Houchen responds to Gove announcement
Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has replied robustly to Secretary of State Michael Gove’s commissioning of an independent review into South Tees Development Corporation and the Teesworks project.
In a letter yesterday, Gove informed Houchen that after consideration he did not consider it appropriate for the National Audit Office to lead an investigation into claims of wrongdoing around the development zone.
Teesworks has become an increasingly high profile issue in recent weeks, with Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald among those demanding answers regarding the sale of public land.
On the government’s website, Teesworks is described as a £3bn opportunity for which an investment partner is sought. The partners in the Teesworks joint venture are Tees Valley Combined Authority, JC Musgrave Capital and Northern Land Management, with STDC directing development.
The UK’s largest freeport, it is billed as an industrial zone with a clean energy focus, with a deep water quay and the ability to deliver 15m sq ft of floorspace.
Gove’s letter said: “Given the importance to you and to Teesside of addressing this matter, I have taken the exceptional decision to support the commissioning of an independent review to consider the specific allegations made and Tees Valley Combined Authority’s oversight of the STDC and Teesworks joint venture.”
In recent weeks, media coverage has increasingly focused on Teesworks, the 4,500-acre former steelworks site given freeport status in 2021, with questions asked around transparency, whether best value has been achieved in transactions, and as David Thame asked here in Subplot, whether state aid and subsidy rules were correctly followed.
Houchen, widely regarded as a rising star with the ear of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, has declared more than once that he would welcome an inquiry, in order to clear up questions and move on.
In his letter, Gove stressed that the review comes in response to that position, saying the review is being commissioned “not because I am advised that there is evidence to recommend such a review, but to answer your request of 16 May. I will appoint a Panel, in line with established practice, to undertake an independent, external assurance review”.
Houchen, a prolific user of social media, posted a response on Twitter. The Mayor said: “I welcome the Government agreeing to my request for an independent review into the Teesworks project, including the involvement of the NAO.
“As someone whose primary responsibility is to attract investment and create jobs for local people, I felt that the recent misinformation and the abuse of Parliamentary Privilege by Andy McDonald was starting to have a negative impact on the prospects of the local community.
“I feel that an independent review is necessary to show investors, businesses and local people that there is no corruption, wrongdoing or illegality in what has become and continues to be an incredible project for jobs and investment in our region.
“I look forward to the outcome and will be making no further comment until the independent review has been completed, so to allow the independent body to carry out their work without influence or favour. My officers stand ready to provide any and all information requested by the independent review.”