Ben Houchen is able to claim green credentials because the left offered no alternative
Ben Houchen is the newly re-elected Tory mayor of Tees Valley, and he has a good case to be the most green-friendly Tory mayor in the country (there are not many to chose from).
This is only one among many ways in which Houchen is unusual. Houchen was re-elected in a Labour stronghold with 73% of the vote, albeit a vote share flattered by low turnout, Lib Dems and Greens not running a candidate and a weak Labour challenger. He won his seat promising public ownership and community control of infrastructure, a line right out of Green Party playbooks). He won re-election promising green jobs in wind farms, hydrogen production and carbon capture, as well as promising government intervention in a style abandoned by his party in the 1980s.
However, like other Conservative and Labour mayors his re-discovery of government intervention should not disguise the hollowness of his climate ambitions, or his allegiance to business over people.
Despite glowing reviews in the Observer, Houchen is no progressive, nor does anyone serious claim he is. He has participated in the work of think thanks promoting a hard line on immigration, he is an enthusiastic supporter of Breixt. Where he breaks with Tory orthodoxy appears solely to be on economic management.
Houchen has enthusiastically embraced the ‘green industrial revolution‘ promised by the government. This is the staggeringly late recognition by the government that energy transition requires a development of entirely new infrastructure and that doing so will create jobs and economic opportunities. In contrast to longstanding Conservative framing of energy transition being a drain on the economy, Houchen combines this with a realisation that this economic activity could revitalise the decaying industrial areas spread across the region he repesents.
The conventional narrative suggests that sensing a political opportunity, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak funneled government funds into Tees Valley, and to Houchen’s administration. The truth is somewhat more complicated. Some of the policies Houchen takes credit for were in the works well before he was even in the picture. The new General Electric factory builds wind turbinesfor the Dogger Bank development approved in 2015. As Bright Green has previously covered, Hydrogen, a potentially a game changing innovation for decarbonising hard to reach sectors, has had a groundswell behind it for a while – though Houchen can claim credit for the securing the £5 million UK hydrogen hub on his turf. Plans for carbon capture and storage in the North Sea have been kicking around for the last decade, and the wider revitalisation of climate efforts have led to the first viable project in half a decade being launched under Houchen.
Moreover, while Houchen deserves credit for seeing the opportunity to use the ‘green industrial revolution’ to benefit his area, his approach to it reveals a distinct set of assumptions and political values. The nature of Houchen’s economic interventionism is illustrated best by his support for the Teesside International Airport. He won his first campaign promising to nationalise and revitalise the local airport, citing Cardiff as an example of council support for local airlines. While placing the burden of shrinking the aviation sector on the Tess valley would be unjust, it was evident even before the pandemic that to meet climate objective the airline industry would need to radically shrink. What was – in effect – a state bailout to socialise a loss making enterprise seems unwise, given it is not designed as a mechanism to decommission the industry.
The second limitation becomes apparent in the detail of the policy. Unlike with Cardiff Airport, Houchen – for reasons as yet unclear – took part ownership, trusting some of it to a private firm. This conveniently removes obligations for answering of Freedom of Information Requests and allows the airport to operate with a degree of opaqueness. Alongside this it remains unclear how profits and rewards of the airport are being divided. This tendency towards support for big business over public capture of profits runs throughout Houchen’s economic interventionism, as with the hydrogen hub, which represents an alliance of major fossil fuel firms such as Shell and BP.
He has also attached his name to the first freeport in the UK. Made famous in China – under the guise of ‘export processing zones’ or ‘free economic zones – these areas offer lower customs arrangements and often lower labour standards to attract firms to an area. As an economic intervention it is widely accepted (other than by the government) that freeports do not create jobs, but rather move them around and allow firms to increase their profits– at the expense of workers and the public purse. There are also allegations that less rigorous customs checks encourage money laundering.
The focus on attracting large firms to an area creates economic activity and the appearance of new jobs. However without a focus on empowering workers and ensuring that local people benefit from what is happening in their area the reality is that economic benefits will likely flow out of the area, leaving the community with little show for it. In a few years’ time when Houchen has moved onwards and upwards it will become clear that the economic benefits were a mirage that have padded corporate balance sheets. Ask Pennsylvanians left jobless despite an apparent fracking boom. It is a milder version of the economic interventionism we have seen during the pandemic where billions in public money was handed out to large private companies such as Deloitte, much of it captured in corporate profits.
Understanding this is critical not just for economic justice but also climate action. An unjust energy transition not only loses public support but enhances inequality and economic insecurity that fuels continued pressure for economic expansion and thus climate damage.
Houchen’s approach stands in contrast to the Green New Deal approach advocated for by Green Parties in Europe and the left of the Democratic Party in the USA that looks to transform not only infrastructure for a locality but the world around it including economic relations.
However, in the Tees Valley mayoral race no candidate articulated a vision for a Green New Deal. There is no vision, or plan for economic interventions that challenge corporate power. Indeed one of the appeals of Houchen is that he has an alterative to the damaging policies that have been inflicted on the area in the past four decades. It is up to the left to present a credible coherent and just alterative.
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