WORK on a new hospital in the Tees Valley should start within four years, the newly-re-elected mayor Ben Houchen told The Northern Echo in an exclusive interview.

Mr Houchen’s headline-grabbing pledge to renew the ageing North Tees hospital was a key part of his successful re-election campaign and was greeted with scepticism by his critics who pointed out that the NHS is beyond his scope.

But he said: “The plan is to start building within the next term, within the next four years.

“Irrespective of what we’ve done over the last seven years, there was a cynicism that it wasn’t in my remit and I couldn’t do it, but I’ve proved the haters wrong once or twice before and I’ll prove them wrong again.”

Mr Houchen says he has been working for months on what he imagines will be an emergency and acute hospital, costing up to £700m, probably on a new site. It would be different from the “superhospital” that was planned for Wynyard 20 years ago.

“We have come full circle,” he said. “The thinking now is you want to deliver services as close to people in their community as possible, so we are almost certainly not designing a superhospital.

“This is subject to agreement with the trust because it is going to be a trust hospital that they own and run, but it is looking like something smaller that’s focusing on emergency and acute requirements – but where are those other services which have historically been based in the hospital going to be located?”

He sees a greater role for Hartlepool hospital, which he says is “massively under capacity”, and for diagnostic centres, like the one currently being built in Stockton’s new-look high street. He sees it tying in with Stockton council’s new Health Innovation Zone and Teesside University’s desire to open a medical school.

“I suspect it will be a mix of all of those things,” he said. “Why shouldn’t we ask the Government to get their arse in gear and give us some money? For Darlington train station, we’ve stuck in £105m, Network Rail £25m and LNER £12m. You are often cajoling, twisting arms, and that’s how you bring these big projects together.

“I think it could be £400m to £700m for the acute hospital.

“And we need to look at location. Ideally you would like it on its existing site, but you will still have to operate it until the new hospital is complete and trying to do both is probably going to be extremely difficult.

“It is likely that it will have to be on a new site, and then you are into a major public consultation process, because the main reason the Wynyard hospital didn’t go ahead was the public backlash on the location: people felt that services were being moved away from them, out of town.

“It will have to be in town with good service access and good public transport links. We’ll have to get good public buy-in.”

The Wynyard plan was put forward because the hospital, the first phase of which opened in 1968, was nearing the end of its working life. It was passed by the then Health Secretary Andy Burnham in 2010, but a change of government ushered in the age of austerity and it was dropped. A £380m plan was knocked back by the Government last year, when it was said that the hospital only had eight working years left.

“It is coming to the end of its life, and we don’t want, which is the typical public sector way of doing things, to wait until the car hits the wall and it crashes to fix the problem,” said Mr Houchen. “North Tees is spending about £10m-a-year on maintenance and repair, and that’s money that could be going on providing better care – they’ve just asked the Government for an additional £5m because they’ve found raac, and I can guarantee that will not be the end of it.

“This doesn’t seem like a good use of public resources to me. You can see the car is travelling very quickly at this wall, but I think we can get ahead of it.

“The North Tees and Hartlepool Trust doesn’t have a capital budget, but the combined authority does, and we don’t have the operational budget but they do, so there is a good marriage here – the trust would take over the hospital and operate it like they would any other hospital.”

The Northern Echo: Tees Valley Combined Authority Mayoral election count takes place at Thornaby Pavilion, Thornaby. Ben Houchen (Conservative Party candidate) with wife Rachel and baby Hannah (CHECK SPELLINGS!). Picture: CHRIS BOOTH.Ben Houchen and his wife, Rachel, at the count on Friday, May 3, with their baby, Hannah


“MY primary objective is fundamentally changing the economy of Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool,” said Mr Houchen. “My philosophy has always been that the cause of poverty and deprivation in our region has been a weak economy with a low level service sector with an insecure employment base.”

Mr Houchen says that jobs paying twice the Teesside average of £31,000-a-year are already being created on the Teesworks site which will cause other local wages to rise.

“It’s the same with the Darlington Economic Campus,” he said. “Accountancy firms in Stockton and Darlington are losing staff because they can’t compete with the Treasury employment packages, so they are having to look at paying more. They are going through a pain curve that I think is necessary for the region to go through to get to that better quality of life.”

The Northern Echo: Ben Houchen at the launch of the new BP/NZT development at Teesworks in Redcar.       Photograph: Stuart Boulton/The Northern Echo.


MR HOUCHEN says working groups have been set up to implement the 28 recommendations made by an independent inquiry into the handling of the regeneration of the steelworks site in Redcar, including instructing lawyers to advise on “renegotiating or tightening up” the 90:10 agreement with two businessmen which is central to the controversy.

“At 50:50, our partners had no obligation to put money into the site and they had no liabilities. Without them, the site would still be owned by the Thai banks. We never owned the site, it has never been a publicly owned site.

“It went to 90:10 because they took on over £330m of liabilities that were on the taxpayer, so if we renegotiate the 90:10, does that mean the taxpayer is taking on more liabilities? We are not paying for remediation of land and if we are taking the shares back, are we going to have to contribute to that?

“At the minute, we are getting 10 per cent of something and we don’t have to put anything in and we don’t have any liabilities, and we get the business rates. We are going to make far more money out of that site than the partners even though they own 90 per cent. It is a complicated picture which gets lost in the simplicity of political back and forth.

“My opponents tried to run the election as a Teesworks referendum and in the end, it wasn’t even close. People hear the noise, hear the conspiracy theories, but realise the most important thing is getting the jobs, getting the investment, because that’s what Teesside’s always needed and the people backed me.”

Teesside Airport

“WITHIN two to three years, the airport will be profitable,” he said. “We’ll be losing a few million pounds this year, but last year we were significantly ahead of target. We can absolutely say that by the end of the 10 year plan, which is in this term (of office), the airport will be sustainably profitable.”

The Northern Echo: Tees Valley Combined Authority Mayoral election count takes place at Thornaby Pavilion, Thornaby. Ben Houchen (Conservative Party candidate) is announced as winner. Picture: CHRIS BOOTH.The result of the Tees Valley Combined Authority mayoral election is announced

The election

MR HOUCHEN’S success on May 2 was the one bright spot for the Conservative Party, even though his share of the vote fell from 73 per cent in 2021 to 53.6 per cent. Labour polled 41.3 per cent and the LibDems five per cent.

“I had the third highest share of the vote of any mayor in the country behind Andy Burnham (in Manchester) and Steve Rotheram (in Liverpool), so even though it came down, I was pretty pleased,” he said.

“The election wasn’t close in the end, it was basically 13 points. We won every single council area, even Middlesbrough, which I think is one of the most Labour areas of the country. Go back to 2017, I only won Stockton and Darlington and I came third in Hartlepool behind Ukip, so we have vastly improved.”

The Northern Echo: Tees Valley Combined Authority Mayoral election count takes place at Thornaby Pavilion, Thornaby. Ben Houchen (Conservative Party candidate) is announced as winner. Picture: CHRIS BOOTH.Ben Houchen, without a rosette, while Labour's Chris McEwan proudly sports his red colours

The rosette

MUCH was made of Mr Houchen’s campaign being Tory-lite, with his posters not being in bright Tory blue, his literature mentioning the word “Conservative” only in very small letters and him failing to wear a blue rosette at his count.

“I didn’t wear a rosette in 2021 when we won 73 per cent of the vote, and nobody pointed it out,” he says. “I didn’t wear a rosette because I didn’t think about it. Rosettes are from a bygone era to be honest, just a bit corny. Everybody in Teesside knows I’m a Conservative.”

The Northern Echo: Lord Ben Houchen with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Teesside following his re-election as Tees Valley Mayor. Picture date: Friday May 3, 2024. PA Photo. See PA story POLITICS Elections. Photo credit should read: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
Rishi Sunak celebrates Ben Houchen's third mayoral success at Teesside Airport on Friday, May 3. Results practically everywhere else went against the Conservatives 

The general election

“MAYBE this is the optimist in me, but there is still a very narrow way through to the general election,” he said, pointing to his own success in each Tees Valley constituency. “People are really upset with the Conservative Party, but there is still no love for the Labour Party.”

Reform UK candidates might take some Conservative votes but, equally, he believes Labour will lose 10 per cent of its support to the Greens, so “all of the local seats are still up for grabs”.

He supports Rishi Sunak’s continued leadership of the party.

“The idea that the party can change leaders again and think the public will vote Conservative is for the birds, it is bonkers,” he said. “There’s now a lot of pressure on Rishi to show some level of delivery.

“The Conservative Party can learn from what we are doing here, delivering things for people here, rather than just announcing another policy and arguing the toss in parliament. People want to see some tangible difference, whether that’s in migration with the Rwanda scheme getting off the ground, they want to see the government is credible and has actually done something. People need to feel in their pocket, in their family and in their community that things are getting better to give them that excuse to vote for us again.”