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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Poverty, transport and ‘no more joint ventures’ – Lib Dem mayoral candidate sets out top priorities

The Lib Dem candidate selected to run for Tees Valley Mayor has set out his three top priorities for the area.

Darlington-born and bred businessman Simon Thorley will take on current Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, at the elections in May. A member of the Lib Dems since 2015, the 38-year-old married father-of-two is also standing as the party’s general election candidate for Darlington.

Days after the report into South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) and Teesworks joint venture exposed transparency issues and criticism of governance, Mr Thorley said the project needed “comprehensive root and branch reform”. It “reinforced information” that some deals signed “are just extremely bad value for money”, he added.

If elected, he said he would not enter into any further joint ventures. “With the ones that are in place I would do everything that is possible to extricate the combined authority, or STDC as it technically is, from the deals,” he said.

“Obviously that’s a legal question because the deal is in place and it’s been signed and sealed. So quite how much mitigation is possible is an open question.

“This is public money, land and resources that’s being deployed here. I look at them [the deals] as a businessperson and I think, goodness me, if I was buying in the deals and giving up vast amounts of profits to subcontractors, I would be out of a job – the chair of the board would be telling me to get lost.”

Transport

Mr Thorley said the plan is to “keep everything simple and focus on the buses”. Mr Houchen’s plans for a metro-style rail system and trams in town centres “would be fantastic”, he said, but argued they were “completely unrealistic”.

“What we can do is invest in the local bus services properly,” he said. “My commitment is to introduce a London Oyster system of flat fares, automatic capping and unlimited changes within an hour.

“Simply improving the bus system will make it much easier for people to get to where the opportunities are. We’re so dependent on cars here but the people who are in the deepest poverty can’t afford cars which means it doesn’t matter how much opportunity you’ve got no means of accessing it.”

Poverty

Mr Thorley, said within the Mayoral remit, he believes adult education is the most effective approach to tackling poverty in the Tees Valley for the medium and long term. “In the short term it’s literally just a question of money, of uprating benefits in line with inflation but none of that comes under the mayor’s remit obviously,” he said.

“As mayor, you take a longer-term view and the impact you can have is education which lifts anybody out of poverty. The budget for adult education has really been a complete afterthought for the past seven years.

“What I would do is very much refocus it on the service sector rather than manufacturing. That’s not to say manufacturing and construction aren’t important – of course they are – but objectively they are a much smaller part of our economy.

“For our services businesses to grow and become more productive and have more value we need more people going into those workforces. That’s where I think as a mayor I would have the greatest impact in terms of poverty.”

Why politics?

Mr Thorley has been a member of the Lib Dems since 2015 but his interest in politics was sparked in his teens. He said: “I was involved in the Stop the War movement back in 2003 when I was in sixth form.

“I went to London and marched in that and heard Charles Kennedy speak and that was a big moment for me. And then I studied politics undergraduate at the university.

“Politics is not some clear-cut activity where everything is obviously right or wrong; it’s murky and complicated. Ultimately I think our country can do better than it is doing and, if not me helping to make that change, then who?”

The next election will take place in May and Mr Houchen has been reselected as the Conservative candidate. Darlington Council deputy leader Chris McEwan has been selected as Labour’s candidate for next year’s Tees Valley mayor election.

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