does not need a politician or prime minister that looks and sounds like them”
When Ben Houchen won the Tees Valley metro mayoralty for the Conservatives in 2017, it was the shock of the night. Four years later, he is the darling of the Tory party. He speaks to Georgina Bailey about levelling up, his future plans and whether he’s friends with the PM.
Ben Houchen has a presence that fills a room. Broad shouldered, as a teen he was part of the Leeds Carnegie and England Rugby Football Union development squads, before a serious spine injury stalled his rugby career. Sat in an open-necked jumper and jeans in a meeting room overlooking the River Tees, he seems to enjoy being combative. No careful pauses for thought – Houchen tells you if he thinks you’re wrong, smiling over his cup of tea.
The 34-year-old is now just past the 100-day mark of his second term as Tees Valley Combined Authority mayor. Despite the 18-month election campaign (delayed due to Covid), Houchen says he was not expecting the scale of the increase in majority. So, what does he put the result down to?
“Mostly Boris [Johnson], to be honest. It’s not rocket science,” Houchen says. “Boris is a unique politician and has a unique attraction to people in places like Teesside.”
Houchen and Johnson are regularly in touch, although Houchen says it is a collegiate relationship rather than a friendship. “I get on with the Prime Minister, he’s been very kind to me over the last couple of years. It’d be nice to say I was friends with the Prime Minister, but no.”
How does Houchen marry Johnson’s elitist background – after all, he is the UK’s 20th Old Etonian Prime Minister – with the idea of unique appeal to the Red Wall?
Houchen seems slightly annoyed by the question. “It’s not as if he’s a multi-billionaire. He’s a very intelligent person who comes from a middle-upper class background.”
While some parts of Tees Valley are very deprived, other areas – like where Houchen grew up – are middle class too, he says. “It’s not as if it’s remote from Teesside, this idea that people are middle class or middle-upper class, it’s part of our community.”
“Teesside does not need a politician or a prime minister that looks and sounds like them. That’s not what people on Teesside want, and we’re not stupid enough to think that is what we need. We just want people that are authentic and going to say it how it is,” Houchen says.
The value of authenticity and delivery is something Houchen repeatedly brings up. He rejects the idea that there has been a fundamental realignment in politics that turned the “Red Wall” blue: “A big chunk of it is still very transient.” Ultimately, Johnson got Brexit done when no one else could – that matters, says Houchen. But he doesn’t pull his punches: the party must keep proving to the voters they were right to trust the Conservatives.
“You don’t need to deliver the full ‘levelling up’ agenda,” Houchen says. “Levelling up is going to take 15 to 20 years to do properly. But you need to be able to show real physical differences to people’s lives that you can point to and say this is progress towards it, we’ve started it. That is real, it’s tangible, people can see and feel the change, and people will vote [Conservative] again.”
Speaking to Stockton residents, those who like the metro mayor say it’s because he delivers on his promises: they name the Treasury campus in Darlington, the creation of 2,250 new green jobs at GE’s planned wind turbine factory, the Teesside Freeport announced this spring, and Houchen taking Tees Valley Airport back into public ownership as proof of this.
Voters who don’t like him say that he is more focused on big projects than systemic change. Labour critics say it is pork-barrel politics, with government funds being funneled into marginal seats.
Houchen happily says that the Tees Valley is getting more than any other region from the government on levelling up – however he attributes this to his own strong political relationship with No 10 and other government ministers, the work of his officials, and the number of shovel-ready projects the area has.
On the question of the Treasury Economic Campus being placed in Darlington, Houchen says they were the only people to actively lobby for it – and in fact came up with the idea. “From my understanding, nobody else actually put together a real proposition as an alternative. I know the government itself looked at alternatives. But at the same time, why elect a senior politician to represent a region if they’re not going to have that weight and gravitas to be able to argue with government.”
Unusually for a metro mayor, Houchen is not particularly keen on being handed any new powers – yet, at least. “I’d love to do more around health, there’s more we could do around international investment. But if you turned around tomorrow, and said, ‘All right Ben we’re going to devolve health, in its entirety, to you,’ the whole system would fall over, because we’re just not capable of doing it.”
Instead, he would like metro mayoralties to be given time to mature, and to prove they are using the powers and money they already have more effectively – with a shot at some of his mayoral colleagues who he says are doing “the lazy thing” by blaming the government and a lack of powers now.
This is The House’s second attempt at interviewing Ben Houchen. The first try, two weeks earlier, was called off last minute due to a dental emergency. Houchen fills in the gaps: “Ah yes – I had wisdom teeth coming through. It got quite badly infected. It was pretty grim for three or four days.”
Houchen, a former solicitor, grew up in the nearby town of Ingleby Barwick, and attended Conyers School in Yarm – the local comprehensive where his wife Rachel now teaches.
An outgoing child, his parents – a policeman and a teacher –weren’t overly political. “We talked about current affairs [at home], but you weren’t talking about Tories, or Labour or ideological politics. It was always quite issue-based.”
His earliest political memory is the Labour landslide of 1997, which sparked an interest in politics for 11-year-old Houchen that developed through his teenage years. Growing up, every council and MP in the area was Labour – then followed 13 years of a Labour government with massive majorities, where Houchen saw very little positive happening for the area.
“We didn’t see any physical or apparent change to anybody’s benefit over that 13-year period,” Houchen says. “I just made a simple deduction that there was no one else that could be blamed. Labour had wall to wall councils, wall to wall MPs, 13 years of a Labour government. And I thought, Teesside hasn’t benefited from that so there must be a better way of doing it.”
Houchen joined the Conservative Party in 2009 after graduating from Northumbria University, becoming a councillor in Yarm two years later. In 2012, he came fourth in the Middlesborough by-election with 6.3 per cent of the vote, then unsuccessfully stood as a Conservative MEP candidate in 2014, before not getting selected for a seat in the 2015 general election.
Even when he was first selected as the Conservative candidate for the Tees Valley mayoralty in 2016, he didn’t expect to win. However following his recent electoral successes – winning his second term with 73 per cent of the vote including second preferences, on a 34 per cent turnout (up from 51 and 21 per cent respectively in 2017) – Houchen admits he has become the “flavour of the month” within the party, although he doesn’t expect it to last long. He bats away any suggestion that his own popularity locally helped the Tories take Hartlepool this May.
So would he like to have another run at a Westminster seat?
“Never say never. At this moment in time, I would suspect I’ll be standing for re-election as Tees Valley mayor, but who knows what the future will bring.”
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