Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has described how he and his pregnant wife were abused in the street following allegations of corruption at the Teesworks industrial site.

Mr Houchen made the comments at a fractious meeting in which he repeatedly clashed with councillors and was accused of “embarrassing himself” and behaving like a “petulant child”.

The meeting of an overview and scrutiny committee at the mayor’s Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) had been asked to note work being undertaken to respond to Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove after the publication of a recent independent review into the massive regeneration project near Redcar.The Northern Echo:

The review found no evidence of corruption or illegality, although it stated that expected standards were not being met when it came to managing public funds and systems of governance and finance did not provide sufficient transparency and oversight to evidence value for money to taxpayers.

Twenty eight separate recommendations were made with a formal response to Mr Gove, who initiated the review at Mr Houchen’s request, required by March 8 which will confirm TVCA’s initial approach to the work required.

Committee chairman Councillor Ian Haszeldine frequently struggled to bring the meeting to order with Mr Houchen protesting at some of the comments being made by committee members.The Northern Echo: Norton North Cllr Steve Nelson (Labour) on Stockton CouncilNorton North Cllr Steve Nelson (Labour) on Stockton Council (Image: LDR)

It began with Councillor Steve Nelson taking the mayor to task over his attendance, which had been requested by Cllr Haszeldine via a TVCA officer.

Cllr Nelson said: “We didn’t know until five minutes ago whether you were going to be here or not.”

Mayor Houchen said Cllr Nelson should have contacted him directly if he wished to confirm his attendance and “you seem to have an issue with it”.

Cllr Haszeldine said he had asked officers on his behalf to make a request Mr Houchen attended, suggesting that the mayor had not responded to an e-mail.The Northern Echo: Cllr Matt Storey, Labour councillor for Central WardCllr Matt Storey, Labour councillor for Central Ward (Image: LDR)

Mr Houchen said: “I don’t understand what the issue is, I am here, you have not sent me an e-mail.

“I am completely available as mayor for people to e-mail, pick up the phone and contact me.”

‘Stop behaving like a petulant child’ As the back and forth continued, the mayor was then asked by one member to “stop behaving like a petulant child” with Cllr Nelson adding: “You are embarrassing yourself”.

Cllr Haszedline said he was “lost for words” and in future he would send an e-mail to Mayor Houchen directly.

Referencing the report of the independent review panel, Cllr Haszeldine said that, on reflection, rather than dissecting what was contained in it, the role of the scrutiny committee should be to look at the recommendations and the outcomes arising from them.

Councillor Matt Storey said the inquiry had stated scrutiny should have a much larger role to play in the affairs of the authority than it had done previously.

Cllr Haszeldine said: “That’s a conversation I will have with officers, I agree with you.”  Cllr Nelson then asked Mr Houchen if he welcomed the inquiry that took place, suggesting he had been “resentful” of it.

This led the mayor to make renewed criticism of Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald, who had alleged in a speech in Parliament the Teesworks project was mired in “industrial scale” corruption due to the involvement of private sector developers, with Mr Houchen claiming a “stain had been left on the area” as a result.

Mr Houchen said the MP’s intervention led to investors in the Net Zero Teesside carbon capture scheme being sited at Teesworks carrying out additional due diligence, while other investors on proposed projects had put work on pause.

The mayor said because of what had been said, he was “happy” to throw open the doors and show there was no corruption “because we have not done anything wrong”.

He said: “We have not had any investment in the region for 12 months because of it, the Government refused to sign off £160m of investment to us in Hartlepool, Redcar and Stockton because of those allegations.

“Teesside’s reputation has been dragged through the mud.”

‘Physically intimidated and harassed’ Mr Houchen also said he and his pregnant wife had been “physically intimidated and harassed” when walking in the street because of Mr McDonald’s remarks.

He said: “That’s why I am angry about it.”

Cllr Haszeldine attempted to interrupt Mr Houchen, with the former stating he was not allowing Cllr Nelson to speak and he had other committee members present also wanting to speak.

But Mr Houchen accused him of “glossing over the fact”, adding: “As the mayor of the Tees Valley I am being accused of corruption and illegality.

“My heavily pregnant wife and I are being harassed in the street and you are trying to shut me up.”

Cllr Nelson said it had been “vital” to conduct the inquiry and “the end justifies the means”, referring to the raft of recommendations that had been made.

Councillor David Branson said: “We need to be able to do our job as a scrutiny committee.

“We don’t know whether what’s happened is above board or not above board, it may be perfectly correct business, but we need to be able to ask those questions.”

Emma Simson, the acting chief legal officer at the TVCA group, said the report recognised that the law in terms of overview and scrutiny of development corporations was a “grey area” and needed clarifying.

Mr Houchen said a review of the recommendations, which he has accepted in full, would take some time and would be a significant piece of work.

Councillor Andy Kier said: “I welcome the fact that there is no corruption or illegality and we shouldn’t lose the magnitude of where that sits in this report relevant to everything else.

“I also welcome the recommendations because if we get these recommendations done correctly then in four years time there won’t be another group of people sitting around looking at another report that’s been done.”

Cllr Storey said more scrutiny and the ability to look into matters in detail “can only be a good thing”, adding that “sunshine is the best disinfectant”.

Meanwhile, Cllr Haszeldine struck a conciliatory note and said: “We need to do this well [the response to the recommendations] and we need to be seen to be doing it well.

“The only way we will move forward properly is by doing it together without fighting each other and through negotiation, discussion and agreement.”

Cllr Houchen said an action plan would be attached to the letter to Mr Gove, but ultimately the Government would still have to come back and say that it was acceptable to them and it met the standard required for any implementation to happen.

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A cross-authority working group has been established consisting of statutory officers from all five constituent local authorities in the Tees Valley which will consider and approve a response to the recommendations.

The working group met for the first time earlier this month in order to discuss their terms of reference and agree which of the 28 recommendations were wholly in their scope and which needed further clarity from the Government.

Any actions ultimately agreed will be submitted to the TVCA cabinet annual general meeting in June, along with appropriate revised governance documentation, as well to the overview and scrutiny committee and audit and governance committees covering both the combined authority and the South Tees Development Corporation, which is responsible for the regeneration of Teesworks.