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Tensions run high for Tees Valley mayoral candidates

Tees Valley
By Will Neale
01 May 2024
local advocacy

T-minus 8 days until the election was probably the worst time for incumbent Tees Valley Mayor candidate Ben Houchen to find out that airline, Logan Air, has pulled out of Teesside International Airport, with which he has become synonymous. The Teesside to Aberdeen route had been subsidized by expensed oil rig workers for years and is seemingly part of a wider Logan Air restructuring program. Still, these are nuances that are rarely picked up by the general public. 

A day later, local hero and Chairman of Middlesbrough Football Club Steve Gibson attacked Houchen over suggested irregularities in the Teesworks deal, suggesting the ‘mayor has often been out-thought and out-manoeuvred, and not for the benefit of the Tees Valley.' The pair had previously been close, with Gibson chairing the South Tees Development Corporation until 2021, until a rumoured fallout. That very same evening, Labour Party candidate Chris McEwan was spotted in the Directors' box alongside Gibson at the Middlesbrough vs Leeds match. 

Always operating at arm's length from both the Conservative Party and Government, Houchen has been consistently more popular than the government and fellow local Conservative MPs, having created a brand distinct from the Conservative Party and unafraid to criticise the government publicly. The impression from the outside is that rather than being dragged down by the national party (albeit not excluded entirely), Houchen’s chickens are coming home to roost. 

Without a Green Party candidate, and with the Liberal Democrats polling at 6%, the only real challenger to Houchen is Labour Party candidate and Deputy Leader of Darlington Council, Chris McEwan. A significant weakness of McEwan, similar to Houchen, is the future of Teesside Airport. McEwan attempted to sell the airport to a developer during his tenure as Cabinet Member for Economy and Regeneration in 2015, a particular sore point locally. 

Houchen is a victim of his own success. His savvy led him to tie his name to local projects such as Teesworks and Teesside Airport, which, when times were good, delivered him a whopping 73% of the vote in 2021. 

The airport’s success was Ben Houchen’s success, as was Teesworks. Even if he was not directly involved in many deals personally, this fact rarely made its way to public consciousness. However, Houchen is so closely tied to both of these institutions, over which he has limited control, that he risks being dragged down with them.