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Bus services, business and Brexit

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has been grilled on bus costs, Brexit and prospects for a Tees free port.

The latest meeting of the Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) saw councillors from Middlesbrough, Stockton, Redcar and Cleveland, Hartlepool and Darlington question the metro mayor for a 45 minute spell.

Here is some of what we learned.

THE FREE PORT

Hartlepool councillor Mike McLaughlin wanted to talk Brexit and asked how Theresa May’s Chequers plan would affect efforts to make a free port at the mouth of the Tees.

Free port status means goods could be imported, manufactured and then re-exported from within the free port zone without incurring customs tariffs.

Supporters argue it will bring jobs and investment to Teesside – critics believe it will threaten job security, wages and workers’ rights.

Business think tank Policy North sent a blueprint to the government on the idea in March.

And the TVCA agreed to spend £60,000 on research to understand the merits of the free port idea in April.

Mayor Houchen said the Tees Valley was “streets ahead” of everyone else when it came to a free port and added he would “continue to lobby” for one on Teesside.

BREXIT

EU flag flying in front of the Houses of Parliament

On Brexit, he said he campaigned for Vote Leave, was “still a strong leaver” and added he thought it was “the right thing for the country to do”.

“We must be outside the single market and customs union for the free port – that is essential,” he added.

The metro mayor told the panel of a visit to Hong Kong to seek out opportunities when it came to the port idea.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from South Africa and Dubai and we’ve learned a lot from what they do,” added Mayor Houchen.

He added that he was “quite relaxed” about the direction of Brexit for the time being with the authority “carrying on” using what they currently know.

“The worst case scenario is we cannot do it but if there is a chance, we need to be ready from day one of leaving that we can implement it,” said Mayor Houchen.

“We can only control what we control.”

Cllr McLaughlin persisted – asking what business had told Mayor Houchen about Brexit and whether any were thinking about moving elsewhere.

Mayor Houchen said he hadn’t heard of any who would leave the Tees Valley adding that firms he’d spoken to were “pretty pragmatic” about prospects.

He added: “I would say businesses are concerned but with businesses I find it’s uncertainty that they care about.

“They just want the rules.”

TOWN CENTRES

The duck pond in Centre Square, Middlesbrough

Councillor Ian Haszeldine thought the TVCA needed to “make urgent movement” around town centres given shop closures in towns in the past 12 to 18 months.

And he wanted to see the combined authority put together a “strategic approach for high streets”.

Mayor Houchen said the combined authority was supporting efforts to regenerate Centre Square, in Middlesbrough, alongside Middlesbrough Council.

But he did not want to move in on council territory.

The metro mayor added: “Stockton Council has some really interesting plans for Stockton High Street – I think Stockton and Middlesbrough have some really good ideas and if they come off they will be really transformational.

“But I do not want to step on toes – we will add value afterwards.”

ON THE BUSES

Slow and irregular bus services have triggered fervent complaint from councillors in the Tees Valley.

And overview and scrutiny committee members didn’t hold back in their criticisms at their latest gathering.

Chairwoman and Stockton councillor Norma Stephenson said it had been “cheaper to get a taxi” when she’d been travelling in a group of two or three to town.

She added: “The costs are just really high in comparison to other parts of the country.”

Darlington councillor Ian Haszeldine said he’d been charged £1.70 for getting a bus 240 yards.

He added: “It’s absolutely ridiculous and it’s ridiculous that local authorities are having to pay subsidies in areas of greatest need – it’s something else we need to look at.”

Funding for a study into the possibility of franchising the network was granted by the TVCA last month.

Earlier in the meeting, Mayor Ben Houchen told the scrutiny panel they’d have to wait and see what the probe brought up.

He added: “I don’t know what the right thing is for buses at the moment until we do the feasibility work we don’t know what our options are.”

The metro mayor said the authority was continuing to engage with bus firms adding the companies were “promising a lot of enhancement and additional routes”.

Mayor Houchen added: “The proof is in the pudding and it’s yet to be seen what they are proposing to improve that.”

However, Mayor Houchen said franchising the network “would not be a panacea” – pointing to the efforts of Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and his franchising plans which have taken longer than anticipated.

Mayor Houchen added: “This is not something that is possibly going to be delivered in 12 or 18 months.”

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