After Thatcherism and Corbynism, welcome to Houchenism, the doctrine of Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, and endorsed by a whopping 73% of Teesside voters. This 34-year-old northern loyalist is the Tory party’s contemporary version of Michael Heseltine, the lone standard bearer at Thatcher’s zenith of a willingness to intervene “at breakfast, lunch and supper”. Houchen is today’s Tory carrying the Heseltine torch, intervening to reinvent Teesside with the massive backing of his electorate. And a generation later, this Heseltine de nos jours has the backing, not the loathing, of the prime minister. It will not have escaped Boris Johnson’s notice, a self-described Brexity Hezza, that Houchen’s intervention is working big time, economically and politically.
This do-it-if-it-works local Tory politician is reinventing the Conservative party as it attempts to deliver on its promise to level up. The string of initiatives Houchen has launched encompasses the ideological spectrum. Nationalisation? If that is the only way to keep and expand Teesside International Airport, of course, even if details of the public financing remain opaque. A free port for Teesside as a deregulatory free-for-all? Of course, if that means jobs and inward investment for his area.
A green new deal? He is on it, proclaiming that a green industrial revolution is the avenue to hi-tech, well-paid, 21st-century jobs. Thus he has instigated the Net Zero Industry Innovation Centre, attracting the establishment of the National Hydrogen Transport Centre in partnership with Teesside University with the aim of making Teesside the UK’s hydrogen manufacturing hub. Wind farms? He is on them too, creating the Teesworks Offshore Manufacturing Centre, in which GE Renewable Energy has just announced it will create a plant to build state-of-the-art wind turbine blades. What Houchen is doing is a textbook example of a “super-cluster”, turning Teesside into a self-reinforcing virtuous circle of complementary industries in a public-private partnership, supported by the local university and FE colleges.