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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Ex-leader calls for combined authority ‘reboot’ and says councillors have been treated as ‘second class’

Former council leader Sue Jeffrey said elected members had ended up a 'poor second' in the decision making process

A former local authority leader has criticised the treatment of councillors at Ben Houchen’s Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) as “second class”.

Mayor Ben Houchen Image: LDRS

Sue Jeffrey led Redcar and Cleveland Council between 2015 and 2019, a period during which TVCA was established, and lost out to Mr Houchen when he was first elected as Tees Valley mayor in 2017 in order to head up the authority.

Mr Houchen’s office labelled Mrs Jeffrey as a “bitter, failed” council leader and said the mayor would not be engaging in a “back and forth” over her comments.

A recent independent review into the massive Teesworks industrial regeneration project highlighted flaws in current systems of governance, stating there was not sufficient transparency and oversight to evidence value for money to taxpayers.

It criticised the quality of some reports prepared for TVCA’s cabinet – which consists of council leaders from the five constituent local authorities and is chaired by Mr Houchen – as not having sufficient detail and the short notice timescales afforded for decision making.

Referencing the review and its findings, Mrs Jeffrey, who quit local politics in May after choosing not to stand again in her South Bank ward, said that overview and scrutiny committee members had been denied access to confidential reports.

She also claimed that Labour councillors who asked for a room to meet in before a scrutiny meeting were told the facilities at the combined authority were not available to them as they were “not part of the organisation”.

In an article published online entitled ‘How elected councillors became second class citizens at TVCA’, Mrs Jeffrey said: “Any leader or councillor reading the review report should be concerned about the dismissive way they have been treated and question how they have ended up such a poor second in the TVCA decision making process, and in the case of scrutiny and audit not relevant at all.”

She said council leaders and Mr Houchen were “collectively custodians of all that TVCA do”, but the former were not “equal partners” in the decision making process with the independent report querying when the mayor could take decisions himself and when matters were referred to the cabinet for consent.

Former Cllr Sue Jeffrey Image: Redcar and Cleveland Council

Mrs Jeffrey, who was also previously on the board of the South Tees Development Corporation as council leader, suggested a “reboot” was required, adding: “The five councils should collectively review their role and function in TVCA to urgently reinstate their position and influence as the equal partners.

“Then at last we might start to see TVCA decisions taken with the proactive involvement of our councils, with full visibility and accountability and most importantly in the best interest of the whole of the Tees Valley.”

The former council leader told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that TVCA was the result of years of successful partnership working between councils and that “seems to have been lost somewhere along the line”.

She said: “I am just so disappointed to see the local authority role within the combined authority seems to have been undermined in the way it has by the way business has been done over the last four years particularly.

“This has led to the crisis of governance that we have got today.

“If the mayor wants to do things he will just go ahead and do them and doesn’t consult with or do it in the collegiate manner that was envisaged in the combined authority constitution.

“You can’t just go out on your own and not include other people because when you do this is what happens.”

A spokesman for Mr Houchen’s office said: “The mayor will not be engaging in a back and forth with a failed council leader who is clearly still very bitter.

“The mayor wishes Sue a happy retirement.”

The Teesworks review panel, set up by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, found no evidence of corruption or illegality, but made 28 recommendations in total with Mr Houchen having to set out in initial terms by 8 March how the combined authority intends to respond.

Last week Gary Macdonald, director of finances and resources, told a meeting the process to follow would consider best practice and a “thorough, comprehensive” job would be done in drawing up and implementing any required actions.

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