Ben Houchen, the youthful Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, is nothing if not optimistic.
He believes Brexit is a ‘massive opportunity’ for his patch in the North East, which has suffered for years from the decline of heavy industry.
In his office on an industrial estate in Thornaby, by the banks of the River Tees – once teeming with shipbuilders and dockers, now cleaned up and popular with joggers – he is full of ideas to restore prosperity to the region.
Steely ambition: Ben Houchen is the youthful Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley
The boldest of these, which his critics dismiss as pure pie in the sky, is his promise, if re-elected in May, to bring back steel-making to Teesside.
It’s certainly not a pledge to be made lightly, because steel is a highly-charged subject round here.
The area was hard-hit by the closure of the Redcar steelworks in 2015, bringing an end to more than 150 years of history, when Teesside was synonymous with steel.
Three thousand jobs were lost, either directly or as a knock-on effect.
The redundancies took a toll, but the quenching of the fire at the blast furnace went deeper than that.
Virtually every family had fathers, brothers, grandfathers, sons and cousins at the steelworks. On Teesside, steel is not just about economics, but about emotion and identity.
So can he really do it?
‘In a developed nation like the UK, you will never restart the Redcar blast furnace. You won’t turn on the coke ovens again. You won’t produce cheap slab steel and compete because the Chinese are pumping out nearly 1bn tonnes a year,’ he says. ‘That is not my proposition for steel. We want to use electric arc technology.’
Electric arc furnaces are smaller, greener and more efficient than blast furnaces.
Houchen is speaking to four international steel-makers, including Chinese steel company Jingye, which is also trying to buy British Steel in Scunthorpe.
He says UK-produced steel can service the domestic market, which will need it for the infrastructure projects being planned by Boris Johnson’s government.
‘If we get this right, we could be producing between 2.5m and 3m tonnes of steel a year. It will create more jobs than were lost when Redcar closed in 2015,’ he says.
If re-elected, Houchen reckons he can deliver before the end of his next term. ‘Within four years, we will be producing steel again,’ he says.
Houchen wants to set up a free port on Teesside, giving firms tax and trading advantages. ‘It would come with tax incentives, a reduction in employers’ National Insurance and a reduction in corporation tax rates,’ he says.
He also reckons that locating new steel production on the 4,500-acre site of the old Redcar works could solve the problem of energy costs, which are far higher than for competitors in France and Germany. The site has a private wire network that could supply at a big discount.
‘It is an opportunity to bring manufacturing jobs that you haven’t seen for decades that are well paid and sustainable. It would absolutely revolutionise the area.’
He wants the Government to develop a steel policy, designate it a foundation industry and focus on the local procurement of UK steel. ‘Other developed nations have a proper steel policy but because we don’t, it is all sticking plasters.
‘Look what happened with Greybull [a former owner of British Steel[. They are a private equity firm who completely lynched that company. They just sucked all the life out of it in management fees. They busted Comet, they busted Monarch and they shouldn’t have been allowed to do it.’
Houchen can point to his recent success in re-opening Teesside Airport in an attempt to silence the doubters, though steel is a much bigger task.
Troubled past: The blast furnace at Redcar in 2010 and Thatcher’s Walk in the Wilderness in 1987
‘Unemployment here is among the highest in the country and this is a result of many decades of neglect. But re-opening the airport is a visible signal the area is on the up.
‘We have to speak more positively about the place. If you don’t, it seeps into the local psyche and into the outside perception.
‘The idiots who think it is all flat caps and whippets, it is partly our fault because we need to be more vocal about the amazing things here.’
At just 33, Houchen is a rising Tory star, which is unusual for a man born and bred in a place that has for generations been steeped in Labour loyalty – and one that has seen political promises evaporate like the mist over the river.
Poignantly, Houchen’s office overlooks the old industrial site where Margaret Thatcher took her famous ‘Walk in the Wilderness’ in 1987. ‘There are 3,000-4,000 jobs here now,’ he says, adding that Mrs Thatcher was at the root of ‘all the successful things here’.
That is an assertion that will infuriate those who still see her as a divisive figure complicit in destroying local industry and leaving scars that are yet to heal today. Houchen, who was born in 1986, is too young to remember the desolation of the 1980s.
But he is realistic about the fact many voted Conservative on sufferance, out of sheer disillusion with Corbyn’s Labour.
‘It is a big deal for people to vote Tory for the first time in their life, and if nothing is delivered they will say: ‘I knew they shouldn’t have done it and I wish I hadn’t’.
‘But if we do deliver then people will want to reinforce their vote.’
He is a vocal opponent of HS2 and argues that cancelling the project, estimated to cost more than £100 billion, would release money for projects on a local level.
He has a £100m plan to redevelop Darlington Station, the main rail hub, which he reckons can be done by 2024. The idea is to build a local station attached to the existing one and to stop the local line cutting across the main East Coast track, which limits the number of trains that can run.
‘If they could spend £100m on that, it could make a huge difference to 700,000 people and make rail a viable option for local travel. Why not do things like that instead of spending so much on HS2?’ he says.
Houchen, who is married to Rachel, a school teacher, is Teesside born and bred, leaving only briefly to study law a few miles down the road in Newcastle.
His interest in politics began as an 11-year-old, watching Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 on television.
What drove him towards the Conservatives, he says, is that despite having so many big New Labour names in North East constituencies – including Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Mo Mowlam – the region was becalmed.
‘Teesside never felt the economic boom of the early 2000s. We had a Labour government that seemed to deliver elsewhere but not for us,’ he says.
‘This is a perfect time for me in politics. It is less about Left and Right and more about results. This Conservative administration looks like it will be a relatively large-state government and that gives me flexibility as a regional mayor to put party politics to one side.’
He looks and sounds like a man who could have a big future in Westminster, but insists he would like to be Mayor as long as the people of Teesside want him.
‘My priority is the area – people see me as a Mayor first, and a Conservative second.’
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