[INTERVIEW] Tees Valley mayor woos corporate Korea
[THE INVESTOR] For people outside of the UK, Tees Valley is a lesser-known land.
They don’t realize that the area -- covering the five boroughs of Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland and Stockton-on-Tees -- fueled the British industrial revolution of the 1800s with iron and steel-making.
Tees Valley steel was used to build major landmarks around the world, including the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Britain’s tallest building Canary Wharf, New World Trade Center in New York and Heathrow Terminal 5.
Tees Valley Combined Authority Mayor Ben Houchen
Now it’s time for the next big leap, and the job has fallen on the shoulders of Ben Houchen, the 31-year-old inaugural mayor of Tees Valley Combined Authority, who was born and grew up in the area.
“What I want to do is rebrand Tees Valley. From an international perspective, many people don’t know about the region. So just getting the message out there is a good starting point,” Houchen, who took office one year ago, told The Investor in an interview in Seoul last week.
Korea was the final leg of his weeklong Asia trade mission, which included Japan and Thailand.
During the trip, the mayor met with deputy mayor of Seoul Metropolitan Government and executives at Samsung C&T, Lotte Chemical and Hana Financial -- major firms that have poured big bucks into the region for a while now. Samsung’s construction arm -- which acquired the 200-year-old LNG contractor Whessoe Engineering in 2013 -- is building a 650 million pounds (US$861 million) biomass energy plant in the region that could become the world’s largest when completed in 2020. Hana Financial is investing over 260 million pounds into the project as well. Lotte Chemical operates a manufacturing plant in Wilton that produces PET resin.
Houchen said his meet-up with Korean officials is a prelude to bigger and better things. “The purpose of this visit is to thank them for the investments and ask them if there is anything we can do to make the investment successful,” he said. “And then we are really exploring possibilities with Samsung and Lotte to make them aware of the whole breadth of opportunities in the Tees Valley, and maybe start a new conversation with the new businesses we haven’t historically engaged with.”
The mayor plans to host the Samsung execs in Tees Valley this summer.
Houchen emphasized that focusing on what Tees Valley does best -- and not becoming the next Silicon Valley -- is at the essence of the rebranding project.
“We are good at steel, energy, chemical, material processing, and that’s what we know and do better than anyone else,” he said. “But we want to do it in a very 21st century way because that will make us sustainable going forward.”
The Conservative mayor, who voted for the UK to leave EU, thinks Brexit was a blessing for everyone.
“Brexit, for UK is a massive opportunity. I think in the mid- to long-term, it will be nothing but transformational for the UK, to be able to start to talk about and deliver real free trade agreements with international partners, including Korea, Japan and North America.”
Specifically in Tees Valley, he wants to create the country’s first free economic zone. In Korea, Houchen visited Incheon Free Economic Zone, and said he hopes to take a page from it: “We are completely open for businesses. There are no limits.”
Houchen also working to bring Durham Tees Valley Airport back into public ownership -- one of his main political pledges. “We are in the process of negotiating with the current airport owner to take back control,” he said, adding his overall performance as a mayor will boil down to how he deals with the airport issue.
“I hope I will be able to look back and see there’s a genuine difference I can make in a place where my family has lived for more than 150 years now, since the 1830s.”
By Ahn Sung-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org)