Teesside mayor struck secret deal to transfer Hartlepool property

2023-05-30 19:21:28

The Conservative party’s high-profile mayor, Ben Houchen, has again been accused of secrecy after plans for a third transfer of public assets in his north-east England region were leaked to the Financial Times.

Houchen, mayor of the Tees Valley, privately struck a deal with Hartlepool council to take control of the community’s key civic buildings in a process that has not previously been public.

The leak comes a week after the government commissioned an independent inquiry into Houchen’s Teesworks project in Redcar over concerns about the secret transfer of public assets to developers.

If agreed by the government, the Hartlepool properties — and planning powers over them — will be handed to the new Hartlepool Mayoral Development Corporation, a local regeneration body the mayor chairs.

Houchen has said the Hartlepool plan will boost private investment into the town, but Labour accused the mayor and his Conservative colleagues of being “pathologically opposed” to accountability.

The list of assets to be transferred was made public by the council after the FT made inquiries about information contained in the leaked documents.

The buildings include Hartlepool’s town hall, magistrates court and main leisure centre.

The Hartlepool MDC is one of three such bodies chaired by Houchen in the Tees Valley, all aimed at fast-tracking local regeneration.

The first to be established, the South Tees Development Corporation, struck a deal in private to transfer 90 per cent of the former Redcar steelworks to two local developers.

The government has promised an independent review into the South Tees deal after questions from politicians, experts and the media about secrecy and value for money.

Houchen also established an MDC in Middlesbrough, which is to take over assets from the council despite councillors voting against the move in February.

Until now, no list of assets to be transferred to the MDC in Hartlepool had been made public.

Hartlepool town hall is among the civic buildings that will be handed over to the new Hartlepool Mayoral Development Corporation, a regeneration body chaired by Ben Houchen © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

But the documents leaked to the FT show that the mayor wrote to central government in January requesting the transfer of civic properties. A confidential council document from February showed a list had been “discussed and agreed” with the local authority.

After Hartlepool council was asked by the FT why the details had not been made public, managing director Denise McGuckin sent councillors correspondence from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities dated April 12, which included the assets earmarked for transfer.

The letter said Houchen had indicated that the assets were “integral to the delivery of the development corporation’s masterplan”.

It said that levelling-up secretary Michael Gove considered that the masterplan would “help drive transformational change and level up areas of identified need in Hartlepool”. 

Jonathan Brash, leader of Hartlepool council’s Labour group, said his party had previously tried but failed to pass a motion to publish the list.

“This list of assets should never have been kept from the public and the fact that they’ve been revealed now after pressure from the press just adds to the sense that there is lack of transparency on this issue,” Brash said.

He accused local Conservatives of being “pathologically opposed to any sense of openness, transparency or accountability”.

Hartlepool MDC’s masterplan, unveiled last week, says it aims to “restore, reinvigorate and shape a sustainable town centre”, creating 2,000 jobs and building up to 1,300 new homes.

The mayor did not respond to requests for comment. The Tees Valley Combined Authority, the group of five councils chaired by the mayor, said the council “was the body responsible for governance procedures in relation to the publication of the assets to be transferred to the MDC”.

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