Ahead of the delayed Tees Valley mayoral election on Thursday May 6, Tees Business asked some key questions of the two candidates – Labour’s Jessie Joe Jacobs and Conservative Ben Houchen, the incumbent for the past four years. Here’s what they had to say…
As Tees Valley mayor, what would you stand for?
Ben: For decades, Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool were ignored and forgotten. Jobs were leaving. Investment dried up. Local people began to worry about whether our region would ever catch up.
My whole purpose is to make sure that never happens again. That’s what I stand for.
This is the greatest region in the UK. I’m making sure the rest of the UK knows it.
Jessie: I am a social entrepreneur, obsessed with how places thrive and renew themselves. I’ve travelled the world, learned from the best and now I will bring that knowledge and experience to set a new course for the Tees.
Under my leadership, we will make the Tees Valley a great place to live, work and play. We will build a future-facing region that offers opportunity and secure jobs for all – a region of confident communities with vibrant town centres connected by a smart, integrated transport infrastructure.
My fundamental beliefs and values are:
Small is big – places thrive when they grow their own. I believe we can birth the next Google or Uber. If we get behind a thousand small things, we will find our own next big thing.
Courage and innovation – our future is in tech, climate industries, digital, culture and tourism. I will have the courage to change course and try new things.
Compassion and collaboration – we will never be all we can be if we turn a blind eye to the poverty and inequality that exists in this area. I will take on the big issues and encourage each of us to play our part. It will never be about “me”, it will always be about “we”.
Unlimited belief and positivity in what we can be – I’ve championed this region for so many years and have massive dreams for our future.
If elected, what ideas for local job creation would you put in place?
Ben: We need to bring in new jobs. We need to help people get new skills to secure those jobs. And we need to build the right infrastructure to support job creation.
The good news is we’re already making progress on all three.
We’re transforming Teesworks, which will create 20,000 new jobs for local people. We’re delivering the Teesside Skills Academy to help residents learn new skills. And we’re introducing new flights to our airport and creating a freeport, which will attract new investment.
Jessie: Green futures – investment in green industry, green business and climate jobs.
Tech Valley – in 2019, the UK tech sector grew more than China’s or the USA’s. We have the potential to be the industrial and gaming tech centre of Europe. Tech Valley will put us on the international map with PR, finance, space and skills development.
Culture and tourism – tourism is growing faster than the rest of the economy. We will take a much bigger share of the pie by launching ourselves as an emerging visitor destination through funding big and small projects and high-profile campaigns.
If elected, how would you look to support the region’s businesses?
Ben: As we recover from the pandemic, supporting local businesses is more important than ever.
We’ve introduced free parking to town centres, which will mean more people supporting more local businesses. I’ve also secured millions of pounds of support for local businesses and we’ve given grants to nearly 1,000 businesses, so we’re directing investment to where it needs to be.
Jessie: Get On scheme – revolutionise small business funding and support through removing bureaucracy and taking more chances on start-ups. This means flexible finance and support.
Launch a Keep it Local campaign, using both hard commissioning powers and soft influencing powers to encourage all major institutions and local consumers and businesses to buy local, while also setting up a Made in the Tees online marketplace to rival Amazon.
Finally, an entrepreneurs fund and angel investors network to match those with finance with those with ideas.
What do you feel are the Tees Valley’s biggest positives?
Ben: The biggest positive of all is that we’re prepared for the future. Unlike other regions, we’re ready to take advantage of the post-Brexit world.
We’ve secured the UK’s biggest freeport, which will create a huge amount of investment and jobs. So, while other regions talk about global Britain, we’re actually doing it.
Plus, we’re leading the way in creating the clean energy jobs of the future. Very soon Teesside will be home to GE Renewable’s factory for offshore wind turbine blades, an investment that will create 3,000 local jobs.
So we’re ready to take on the future. It doesn’t get more positive than that.
Jessie: Our people, our pride and identity, our river, coast and countryside, our industrial experience, our innovation, hard work and courage.
And what do you feel are the Tees Valley’s greatest challenges?
Ben: The pandemic. It’s been an incredibly tough year for local people.
Yes, we’re getting support to families through the furlough scheme. Yes, we’re getting support to businesses through grants and investment.
But recovering from the pandemic will be a big challenge. That’s why we can’t afford to stop our work or slow down. We need to stick with the plan that’s working.
Jessie: Getting around – we need better transport. Getting on – closing the skills gap. Poverty and inequality.
What would be the biggest differences over the next four years if your fellow candidate was elected, rather than you?
Ben: We don’t need to guess what the next few years would be like under Labour. We’ve already lived it – for decades, Labour took our region for granted.
We were ignored by decision-makers and we ended up falling behind.
I’m making sure that never happens again. I tirelessly bang the drum and get the government to start paying attention to us. And it’s working.
That’s how we secured the freeport, GE, the millions of pounds invested in local businesses and the Treasury in Darlington. Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool are now front and centre. So let’s not go back to square one with Labour. Let’s stick with the plan that’s working.
Jessie: I won’t talk down the mayor but I guess, honestly, I see us just continuing down the same path we always have, chasing big shiny cubic zirconia schemes and ignoring the tiny rough diamonds that are already here.
The same old people making the same old noises and the same old headlines, while nothing really changes. It would mean missing a massive opportunity to relaunch ourselves as a place for culture, tech and innovation, to support local, grow our own and finally begin to turn the tide on years of inequality and decline.