The case for more devolution is undeniable
Redcar, July 2022: Rishi Sunak with Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, during a visit to Teesside Freeport | Image by: PA Images / Alamy Photo
Until the mayoral model is rolled out across England, many places will continue to lose out and be left behind
Whatever colour government we have, they must commit to the further rollout of mayoral devolution. This model works. It works for local people, and it works for local businesses. Back in 2017, many people felt that the introduction of local mayors and combined authorities was going to be another layer of bureaucracy that would achieve very little – and I don’t think they could be blamed for this. The reality has been very different, and that is not just the case here in my patch, but in Birmingham and Manchester too. Tangible progress has been made as a direct result of this new layer of local government.
Despite its best intentions, central government can be clunky and misinformed. Local leaders have a much greater chance of delivering local priorities that make a real difference to people – surely this is what should matter most to all those who hold office.
With the financial arsenal that comes with mayoral devolution we have been able to support key strategic industries and local businesses within the Tees Valley. Whilst the free market is the central pillar of any successful economy, at times it needs considered intervention to maintain it.
When I bought Teesside Airport in 2018, it added £80m in value to the local economy. A huge amount of money, even at a time when it had been left on life support by the previous owners, Peel. Whilst holiday flights are fantastic and something we are working tirelessly to attract, the support a functioning airport brings to local businesses is enormous.
Despite its best intentions, central government can be clunky and misinformed
That’s why we’re investing to create a new airport business park, where local firms can set up shop and use our airport’s cargo facility to export their products to the world. Had we not acted using the resources available to me as mayor, this key asset would have been sold for housing and our amazing private sector would have suffered the consequences.
In the same vein, it was devasting for our local communities when in 2015 our steel works closed. I wasn’t mayor when this happened, but it was clear to me that I had a role in supporting the site’s next chapter. It took enormous political will to regain the site from the Thai banks, yet using my relationships with central government we were able to take back control, creating Teesworks. Once again it was political leadership and public funding that achieved this and the benefits for the people and businesses of the Tees Valley will be extraordinary.
Ownership of the Teesworks site allowed us to enter the race to become one of the United Kingdom’s first freeports. Teesside is now home to the UK’s largest freeport and is already unlocking global investment that will provide new opportunities in industries of the future for generations to come. By having a devolved power able to direct investment into key strategic areas, places like Teesside are finally able to support the private sector in a way that has just not been possible before.
The case for further devolution is in my view undeniable, but what is important to recognise is the role mayoral devolution has in supporting and driving forward key local priorities. This is what is at the heart of improving the fortunes of places throughout the country, and until the mayoral model is rolled out across England, many places will continue to lose out and be left behind.
Ben Houchen is Tees Valley mayor and Conservative peer
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