Mayor Ben Houchen has expressed a desire to expand Tees Valley CA into North Yorkshire as he cast doubt over the likelihood of an elected mayor for the whole of Yorkshire.
In an interview with LGC to commemorate the impending first anniversary of his election, Mr Houchen (Con) also spoke of his hope of getting greater control over the government’s planned replacement of European Union funding as well as optimism over the Tees Valley piloting a free trade port post-Brexit.
Last month a detailed proposal for a devolution deal for Yorkshire was submitted to the government by 18 council leaders. It is now being considered by housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid.
Mr Houchen said: “If they are able to come together on a single deal then that would be fantastic. But living in the real world and looking at the practicalities of it I just don’t think it’s going to happen.
“There are vast swathes of North Yorkshire that are much more aligned with the Tees Valley than the rest of Yorkshire… a lot of people who live in North Yorkshire work in Teeside so you could argue there should be an expansion of the Tees Valley deal into North Yorkshire.”
The Tees Valley CA, made up of five Labour-led councils, borders Richmondshire and Hambleton DCs and Scarborough BC. Those three districts are all Conservative-run and their inclusion would boost the future electoral prospects of Mr Houchen who currently has a slim 2,000 vote majority.
When asked if he would like to expand the Tees Valley CA into Yorkshire, Mr Houchen said: “I am always open to more joining the club because if it’s going to give more people the chance to increase the economic growth of the Tees Valley and the north-east then I am all for that.”
North Yorkshire CC leader Carl Les (Con) said it was “hard to see how that would work” and added: “The county council wouldn’t want to see any dissolution of the county boundaries.”
Cllr Les said there was an argument parts of the Tees Valley should be moved into Yorkshire as he pointed to referendums held by Yarm and Thornbury town councils in 2014 and 2015 respectively which showed most respondents in both places wanted to split from Stockton-on-Tees BC.
“The main thing is, whatever we do, we have got to recognise there are cross boundaries and those should not be seen as great barrier to working together and sorting out issues,” he said.
Richmondshire’s leader Yvonne Peacock (Con) said she was “focused on the One Yorkshire” deal.
“I don’t think we’d go there [with the Tees Valley],” she said. “We have worked with our partners in Darlington but in general our residents are Yorkshire.”
LGC was unable to contact Hambleton’s leader Mark Robson (Con) and Scarborough’s leader Derek Bastiman (Con) before publication.
Mr Javid has said he is open to the idea of a Yorkshire-wide devolution deal, with a mayor, taking effect in 2020, allowing partners in the Sheffield City Region to opt to join.
Barnsley MBC leader Sir Stephen Houghton (Lab), an advocate of One Yorkshire, said: “I think [Mr Houchen] is flying a kite but I would be very surprised if there was any particular interest. When I spoke to the Yorkshire leaders they’re keen to get the One Yorkshire deal away.”
Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake (Lab) said: “I don’t think the leaders will want anything that dilutes the incredible offer we have which is the Yorkshire brand… I’m not sure the Tees Valley has the same reach [around the world].”
Cllr Blake added there would be “a lot of disappointment” among businesses in particular if the government did not agree to a Yorkshire-wide mayoral deal.
Meanwhile, Mr Houchen’s “big objective” for the coming year is to win Tees Port free port status once Britain leaves the EU. This would allow for imported goods to be stored duty-free before being exported or face duty on entering the rest of the country.
Mr Houchen said “a lot of ministers…are very supportive” of that, adding that he is “in discussions with the Treasury” about a pilot.
A consultation on the UK shared prosperity fund – intended to replace EU structural investment funds – is due later this year. Mr Houchen said: “I have been very clear it should be part of the devolution settlement so it doesn’t come with strings attached [like EU funding currently does].
“I’ve not had confirmation that’s going to happen but the noises I have heard are very positive but we need to keep banging that drum.”
Any ministerial failure to give areas freedom to spend the money as they see fit “limits the government’s objective” of boosting the economy, Mr Houchen said.
Appearing before the Commons communities and local government committee last month, Greater Manchester CA mayor Andy Burnham (Lab) said areas were operating “in the dark” when it comes to Brexit.
However, Mr Houchen insisted he has had “unfettered access” to the Department for Exiting the European Union.
“I was quite surprise to hear Andy Burnham say he’d had less influence and access than I did. But he did admit he hadn’t approached government to talk about it.”
Mr Houchen sees part of his role is to “go knock on doors” and start those discussions. As a result he feels he, and his combined authority, are “making real progress” with raising the region’s profile.