A scrutiny panel’s efforts to keep an eye on a mayor’s decisions have been branded “a waste of time”.

The Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) has more than £600m of spending lined up in the next decade – with oversight of major projects including Teesworks, Teesside Airport, and finding cash for major transport schemes. But fresh doubts have been raised about scrutiny of the TVCA and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen.

A report for the latest overview and scrutiny committee showed the Conservative mayor hadn’t attended in the past year – with the meeting hearing he’d last turned up in February 2019. The non-attendance sparked frustrations from Labour councillors but Mr Houchen has since hit back – saying councillors can ask him questions at any time.

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Irritation came to a head at the panel’s first meeting since January. Former Darlington Council leader, Cllr Stephen Harker, asked why TVCA chief executive Julie Gilhespie and the mayor hadn’t turned up.

The Labour member added: “We meet four times a year and, with respect, Ben never comes and Julie isn’t here as well. I appreciate that sometimes more important things come along but often I feel we’re not being taken seriously.”

The panel was told Ms Gilhespie was at another meeting in Stockton while the mayor was “otherwise engaged”. Former scrutiny chairwoman Cllr Norma Stephenson believed February 2019 was the last time he’d turned up.

She added: “This report actually says we’re here to scrutinise both the combined authority and the mayor. How are we scrutinising the mayor if he’s not turning up for any meetings? I think that needs pushing a bit.”

Cllr Stephenson added they were in place to scrutinise decisions and challenge them if needed. Labour colleague Cllr David Branson agreed it “wasn’t good enough”.

The member for Coulby Newham said: “We’ve seen the mayor is responsible effectively for most decisions on development corporations, on the freeport, and on the airport. We don’t have him here so we’re not scrutinising him at all – and we’re not doing our job.

“I think basically we should take this one step further and write to him to tell him we want him to turn up to one of these meetings. If he doesn’t turn up, we should go to the press.”

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Cllr Harker said it was politicians who made decisions. He added: “To some extent, these meetings are a waste of time because nobody is willing to sit here and answer questions at the scrutiny committee.

“It makes a mockery of the whole process.” Earlier in the meeting, chairman Cllr John Hobson said he’d been a “personal friend” of Mr Houchen for a long time – and told the committee he’d “have a word” with the mayor about the attendance concerns.

In response, Mr Houchen said councillors could ask him any questions at any time. He added: “The idea that they have to wait three months for a scrutiny meeting is ridiculous.

“I engage with councillors on a daily basis, as well as local businesses and the public. I live stream question and answer sessions with local people and I do all I can to make sure local people know my plans, what I’m doing, and how those projects are progressing.

“I’m confident in saying that I’m the most available, engaged and accessible politician in the region but I suspect various Labour councillors can’t attack me on all of the things I’ve delivered so make up spurious nonsense instead.”

The mayor claimed he was yet to be invited to a scrutiny committee by the chairman but would attend if invited.

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