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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Ben Houchen on bus fare caps, free swimming and removal of controversial cycle lane

Ben Houchen kicked off his third term as Tees Valley Mayor by pledging to make good his election promises including a £1 bus fare cap for under 21s and free swimming.

He also plans to remove the Linthorpe Road cycle lane in Middlesbrough and grow Teesside International Airport, by “working hard” to ensure more holiday routes are secured. His vision for a new hospital to replace the University Hospital of North Tees in Stockton is also firmly on the radar after announcing a forthcoming public consultation over its potential location.

Regarding the Mayoral election on 2 May, the Conservative said the result “wasn’t even close”, noting he secured the most votes in all five council areas. However he went on to say many people in the Tees Valley are dissatisfied with the Government but also uninspired by the Labour party. If the Tories want to hold on to power at the next general election, he said, they must speak to the public about what they plan to deliver, rather than fighting like “rats in a sack”.

Bus fare cap

Shortly after his election on 2 May, the Tees Valley Mayor announced a £1 cap on bus fees for under-21s from June 16 to connect young people with jobs and training. He also plans to secure an agreement from the bus operators for a £3 day ticket for all under-21s.

A £3.5million package will fund the £1 fare cap, coming from the Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) allocation. The £1 cap will also apply to most journeys starting in the Tees Valley and travelling outside the region.

Lord Houchen said they are creating new jobs, “and the next phase of my plan is to ensure everyone from across Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool can benefit from these opportunities.”

Free swimming for under 11s

In February, Lord Houchen pledged to make swimming free for all children under 11. He said he was now engaging with local councils for a July TVCA Cabinet sign-off, with the aim of having the scheme in place for the summer holidays.

Learning to swim is “hugely beneficial to physical and mental health outcomes,” he said, while reducing pressure on health services.

Removing the Linthorpe Road cycle lane

Since its introduction in 2022, the cycle lane on Linthorpe Road has been steeped in controversy and Lord Houchen said he was now working on plans for its removal. The cycle lane cost £1.7m to install and was delivered as part of a 10-year strategic transport plan across Teesside, Hartlepool and Darlington spearheaded by the Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA).

The scheme was approved under former Independent mayor Andy Preston. The TVCA previously said it was a Middlesbrough Council project and any changes were the responsibility of the council and its elected members. Middlesbrough Mayor Chris Cooke had pledged to scrap the scheme as part of his election campaign but said he was previously met with opposition from Lord Houchen and the TVCA.

In a letter to residents in February he said: “I have had countless meetings with politicians, businesses and organisations to do everything in my power to deliver my election pledge. After continuously putting pressure on Mayor Ben Houchen he has finally agreed to my request, to uninstall the cycle lane.”

However, Lord Houchen insisted others had “promised and failed” to get the job done and although it was not in his “direct remit” he would get the cycle way removed.

The Mayor’s views on the 2 May vote and the general election

Lord Houchen won his third term as Mayor with 54 per cent of the vote, compared to more than 70 per cent in 2021. Only 30.8 per cent of eligible voters turned up on polling day, compared to 2021 when 34 per cent of people turned out to cast their vote.

He secured 81,930 votes across the Tees Valley, followed by Labour candidate Chris McEwan who polled 63,141 votes. The local elections saw Labour make significant gains across the country, with Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald saying the Mayoral results “bode well” for the general election and “reinforce how people are moving away from the Tories.”

Reflecting on the election campaign and results, Lord Houchen said: “We won the five council areas and it was the third highest percentage vote share in the country behind Steve Rotheram in Liverpool and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. It was a good result and wasn’t even close.”

He said Labour had “tried to run it as a national campaign” and “a referendum on Teesworks” and “that backfired massively”. He added: “They didn’t offer a positive vision for what people wanted.

“What I saw a lot of is people are upset with the Conservatives and want them to do better but there is definitely no love for the Labour Party. It’s not 1997.

“The difference then was everybody wanted to go out and vote for Labour because the Tories were on their knees. What Labour is saying now is you don’t like the Tories – vote for us.

“In traditional areas like Middlesbrough and Hartlepool. they were saying, ‘I like what you have done but I can’t vote Conservative’, and a lot of them sat on their hands.”

He said the Tories need to continue making progress with immigration and the economy. The latter, he said, dictates how people feel about their future and that of their children.

He also addressed media reports that he blamed Rishi Sunak for Conservative party “chaos” and Tories “fighting each other like rats in a sack”. He told BBC Radio Tees: “If they’re fighting with each other like rats in a sack instead of saying to the public ‘this is what we’re going to do for you’, that doesn’t win elections.”

He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “I didn’t say say he [Sunak’] was to blame for it, there are lots of people involved for this. What I said was the public do not vote for people who fight like rats in a sack.”

When asked if he feels his position as Tees Valley Mayor would be affected under a Labour Government, he said: “Personally I don’t think it would change. The optimist in me would suggest not.”

He said Labour has done “a 180 on devolution” referring to Keir Starmer’s pledge to create greater autonomy for combined authorities over policies affecting transport, skills, housing, planning, employment support and energy. He also said he felt the Tees Valley area had been short-changed in terms of investment and funding and the area is still not getting “its fair share”.

As reported, Lord Houchen is  planning an “extensive” public consultation after pledging to build a replacement for the University Hospital of North Tees in Stockton. He admitted he had no control over health services but said he previously made good of other pledges, outside his remit, and building a new hospital “doesn’t seem to me to be that difficult”.

Labour has said it is a promise the Mayor cannot keep, but Lord Houchen responded by saying he would hold the Government to account to get the money needed for his plan.

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