A £30,000 spend on Facebook advertising has prompted MPs to call for more transparency over who is funding the Tees Valley Mayor.

Ben Houchen has paid more to campaign via the site than the Conservative Party has to promote Boris Johnson and more than Labour paid to advertise Jeremy Corbyn's page, The Northern Echo can reveal.

Mr Houchen spent over £30,200 to fund more than 180 Facebook advertisements between October 2018 and the end of September, exceeding by thousands the collective sum spent by the rest of the UK’s metro mayors.

Echo analysis of Facebook data found that Mr Houchen’s advertising costs also amounted for over half of the total spending by a host of politicians and politically motivated groups across the North-East. His page is the 38th best funded out of more than 6,000 listed in the site’s Ad Library.

The mayor - whose yearly allowance is £35,800 - insists “not a penny” of public money has been spent on the adverts and says they were paid for with proceeds from fundraising events, small donations from individuals and some of his own money.

A spokesman for the mayor said it would not be appropriate to identify individual donors without permission but Mr Houchen is facing calls from fellow politicians to be more open about his funders.

Electoral Commission records, which reflect donations of over £1,500, show Mr Houchen has received £17,300 since June 2018, including £6,000 in cash donations - £2,000 from an Ian Waller and £4,000 from Sukhraj 'Raj' Singh, owner of Hartlepool United FC.

The Northern Echo:

Mr Houchen said his Facebook advertising campaign aimed to promote “all the fantastic things” being achieved in the Tees Valley and said if he didn’t shout about the area, nobody else would.

“Local people will never be asked to pick up the bill for my Facebook advertising – not a single penny of taxpayers money has been used, and never will be," he said.

“My campaigns have reached hundreds of thousands of people who wouldn’t usually pick up a newspaper or watch the news on TV, and I will never apologise for doing all I can do to bang the drum for the Tees Valley."

Mr Houchen added: “Since becoming Mayor I have held a number of fundraisers, most recently with Boris Johnson at Wynyard Hall where there was more than 300 people in attendance. Along with donations that have been declared to the Electoral Commission I have also received many smaller donations that do not need to be reported as they are below the reporting threshold of £1,500." 

Redcar’s Labour MP Anna Turley said social media was an important part of politics that made it possible for elected representatives to communicate with constituents.

Ms Turley, who has used paid adverts in an effort to engage with the views of more people, said she welcomed Facebook transparency tools introduced following concerns about “bots and dark money” interfering in British politics.

Ms Turley - whose page was linked to £1055 of ads paid for by the Redcar Constituency Labour Party - urged Mr Houchen to “make a full disclosure” over the funding of his, adding: “I think people on Teesside will be very disappointed that Ben is not willing to disclose who is funding his advertising spend.

“It vastly outnumbers spending by other local politicians and people will rightly be wondering where the money is coming from.”

Darlington MP Jenny Chapman, whose Facebook page was associated with less than £100 in advertising spending, said: “It matters who funds what, it is important to be transparent as we need to know who has influence over elected representatives.

“If Mr Houchen is asking us to believe he has raised this money from small donations at events, I’d like to know who was there.”

The bill to boost the Facebook profiles of a host of the region’s elected officials, election candidates and pages backing political groups – including those representing local Conservative, Labour, EU and Brexit supporters – came to approximately £57,000.

NOTE: Spends listed in the table above as £100 represent sums up to and including that amount. More precise figures were not disclosed in the data set analysed.

The top three pages with the highest level of advertising spend are devoted to Mr Houchen, Northumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuinness – which had an advertising bill of £8,463 paid for by the Labour Party – and Tory MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland Simon Clarke – who used £4,873 of supporters' donations to promote his profile.

Mr Clarke said: “At a time when trust in MPs is at an all-time low, it’s important for me to tell my constituents about the work I am doing and that I am standing up for what they voted for.”

Within the top ten were pages linked to Peter Gibson, a Tory election candidate for Darlington; Lauren Dingsdale, Labour prospective Parliamentary candidate for Simon Clarke’s ward; the Redcar and Cleveland Labour Party; Redcar’s MP Anna Turley; Middlesbrough’s mayor Andy Preston and Darlington’s Conservative Party.

Of the advertising campaigns linked to our region, six funders broke rules that stipulate those who paid for the ads must be named, with Mr Houchen and Mr Preston breaking the guidelines most regularly – 21 times and five times, respectively.

Mr Houchen said the breaches came immediately after Facebook introduced a policy change and were a result of “getting used to the new rules”.