CHILD poverty has been identified as the highest priority by the Liberal Democrats for the upcoming Tees Valley Mayoral election.

Simon Thorley, who is standing on behalf of the party against incumbent Conservative mayor Ben Houchen, has announced a £25m annual investment to tackle the issue.

Mr Thorley said: “Poverty, especially child poverty, is by some distance the biggest social issue impacting our region. According to the North East Child Poverty Commission's latest report, the North East is by virtually every measure the poorest region in the country, and the Tees Valley is the poorest part of the North East.

“As a liberal, I am passionate about opportunity and freedom. I believe that everyone should have the chance to live their life as they wish to. And more than anything else, it's poverty which takes away that opportunity and that freedom.

“Children, who are born into or grow up in poverty, are far more likely to have poor educational outcomes; to never find stable employment; to have lifelong poor health; to struggle with addiction; to be victims of crime; to have fewer good years of life.

“Childhood poverty scars a person's entire life. It's for that reason that I am making a pledge: that if I am elected, I will invest £25m each year in creating an Early Years Support Programme with the sole objective of reducing childhood poverty, wherever it exists in the region.”

Mr Thorley’s planned Early Years Support Programme will include a network of local Early Years Support Hubs which will coordinate and provide support to local voluntary groups, provide advice on benefits, subsidised transport, education and training opportunities, and other vital information.

“I want to see these hubs embedded in local communities,” added Mr Thorley. “Virtually every Tees Valley residence will have a Support Hub within walking distance.”

Other plans include introduced free ‘Baby Boxes’ – a box of clothes, bedding, and other essentials for the first few months of a baby’s life – for all parents of newborns in the Tees Valley, free school meals for all primary school children, and comprehensive childcare funding for lower income families.

“The Early Years Support Programme is just one part of my plans to drive down poverty and build opportunity across the Tees Valley,” said Mr Thorley.

“On transport, I will bring all bus services under combined authority control, considerably expand the number of routes and services offered, introduce one-hour hopper fares, and make all bus transport free for under-18s.

“And on adult education, I will introduce Individual Learning Grants to expand access and improve the range and quality of programmes on offer.”

Simon Thorley will officially launch his bid for Tees Valley Mayor at the Tees Transporter Bridge, at 9:30am on Saturday, March 9.