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Michael Gove has refused to set a deadline for an independent report into allegations of “corruption, wrongdoing and illegality” at Teesworks, the industrial development within the government’s high-profile Freeport project.
The Level Up Secretary ordered a review of financial transactions and governance into the joint venture between companies run by Tory Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen’s South Tees Development Corporation and two local developers.
Following political anger that Gove had refused to act on calls to bring in the National Audit Office to lead the inquiry – instead announcing it would be done by an independent panel of his choosing – local MPs has criticized the delay in the process ahead of the mayoral election in Teesside in May.
Gove said he expected the investigation’s report to be available before voters went to the ballot box, but declined to give any timescales under questioning from MPs in the Commons Business Committee on Wednesday.
“I always wanted it to happen as quickly as possible, but it’s also important that it be comprehensive,” he said.
The government intended that the investigation, led by Angie Ridgwell, chief executive of Lancashire County Council, would be completed last summer. However, it was delayed until autumn, then winter, and then this coming spring.
North-East Labor MP Ian Lavery told Gove that “there is a huge feeling that this has been pushed out for a long time because of the mayoral election in Teesside” and asked for a commitment from the leveling secretary that this was not the case.
Gove said he could not “put pressure on an independent investigator” to rush a report and refused to commit to publication before the election.
“The team knows we would like them to report as quickly and comprehensively as possible,” he said. “Certainly, no one wants this published more than Ben Houchen, because he wants the mayor’s election to be based on his accomplishments, his record, his plans for the future and how he brought up, dealt with, all these issues. And people are being able to make decisions based on facts.”
The questions for the government come after Teesworks reported that net profits tripled to £54 million last year, according to information first reported by the Financial Times this week. The venture was transferred to majority private ownership in late 2021 from a 50-50 public-private partnership established in 2020, with two Teesside developers – Chris Musgrave and Martin Corney – increasing their stake to 90%.
Liam Byrne, Labor chairman of the business committee, said that Teesworks’ accounts showed that 110 acres of public land had been purchased at £1 an acre by a company 90% owned by “Lord Houchen’s friends and close associates”, As a result of which this generation was created. of profits “which have now largely gone to these private shareholders”.
Asked by Gove whether the best value for taxpayers had been secured, he said: “A company that bought 110 acres of land for £1 an acre is now turning over £143 million and is private. Delivering a profit of £50 million to shareholders.”
The leveling up secretary said he “cannot predict” the outcome of the review, but argued that he had full confidence in Houchen.
“I have great respect for him,” he said. “In all my observations and dealings with him, I think he is a first-class public servant who is responsible for the economic transformation of the Tees Valley, and he A great and visionary leader in local government.”