FRESH QUESTIONS: Worries over TVCA scrutiny of Teesside Airport
Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen On The Steps Of An Eastern Airways plane to Belfast, Image: Tees Valley Combined Authority
More scrutiny worries have been shared by a group of councillors shining a light on Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen and his combined authority.
And a Conservative is among those questioning how much a scrutiny panel gets to know about goings-on at Teesside Airport.
The TVCA overview and scrutiny committee is designed to keep an eye on the combined authority’s decisions and monitor how it spends its money.
But there have been repeated frustrations from some members over access to private sessions of cabinet meetings, and how much information they can see.
A report on the panel’s scrutiny powers was presented last week in a bid to give councillors a better grasp of what they could have sight of.
Reports showed they did have “enhanced rights to information” – allowing members to see documents containing information considered confidential, and limited from public view.
However, it added there may be instances where information may be withheld – and that the legislation passed down didn’t allow committee members to sit on cabinet meetings where the press and public had been excluded.
Conservative Cllr Mike Renton wanted more clarity on what the scrutiny panel was and wasn’t allowed to see – referring to Teesside Airport in particular.
He said: “Now the private part of the airport has departed, what does that change in terms of our overview of it?”
Esken, formally known as Stobart, handed back its 25% share of Teesside Airport’s majority stake to the TVCA in July for a “nominal sum”.
It will go to a new charitable trust – the “Teesside Airport Foundation” – which will work alongside the airport and aim to boost education, employment and regeneration opportunities in the region.
Interviews for a long-list of new trustee candidates will begin next week.
Monitoring officer Peter Judge said the role of the scrutiny committee related to any decision of the combined authority – adding decisions on the funding of the airport, and monitoring of investment in the airport, sat within its purview.
“Where it stops is decisions made by the airport,” he added.
“Because, if the airport wants to make a decision, that would not fit within the purview of this committee.”
Cllr Renton was concerned it was a “grey area”.
Losses unveiled this week
More information emerged on the state of Teesside Airport this week and the ambitions its leaders have for its future.
Losses of £13.8m were revealed for 2020/21 – with covid’s hit on the aviation industry blamed.
However, forecasts for the airport entering profit have been brought forward.
Not all of the 16 page business plan was made public – with black marks redacting sections on market segmentation, the strategy for seasonal charters and regional services, the pricing strategy, and growth targets for the airport up to 2029.
Last week’s scrutiny panel also heard fresh frustrations from former chairwoman Cllr Norma Stephenson – who has aired concerns in the past.
The Labour member feared private company involvement in TVCA and South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) projects would exclude the panel from “any sort of scrutiny”.
Cllr Stephenson added: “What we want to know is what we can see.
“If you read the constitution, it’s basically anything that the combined authority invests in or is interested in.
“I don’t want to know what private companies are doing, but this is a public service and public money.
“This is a scrutiny committee – today, we don’t feel we’re getting any sort of scrutiny.
“What we want to know is do we get this information, and how do we know what’s going on with public money?
“It’s like the airport needs £10m, give them it.
“What for? It’s public money and we have the right to know what that public money is being spent on.”
More scrutiny doubts
The airport was granted a £10m bailout by TVCA cabinet members in July to cope with covid pressures.
Cllr Stephenson repeated concerns about being shut out of private sections of TVCA cabinet meetings – telling the panel there were often “more people than you could swing a cat at” sitting in the room.
She also claimed the panel didn’t get a lot of opportunities to scrutinise Mr Houchen.
“Despite what he says, he’s attended five (scrutiny) meetings in four years and the last one was in 2019,” added Cllr Stephenson.
“The constitution says we can’t formally request his attendance and I think that’s something else we should be looking at.
“I did work really well with the mayor at the beginning- but all of a sudden it just stopped and I get chance to talk to him, unless I pass him in the street.
“I hope we get closer working with the mayor. I don’t know about others, but it appears to me he makes a lot of decisions himself and we can’t scrutinise those.”
The Stockton councillor also wanted to know why Esken’s shares in the airport weren’t brought back in-house at the combined authority.
Cllr Stephenson added: “As a cynic, I imagine that’s because we could then totally scrutinise the airport – but that’s my opinion.”
After the meeting, a combined authority spokesman said the TVCA, the STDC, which trades as Teesworks, and Teesside Airport each had “robust governance and accountability arrangements” – including their own boards, executive teams and committees.
He added: “The TVCA’s overview and scrutiny committee has a legal right to examine any decision of the combined authority.
“It has very clear statutory rights, including the right to carry out investigations, question decisions and call witnesses and the right to see some confidential documents that the general public are not allowed to see.
“The committee also has support from TVCA’s scrutiny officer and access to independent advice from statutory officers, such as the monitoring officer.”
The spokesman added the committee was able to monitor and evaluate the TVCA’s “significant investments” in the STDC and the airport.
He said: “The majority shareholding of the airport is 75% owned by TVCA and 25% by the Teesside Airport Foundation – set up to become a charity to hold the shares for the benefit of local people.
“The foundation will be beginning a process to recruit its board of trustees very soon.”
Middlesbrough councillor John Hobson was voted in as new chairman of the scrutiny panel by six votes to five.
The committee is due to meet again on October 14.
Words: Alex Metcalfe, Local Democracy Reporter
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