Row settled after council leader called for apology over 'mayor's pocket' jibe

A row sparked when a council leader demanded an apology after being accused of being in Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen’s “pocket” has seemingly been settled.

Alec Brown, the Labour leader of Redcar and Cleveland Council, clashed with Liberal Democrat councillor Dr Tristan Learoyd with the latter later stating they had "agreed to end the feud". Cllr Learoyd had asked a question at a meeting about the legal dispute over access rights involving Mr Houchen’s South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) and Teesport operator PD Ports.

PD Ports was declared to be “clearly the successful party” by Mr Justice Rajah after the case was heard in the High Court with the judge ruling that STDC and another party to the proceedings Teesworks Limited should pay the majority of the legal fees involved. Councillor Brown, who is on the board of the STDC, said the advice of a lawyer had been followed in the action taken.

Cllr Learoyd said: “Your decision not to veto cost the taxpayer upwards of £3.25m.” He added that it had been a “dreadful and wrong decision” and questioned why further independent advice had not been taken.

Cllr Brown said he had argued for a negotiation to take place “at all costs” in order to avoid court action, but then refused to answer the question any further before pulling up Cllr Learoyd over his own conduct. He said: “As I was walking into the chambers he screamed in front of many witnesses that I was in Ben Houchen’s pocket.”

Cllr Brown said it was “absolutely disgusting behaviour” and also labelled Cllr Learoyd a “narcissist” for recording himself during questions he posed at full council meetings. He said: “Please Tristan apologise publicly for misinforming the public and I will answer your questions.”

With neither man backing down, and Cllr Learoyd stating he was unable to ask a supplementary question since his first question had not been answered, the meeting then moved on.

'Come to an agreement'

Cllr Learoyd confirmed to the Local Democracy Reporting Service that he had made the comment, but denied screaming or shouting. A few days after the meeting both councillors then issued statements on Facebook after speaking on the telephone.

Cllr Learoyd's statement said: "I rang and spoke with Cllr Brown and we have come to an agreement. I have retracted the comment that Cllr Brown is in the pocket of Ben Houchen and Cllr Brown has retracted the comment about me being a narcissist.

"I thank Cllr Brown for also offering an answer to my question, which he will share."

Cllr Brown added: "At full council in a heated debate with Cllr Learoyd, I called him a narcissist. I have apologised directly to Tristan and I am doing it publicly now.

"I also respect him for calling me to apologise for stating I was in the mayor's pocket. Thank you Tristan."

Following a six-week trial, Mr Justice Rajah found PD Ports had established six of its access claims over three routes involving the South Gare peninsula, the Redcar Bulk Terminal and Tees Dock, while four other claims ruled on went in STDC’s favour.

PD Ports subsequently revealed that its costs from the High Court case was an estimated £2.73m, but as this was only an estimate it is expected to rise further.

A spokesman for the STDC, which has strategic responsibility for the economic regeneration of the former Redcar steelworks site - rebranded Teesworks - subsequently said the judgement had clarified the rights of the respective parties. He said: “It now gives the required certainty for strategically important projects to move forward without potential of disruption from any future legal claims.”

Teesworks has submitted papers, appealing against parts of the judgement which they believe were "wrongly applied". The STDC has confirmed it has no plans to appeal.

Earlier this year papers for an STDC board meeting revealed that £3.1m had been spent on its legal fees with the organisation stating that money set aside had come from its operating budget with no risk falling on local councils. Mr Houchen claimed several ongoing projects bringing jobs and investment would not have been possible had all of the claims made by PD Ports been successful, while STDC chief executive Julie Gilhespie decreed the outcome to be “extremely positive”.

After the court ruling last year, Jerry Hopkinson, executive chairman at PD Ports, said it was a “vindication of our defence of our long-held rights”. He said: “Despite PD Ports’ desire to resolve the matter outside the courtroom, South Tees Development Corporation and Teesworks persisted with legal action that has resulted in no net gain for either side, at a cost of several million pounds for all parties, including the taxpayer, as well as considerable damage to our region’s reputation.”

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