1. Governance
May 1, 2017updated 29 Jul 2021 12:46pm

What are the big issues in the West of England mayoral race?

By Simon Jeffrey

The Centre for Cities’ recent hustings in the West of England, which you can listen to here, was the first in the city region’s mayoral race; and it offered a clear indication of some of the key issues that are likely to dominate debates between the candidates as the elections get closer. Here are four.

Improving public transport

Traffic policy played a prominent role in Bristol’s city mayor election last year, and so it was no surprise that this issue also proved to be one of the key points of discussion among the candidates for the city region mayoralty.

For Conservative candidate Tim Bowles, the key to addressing congestion problems across the city region was through better regulated bus services, which would help to make public transport more attractive to residents. Labour’s Lesley Mansell offered a different perspective, suggesting that greater employment flexibility and more working from home would help to alleviate the city region’s busy roads and transport system.

Green candidate Darren Hall argued for public ownership of the bus company. Bristol Council owns an energy company, he noted, so why could the city region not take full control of the bus network? For Stephen Williams of the Liberal Democrats, public ownership was a step too far; but he argued that greater regulation to deal with market failure in the transport system would be necessary to make it to work more effectively, for local people. John Savage, an independent candidate, promised a greater focus on both light rail and buses if elected.

Dealing with housing shortages

There is widespread consensus that a significant number of new homes are needed in the West of England to meet demand in the next decade, and housing was also a major issue in the debate.

Much of the discussion focused on addressing housing unaffordability, alternative delivery models and dealing with shortages. But there was less clarity on where these houses would be built – and whether this would involve building on the greenbelt, which makes up 48 per cent of land in the city region.

Lesley Mansell vowed to change planning laws in order to push through with applications for new housing developments which are currently stalled. Tim Bowles suggested that he would open up more publicly owned brownfield sites for development, but Darren Hall pointed out that one of the difficulties with brownfield sites is that ownership is split parties and this makes site assembly hard task. He highlighted the importance of the Bristol community land trust, which has delivered 15 new homes so far, and also emphasised the importance of connectivity, and density.

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Stephen Williams said he was open to the idea of using some greenbelt land for homes, but emphasised that he did not want a megalopolis between Bristol and Bath; while John Savage also suggested that some greenbelt land might be required for the homes that local people deserve.

Addressing skills-gaps

A question from an Airbus representative raised the issue of how the candidates would improve skills-levels across the city region, particularly when it came to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Jon Savage emphasised the need to put more long-term investment into in-work training and helping marginalised people improve their skills, but acknowledged that this would take time to have results. Lesley Mansell highlighted the need to protect local advice centres which support young people with education and employment, and which are currently under threat from cuts.

Darren Hall also focused on young people, and said he would aim to create more business partnerships with local firms to help young people access jobs. Tim Bowles argued that he would get more young people studying these subjects by doing more to promote the fantastic career opportunities that are open to STEM graduates. Increasing the number of women in STEM will be vital to helping high-technology and research firms in the area to grow, pointed out Stephen Williams, and this will be even more important in case of a hard Brexit, something he promised to fight against.

A political voice for the West of England

As our recent briefing on the West of England highlighted, the new mayor will need to focus on raising the city region’s profile on the national and international stage, and a number of candidates were keen to talk up their capacity to do so. Tim Bowles, for example, said his connections with national government would enable him to secure more powers for the mayoralty, as well as boosting its profile.

Stephen Williams claimed that as a former minister in the Coalition government, he had developed strong relationships with the Prime Minister, business secretary Greg Clarke and communities secretary Sajid Javid, which would enable him to make the case for the city region at a national level. He also highlighted the halting of the electrification of the train from London to Bristol (despite electrification going ahead on the line from the capital to Cardiff, home of the devolved Welsh Assembly) as a sign the lack of political voice for the city region.

The debates from the hustings point to the fact the key priorities for whoever becomes metro mayor of the West of England will ultimately arise from the need to deal with the costs of the city region’s economic success. Having a clear plan in place to tackle its housing shortages and transport congestions, and to ensure it has the skilled labour market required to continue to attract high-paying firms and jobs, will be critical to making a success of the role in its initial years.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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