Tempers flare over 'truth', Teesside Airport, and Teesworks at tense Tees Valley mayoral hustings

Mayor Ben Houchen (Conservative), Chris McEwan (Labour), and Simon Thorley (Liberal Democrats)
Mayor Ben Houchen (Conservative), Chris McEwan (Labour), and Simon Thorley (Liberal Democrats) -Credit:Peter Barron Media/Labour Party/Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Tempers flared and candidates clashed over "truth", Teesside Airport, and Teesworks at a tense Tees Valley mayoral hustings.

Mayor Ben Houchen (Conservative), Chris McEwan (Labour), and Simon Thorley (Liberal Democrats) battled it out on BBC Tees on Wednesday morning vowing for votes as the race for Tees Valley Mayor draws closer.

Presented by Politics North presenter Richard Moss, the trio took on questions on several hot topics in Teesside, from the controversial Teesworks project to town centre regeneration, bus services, and their vision of Teesside Airport for the future.

A key talking point was the vision of Teesside Airport in the next five to 10 years. Lord Houchen started the debate by saying Mr McEwan "personally proposed" that former owner Peel should be able to close the airport and "turn it into a housing estate" before a deal was struck to bring the airport back into public ownership in 2018.

Lord Houchen said: "Yes it's about holiday flights, people want to absolutely go on holiday from their local airport. But it's about jobs, it's about investment, it's about putting money in people's pockets."

Teesside International Airport
Teesside International Airport -Credit:Teessidelive

But Mr McEwan hit back, saying he "did not have any intent to close the airport" and that he has "always supported it." He said the airport was "absolutely critical" for the economy and pride as a region going forward.

Mr Thorley said "nobody is telling the truth about the airport" - adding that both candidates "have fundamentally the same plan" - which is "if the airport is not commercially viable it should be sold off and houses built." He said he would not close the airport - but argued it is not value for money and has been an "extremely poor investment."

He said: "The current situation is we own an airport and it's certain that nobody is going to be buying this airport off us. The reality of the situation is the airport is a distraction from the real issues that are affecting people in the Tees Valley."

The debate came just hours before Teesside Live broke the news that Loganair had pulled out of the airport for good, scrapping its flight to Aberdeen. Airport chiefs say they are now "examining opportunities" for alternative airlines to provide the route.

It is unclear if Lord Houchen - who said the news was "very frustrating" on Facebook - knew this before the debate. But the airport continued to cause tensions, with Lord Houchen whipping out papers that he claimed proved Mr McEwan wanted to build a housing development on the site. Mr McEwan hit back saying he was "not misleading" the public.

Mr McEwan said: "For me, I will back the airport, but more importantly, I will go to [the] government to see what additional support if it's needed will come from [the] government to support regional airports."

Teessworks, deals, and Steve Gibson

Later on, the controversial Teesworks project was brought up. The project has hit the headlines in recent months after Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald alleged "industrial-scale corruption" at the site - prompting Michael Gove to order a review in May 2023.

Teesworks was originally set up as a joint venture between the South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) and companies run by two local developers - but was transferred to 90% private ownership in 2021. The report, published in January, found no evidence of corruption or illegality, but highlighted failings over governance and transparency and made 28 recommendations.

The South Bank Quay at Teesworks
The South Bank Quay at Teesworks -Credit:Tom Banks

A review concluded the expected standards were not being met when it came to managing public funds, and found systems of governance and finance did not provide sufficient transparency and oversight to evidence value for money to taxpayers.

Mr Thorley said the profits were going "straight into pockets of private developers" and pledged to renegotiate the deal, saying that "nothing is off the table" even in terms of taking legal action. Mr McEwan argued it was a "bad deal", something he also pledged to renegotiate, saying: "Joint ventures can work but we need to ensure that reward and risk match up."

Mr Houchen responded: "If a bad deal is creating 9,000 jobs... I'm doing that deal every day. It's fantastic for the local area, it's going to revolutionise what's happening in our region."

There were also disagreements over the amount of jobs created - with Houchen stating the figure as 9,000, which Mr McEwan argued was actually 2,000.

Lord Houchen later reiterated that he thinks it is a "great deal" before claiming that the report called the project the "most incredible thing" - but neither the report, nor the executive summary and recommendations, state this.

Lord Houchen also claimed the report said that it "was value for money" - but an excerpt from the report concludes that the "systems of governance and finance in place within [Tees Valley Combined Authority] and STDC at present do not include the expected sufficiency of transparency and oversight across the system to evidence value for money."

Lord Houchen continued: "I stand by the decision I took because it is the best thing for Teesside Darlington and Hartlepool."

Mr McEwan also pledged to bring in the National Audit Office, saying: "We need to understand exactly what has gone on here. But ultimately, we have got to be ambitious for Tees Valley. Teesworks has the potential to be, along with other elements along the Tees, at the centre of a green industrial revolution."

Also mentioned in the debate was Middlesbrough FC chairman Steve Gibson's recent scathing attack against Lord Houchen, who has accused him of "giving away everything they had worked for" in the Teesworks joint venture deal. He said the decision to hand over 90% ownership of the former Redcar steelworks site was "stupid" and "unforgivable."

Boro chairman Steve Gibson -Credit:Katie Lunn/Teesside Live
Boro chairman Steve Gibson -Credit:Katie Lunn/Teesside Live

He added: "He's given away hundreds of millions of pounds without any explanation." In response, Lord Houchen told the Local Democracy Reporting Service he was "disappointed" by Gibson's decision to support the Labour party. He also said Gibson was "wrong about the facts" but maintained his former colleague was "a good guy." You can read the full story here.

When it came to town centres, Mr McEwan talked about promoting the area on a national scale while Thorley focused on celebrating industrial heritage. Mr Houchen said he also wanted to leverage on the "fantastic industrial heritage" of the area - but was shortly after quizzed by Richard who noted the controversial demolition of the Dorman Long tower in 2021.

The tower was swiftly demolished after its protected heritage status - which was only secured weeks before - was removed. This came after an appeal from Mr Houchen and an intervention from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Responding, Mr Houchen said that "jobs will always take priority."

You can watch the full debate on BBC Tees. Polls for the election open on May 2.

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