Full disclosure: Last week I got a virtual badge sent to me from Facebook. It told me: ‘You have been recognised as a Top Fan of Ben Houchen – Tees Valley Mayor’.

Now, because I don’t wear a backwards baseball cap (where do you buy those?) and can’t tell the band names from the song titles for the Top 10, 20 or 50, I don’t know what this means. I don’t know what I’ve done to get it or what I have to do to move up to what would presumably be SuperTopFan.

Does Ben now have to come round to present a certificate or perhaps a blue plaque?

No matter. Like many people, I’ve only known the man since he dared to overturn an odds-on Labour win in the 2017 Tees Valley mayoral election. He seemed like a decent guy and he’s done OK for himself since then - to say the least.

The confidence he quickly demonstrated in his new role, the pace of change he brought about and the spotlight it all turned on the old guard, old ways and old outcomes infuriated many and still does.

This wasn’t how we were supposed to do it. We were used to being downtrodden and left out of things, fighting over the scraps under the table rather than taking a seat at it.

But then young Houchen gatecrashes the event, pushes a few chairs apart and noses out of joint, takes a seat and unfolds a list.

The Northern Echo:

Now, just over 1100 working days later (presuming he takes weekends off which, as he says later, is unlikely) the place is transformed, with Freeport, Treasury jobs, railway stations, an airport and clean energy as just some of the hefty chapter headings in a success story that we will all be living off for a generation or two at least.

Yes, it might have happened without him. We’ll never know how far Sue Jeffrey would have got if she had secured her expected win. She might have done more – but without the close support of a Tory Government with long-term plans for this particular Mayor that would have been a tall order.

Houchen’s timing and strategy was politically perfect, and continues to be pretty much spot-on as he literally levels the old landscape and lays down foundations to support the Combined Authority’s ‘Invest, Work, Live and Visit’ goals.

Read more: Gove backs Houchen

Having taken his seat at the table in 2017, he’s hardly sat down since. So an hour in a meeting room overlooking the Tees at Cavendish House in Stockton is a rare breather.

So where are we in the great plan? On track, exceeding expectations or could do better?

“There's still a huge amount of work to do,” he says.

“But it’s a weird thing to reflect on after the election because your mindset changes as you get very close to an election which becomes all-consuming in this world.

“So afterwards to be able to reflect on the last four years and start to refocus and reprioritise is an interesting exercise.

“I said before the election, and I stick by it, we've achieved as much as we possibly could in the four years that we were given, and that's largely down to the fact that when I was first elected in 2017 the area had very few actual plans.

“A great example of this is Middlesbrough station. So people have talked about direct trains to London and improving Middlesbrough stations since 2015 - Virgin first announced it when they won the franchise in 2014.

“But if you look behind the pictures and the plans, there was no work being done and you can look across every single council and I could repeat the same thing on a different project.

The Northern Echo:

“When I was first elected in 2017, Darlington announced their 2025 vision for Darlington Station and they had a couple of shiny pictures as well and there wasn't a single piece of work behind it.

“What I've come to learn over the last four years is that the biggest problem we've had in this area for a lot of years now is that nobody has been bothered to put the work in to be able to get the money.

“So I actually think where we are at the minute is that money is the least of our problems when it comes to getting big projects away and getting investors in.

“It's about having shovel-ready projects that are fully worked up designs you've got business plans for.”

His tone is measured, but is a mix of disbelief that this is how it used to be done, anger at the wasted time and a calm authority to be able to say these things openly because he doesn’t think they can be challenged. He’s cast-iron certain this is the only way to get things done.

Project updates: Railway station; Teesworks and Airport

He doesn’t mind annoying or shocking people as long as he’s sure he will get the result he wants. Once he got into the rhythm of being a leader - asking, pleading, promising, pushing, collaborating, achieving – things started to happen and he began to learn how to do more each time.

“First you get elected. Then you start to set out your priorities of what you said you would do in the election, and then you start to build those plans. And as we were building those plans - with great respect to myself – you realise it doesn't require every minute of every day to buy an airport.

The Northern Echo:

“So then you start to look at what else can we do to be able to continue to push things forward.

“So you start developing plans for Darlington station and Middlesbrough station. We got to a place about a year ago where a lot of those plans were being finalised and then you get into a conversation with Government about funding, which once you've got the plans is dead easy.

“There was no controversy, no arguing with Government about getting the money. They gave us the money because they wanted to improve public transport. So you go through a cycle of ‘build the plan, get government buy-in, get the money’ and the project is actually happening.

“So we're in a space now where I'm spending 95% of all of my time on discussions with lawyers on procurement, funders for factories and train stations and barriers or the bits and pieces. All towards a deadline where you physically sign on the dotted line, the contractors get on site and spades go into the ground.”

‘Spades in the ground’ sums up his approach since he pushed the chairs to one side.

‘What shall we do about…..’

‘Get some spades in the ground’

‘We aren’t getting anywhere with….’

‘You know what I’m going to say….’

So for the last few months there have been plenty of site visits and spades in the ground, with the head of BP Bernard Looney at Teesworks to talk about blue hydrogen, phase two of Middlesbrough station starting soon, pushing on with the GE plans next door to a new £90million quay at Teesworks and more flights leaving Teesside Airport.

The Northern Echo: Ben Houchen at TeesworksBen Houchen at Teesworks

GE looked all over the world for the right place to make wind turbine blades and chose to be the anchor tenant at Teesworks - 4,500 acres including the former steelworks site on the banks of the Tees which is Europe’s largest brownfield site, and soon to be home to a cluster of diverse, sustainable and low-carbon pioneers.

Ben says the factory is expanding even before it is built.

“When they announced it when we stood on the Teesworks site, it was 650,000 square feet. It's now 830,000.

“If you look at the Amazon distribution centre in Darlington, that's a million square feet across two floors. The GE shed is just all on a single level, so the size of the factory is going to dwarf that of Amazon, and it's a manufacturing facility.

“We've just selected a major funder who's going to put the money in to build it - we only decided that last week having had a beauty parade of half a dozen different funders, big international funds from Canada, America and a couple of big British firms as well.

“The one we've chosen is a major British fund who's going to be doing it. We've just agreed the spec and the detailed planning application will go in very shortly.”

Read more: Houchen and Chamber back Echo campaign

He clearly doesn’t like the idea that Mayors may be just the face of the role and that the work happens around them. Houchen is hands-on, working with an experienced senior management team at TVCA led by Group Chief Executive Julie Gilhespie and including people like Gary Macdonald and Allison Fellows and at Teesworks alongside Mary Lanigan, Leader of Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council, Mayor of Middlesbrough Andy Preston and many others.

“I wouldn't do this job if it was just taking one day a week to rubber stamp bits and pieces,” he says.

“At the minute I'm spending perhaps two days a week in London in head offices in Canary Wharf with people trying to negotiate and get them to understand what we’re doing.

“But we have an executive team, so I can't just wander around somewhere, and say right, we're doing this deal. I’ve got to say, look, there is this opportunity, then come back to the executive team here and say ‘does this work….what's the process we have to go through?

“It's always my mug on the front of a newspaper but there are a large number of unsung heroes in this organisation and the success of the region isn't developed on one person’s shoulders.

It's a group of actual Teessiders as well, which is one of the key things I wanted when we set up the Combined Authority. They are passionate people who I can honestly say work as hard as I do and that's what you need to get these things done.

The Northern Echo:

“I do play a key role in it, but if it was just me, nothing would get done and it's really pleasing to see that irrespective of whether I'm here in three years time or seven years time or whenever it is that I lose an election the organisation is safe long beyond my tenure with the personnel that we've got here.”

He has the ear of Government, almost a poster-boy for the reason why Metro Mayors were introduced in the first place - to co-ordinate devolution and be the catalyst for Levelling Up policies so that they become more than just political phrases.

So what happens to him next is important. He has given both answers at various stages – that he will compete for a third term in 2024 and that he will look at vacancies higher up the political spectrum. The quandary is where will the country’s most popular Tory have the most effect for this region – staying at street level for another four years to see things through or as an MP working with a new Tees Valley Mayor?

His response is candid.

“This is probably the best job I will ever do and you do feel privileged to have the opportunity to affect the area that I’ve been raised in and live in.

“I don't particularly want to leave Teesside. If I’m walking down a Middlesbrough street in 15 years time I want to know that I’ve had a positive impact in the area.

“You also want to be able to walk down the street and people not come up to you and say, well, the airport was a waste of money and that was a white elephant and this didn't happen Ben – you said that was going to happen.

“I think any politician would be lying if they told you they didn't get into politics to potentially, in a utopian world, become the Prime Minister, but very few people in this world become a Prime Minister, so I'm in a much better place than any backbench MP.

“So why would I trade that off to become a backbench MP with the 0.001% chance you might become a Prime Minister in ten years? You kind of think well, I'm already having a major impact.”

He then changes tack, presumably to make sure he has covered both possibilities and that whichever one he chooses will make sense when the announcement comes.

It’s fascinating to suggest that he already knows what he will do. He has had the conversation during his many trips to Downing Street and the plan is already in place. He just needs to land a few more deals that are in the pipeline to see of any remaining critics and then he will be given the chance.

It may not be much of a choice. If Boris picks up the phone and calls he will answer it.

“If Rishi decided he'd had enough, he's got through Covid, delivered furlough, rebalanced the books in the spending review and he thinks I'm going to move back to Yorkshire and I'm going to spend more time in California with my wife and family.

I'm going to step down as MP for Richmond and then the party said ‘Ben, do you want to become the MP for Richmond?’

“I would not take that position if somebody said to me I could be the MP for Richmond for the rest of my life, but that was it. Because being an MP is just a means to an end, isn't it?

“It's about effecting change, so at the moment the question is where am I best effecting change – and it’s here.

“You've got local government delivering these important things for people and you've got local government leadership, saying we don't always need a handout. We've got things that we can help the UK with.

Read more: Chancellor spends first day at Darlington Treasury Campus

“Irrespective of the fact that I've got flaws, Boris has got flaws, we've all got flaws, the public give you goodwill that allows them to buy into the vision.

“Levelling Up is going to take probably a couple of decades to do properly, so what are the short term wins that allow the public to understand and buy into the fact that this is a real thing and you are genuine about it.”

Moving at such a pace can be exhausting, but his approach is that he has a certain allotted time to get things done, and if he pauses now, he may regret it later.

“One of the biggest problems I face from my personality is how to switch off - it's one thing I've not really learned how to do over the last four years,” he explains.

“I know how fortunate I am to be in this position and it will only last a finite period of time, so I want to pack in as much as possible and - I know this sounds really ridiculous - but taking two weeks off and something goes wrong or something doesn't happen, I will think, it's not worth it for the two weeks when in two years’ time I might be out of a job.

“So you keep running as fast as you can for as long as you can, and packing in as much as you can.”

His is a bold, almost brash, approach and Teesside is learning to love it. It does mean pushing some attitudes out of the way, along with some people who don’t know how to stop being in opposition instead of being in collaboration.

There will be setbacks and risks and prices to be paid for progress, bad headlines and savage criticism, but our region has gone from a lost cause to a leading light in just a few years because more people – not all, but more - feel we are working towards the same goals and are moving forwards, not retreating or stuck in the same place.

As he tells me: “You can't tinker around the edges. What we're going to do is something extremely radical and some things will fail.

“The airport can still fail. I don't think it will because the projections are great, but in theory it still could.

“But unless you do something like that, you're never going to radically change the economy, and therefore we're just going to continue to repeat the failures of the last 30 years.

“It's an amazing place to be and had you said to me four years ago, this is where we would be, I wouldn't have believed you.

“The conversation is so different now.”


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