Election day is fast approaching, and in the first of a series of articles on the contenders to be the next Tees Valley Mayor, Tom Burgess talks to Liberal Democrat's candidate Simon Thorley. 

I met Simon at Cafe Nero in the centre of Darlington and it was immediately clear that he believes he has an outside chance at winning the upcoming election.

He mourned the low voter turnout we can expect to see at the upcoming local elections and hopes that the national attention brought by the Teesworks report will encourage people to get out and have their voices heard.

Simon was born in Greenbank Maternity Hospital in Darlington, and went to Abbey Junior School, Hummersknott Academy and Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College before studying politics at Edinburgh University.

He lived in London after he came back from a year abroad in Hong Kong but returned to Darlington in 2020. He lives with his wife, Nicole, and children, Clara, five, and Jack, three.

The first issue he wants to discuss is also what he sees as "the mission" of the campaign - to tackle poverty in the region.

"There was a report that came out weeks ago, by the North East Child Poverty Commission, and it was just absolutely bleak reading. The North East of England is the poorest part of the UK and the Tees Valley is the poorest part of that," he says.

Simon traces the ills of the region back to child poverty and describes it as a domino effect.

His headline policy is to introduce a programme in early years which will cost £25m a year. He will re-allocate money he believes is being sent into the "black hole" of business growth. 

He is "sceptical" of incumbent Mayor Ben Houchen's business ambitions and believes that employment in the region is high. He believes the difficulty is the "quality and access to that employment".

"Our approach is to rejig the priorities within the overall strategic plan. We will reallocate funding from the business growth to tackling poverty and the early years programme," he says.

"Another key area is transport. It's been a real missed opportunity over the last seven years because the mayor has the power to create a Manchester or TfL style integrated transport authority.

"It would be such an improvement on the highly fragmented, unreliable and complicated series of bus services we have at the moment.

"What I will do is to establish a 'Transport for the Tees Valley' umbrella body that will have single ticketing, fully contactless with automatic capping exactly as you get in London with the TfL."

He pledges to expand considerably the network of bus routes and services too.

The third area he would prioritise is to comprehensively reform the adult education budget, which he sees as a key responsibility if he becomes mayor.

"It's another thing that Mayor Houchen should have done but has done essentially nothing since coming to power. If you look at the Combined Authority the documents have more or less been copied and pasted from central government," he says.

"The way it works at the moment is that the funding for adult education, which is basically everybody over 18, is provided directly to Further Education colleges and then they run certain programmes. The thing we take issue with this is that it removes the crucial element of what people want to learn from the portfolio of programmes that are offered and which have funding - it's a very statist way of doing things.

"We take a very different approach to that. We think that people know what they want to learn to improve themselves and get better job opportunities. We're going to completely change the system, it's not going to be centralised.

"All eligible adults in the Tees Valley will be able to apply for funding for individual learning grants and the funding will follow them. This would increase competition and drive down costs and drive opportunity. But the most important thing is giving people control over it."

The enthusiasm and belief in his ideas is clear as Simon talks through his top priorities, whether discussing education, transport or his ideas to help tackle poverty in the area. Even when discussing his rivals and why he is the best candidate for the role he doesn't lose his optimistic attitude.

"People have to make a choice. What is Labour actually going to do that is any different? You cannot disregard the fact that they have been in power virtually all of the time over the past 100 years. By most measures it has been a long, slow period of relative decline due to an unwillingness to grasp the fundamentals of what needs to be changed," he tells me.

"I'm a Liberal, I believe in free enterprise, I believe prosperity doesn't come from top-down government solutions. It comes from the bottom up. This region was absolutely constructed on liberal values. If you look at the glory days of Darlington it was when it had Liberal MPs, liberal councils and a liberal sense of investing in your community. There are fundamental differences in what I believe and what Chris McEwan and the Labour Party believe."

Simon summarises that he decided to stand after following the coverage of the alleged corruption on Teesworks. He says: "We are dead set against mayoral development corporations, they encourage governance structures that are not fit for purpose.  They encourage fire sales of public assets and encourage reckless behaviour. There are very few safeguards. You've got to stand up and by counted on this. You've got to present an alternative position.

"I grew up around here. I have no faith that voting Labour will see any substantial changes to the underlying issues. I look at what is on offer from Chris McEwan and, broadly speaking, it doesn't seem that there is an intention to really rethink what the mayor can do."

Simon Thorley will be offering voters a third choice in the upcoming Tees Valley Mayoral election on May 2, which they didn't have last time. Will it make a difference?