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Rows and regeneration: the unexpected tale of two combined authority mayors

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LGC’s commentary on the fortunes of two combined authorities.

That’s the trouble with elected mayors. Get the right one and they can lead and promote their area as those who designed the post hoped and intended.

Get the wrong one and - unlike a conventional leader - they cannot easily be removed and there will be constant conflict.

Compare the combined authorities of Tees Valley and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough and there has been collaboration and conflict, but not where one might have expected each to arise.

The victory of Tory Ben Houchen in Tees Valley last year caused amazement given Labour’s local dominance and questions as to how he could work with politically hostile councils.

Tory James Palmer’s victory in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough caused no amazement whatsoever given the deep blue hue of four of the six council areas.

Mr Houchen inherited an economically challenged conurbation plagued by closures to traditional industries, while Mr Palmer had charge of a booming area.

On both politics and economics, it looked like it would be Mr Houchen who would struggle. Far from it.

While Mr Houchen has demonstrated making some serious progress, such as through the creation of the South Tees Development Corporation and buying the little-used Durham Tees Valley Airport, Mr Palmer has embarked on a series of fights with councillors and officers while promoting a controversial underground transit system in Cambridge.

The reasons for these contrasts perhaps lie in each mayor’s personality. Or perhaps Tees Valley’s regeneration need is serious enough for all concerned to feel obliged to collaborate. Perhaps Cambridgeshire & Peterborough’s lack of obvious economic troubles has left people struggling to see the point of the mayoralty.

Whatever the explanation, the contrasts are striking. Mr Houchen’s development corporation aims to regenerate 4,500 acres, incorporating the region’s former steelworks, and has powers to retain business rates for reinvestment and £137m in assorted pledges from the government.

His decision to spend £40m to take the airport back into public ownership might strike outsiders as strange, given its mere handful of scheduled services, but Mr Houchen says it will help the area’s “ability to work, trade and collaborate with old friends and new allies around the world” post-Brexit.

Nearly 200 miles south, Mr Palmer’s friends and allies appear thin on the ground. He last month dismissed his authority’s interim finance director after only four months of service, the fourth interim finance director to leave Mr Palmer’s employ. The CA’s first chief executive Martin Whiteley abruptly left with a £94,500 payout in the summer.

It emerged in October that all but one of the area’s council chief executives had complained in excoriating terms about the combined authority’ senior leadership.

Housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire has felt the need to warn that future funds depend on his “confidence in the effective collaboration and delivery capability of local partners”, after being asked to resolve a row over an alleged power grab by Mr Palmer involving the Cambridge city deal.

Purposeful collaboration in Tees Valley and mayhem in the Fens. Who’d have thought it?

By Mark Smulian, reporter

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