Will Liverpool’s new metro mayor be a friend or foe to national government?

Simon Jeffrey reflects the key debates from our Liverpool mayoral hustings

Being the Conservative candidate in a Liverpool election is not a job for the faint-hearted. Of all the cities voting for a Metro Mayor on 4th May, Liverpool City Region had the lowest Conservative vote share of any in the 2015 general election at less than 20%, and the highest Labour vote share at over 60%.

It’s understandable then that a strategy of attacking the current Conservative government, its policies and anyone marching under its banner locally, is a popular choice for Labour politicians in the city. The party’s mayoral candidate Steve Rotheram has certainly adopted this approach, positioning himself as a strong advocate to fight against the Tory government and its austerity policies. In contrast Conservative candidate Tony Caldeira (like other Conservative mayoral candidates) is selling himself as a bridge to Theresa May and Philip Hammond, able to use his strong personal and party connections to bring funding and favour on the city.

This divide was evident in our recent Liverpool city region hustings (which you can listen to here), especially when it came to housing. Steve Rotheram, who has been MP for Liverpool’s Walton constituency since 2010, attacked the current Government’s axing of funds for brownfield site remediation and proposed a stamp-duty holiday for homes on remediated sites. However, Tony Caldeira was keen to emphasise that previous administrations, including the 13 years of the last Labour government, had let down a generation of people on housing waiting lists. He claimed that more homes are needed, but that the green belt should be protected. Instead, he proposed building 25,000 new homes by 2020 by building up in the city centre, setting up a brownfield site register, and bringing the city-region’s seven separate local plans together.

For Tabitha Morton from the Women’s Equality Party, the priority in terms of housing is to make sure that new developments are built with affordable childcare facilities and more women’s refuges to help victims of the high levels of domestic violence in the city. The Liberal Democrat candidate Carl Cashman criticised Labour-run local authorities for releasing green belt land for development and proposed a Brownfield Development Co-op to open up these sites. Green Party candidate Tom Crone promised to revisit any local plan that proposed building on the green belt.

The need to improve the skills of local residents in Liverpool was recently highlighted by Centre for Cities as a top priority for the new mayor – with skills-levels in the city region lagging well below the national average – and this was another big issue in the hustings. Steve Rotheram pointed out the incongruity of some of the world’s leading businesses being located in a region with some of the lowest levels of educational outcomes and highest rates of unemployment in the country. He wants more money from the Government, and to apply for a pilot to use the residual overspend expected from the Apprenticeship Levy. As mayor, he would pay employees the living wage and apply a social charter to any decisions about procurement of services, to improve conditions for suppliers and drive up standards across the city region.

Tom Crone thought this was an area of exciting opportunity, matching the problems of fuel poverty in the city and old, environmentally inefficient homes, with the opportunity to train people with the skills to help retrofit these homes and support the environment and the local economy. He too would be a Living Wage employer, building on the example of the first Green council in Brighton. Tony Caldeira, owner of a large local business, wanted all the stakeholders in the city region to come together and try to make the supply of skills much more closely align to the demand from business and employers. He argued for more enterprise education in schools to improve entrepreneurship, and more life-skills taught to help people apply and interview for jobs.

The gender pay gap and a lack of affordable childcare meant it’s not worth working for many women, argued Tabitha Morton. Improving skills for women would help get more women into sectors where they are underrepresented and those trapped in zero-hours contracts to progress to more stable and better paid work. Carl Cashman would bring universities to help improve local skills, but thought too much emphasis was put on degrees at the expense of apprenticeships. He proposed a Merseyside minimum wage of £8.50 and would incentivise other firms to do that.

In response to a question on investment in the city region’s transport system – in particular to encourage more walking and cycling to address connectivity and congestion – Tabitha Morton made the case that public transport was used more by women than men, and that every part of the city region needed fair access to help women and those who want to walk or cycle. Steve Rotheram reflected on his experience speaking to different cycling groups, and argued that cycling had to be part of an integrated transport strategy. He also promised to use the Bus Services Bill to regulate services and make it easier for cyclists and walkers.

Tom Crone argued for segregated cycling lanes as the most successful way to give people the confidence to get pedalling. He contrasted the general consensus on getting more people travelling under their own steam with the scrapping of bus lanes in the city, the big budget for roads in the city region and the cut in Mersey tunnel fees. Carl Cashman said he understood the passion of cyclists and confirmed that he had signed a cycling pledge. Making the roads safer for cyclists by reducing traffic was also central to Tony Caldeira’s response, and he would do that by investing in the railways and reducing car usage.

There was near consensus among the candidates when it came to HS2 and HS3, with everyone saying they would push for the HS3 East-West link over a fast track to London. Carl Cashman promised to work with the new mayor of Greater Manchester to be at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse and put more pressure on government to speed up the delivery of HS3. Tabitha Morton wanted more transparency in how infrastructure decisions are made, and worried that trains are expensive already and that new routes will not be affordable for those on low incomes.

Steve Rotheram, however, disliked the name HS3 and preferred to call it ‘Crossrail for the North’. He wants northern leaders and MPs to hold back on support for London’s Crossrail 2 until HS3 had been signed off and under construction. HS3 and HS2 would use the same line to get to Liverpool, so it wasn’t a matter of one or the other, pointed out Tony Caldeira, who said he would be making an announcement with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling on this issue. He also promised to back this up with six local rail plans for each of the authorities.

The odds for the Liverpool City Region mayoral race look good for Steve Rotheram. But if he does become mayor of Liverpool City Region, it will be interesting to see how he goes about working with a national government which he has been scathing about. Finding a way to do so will be critical if he is to deliver on his election campaign promises.

Listen to the full recording of the hustings here

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