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Tim Bowles became the West of England’s metro mayor after winning a tight three-way contest in the second round of May’s election. This victory gave the Conservative candidate considerable powers over education, transport and housing, as well as oversight over one of the country’s most vibrant economies.
However, Bowles also took charge of a combined authority and institutions which were relatively new compared to in some other mayoral city regions. With this context in mind, we examine the progress that the West of England’s mayor has made in his first six months, and the challenges he faces.
Given the relatively low-profile of the mayor locally, and the short history of the combined authority, Bowles’ first six months have unsurprisingly been dominated by establishing his mayoralty and office. In doing so, he has used his soft powers and expertise to build a strong network with business leaders and other relevant agencies across the combined authority. As he suggested at our West of England mayoral hustings in March, the mayor’s job is to serve as the voice of people and businesses in the West of England. In office, Bowles has dedicated time to understanding the different challenges that businesses in particular are facing by visiting firms across the city region.
This network and consultation will undoubtedly hold the mayor in good stead as he starts to take the vital and contentious discussions about how to provide the skills, homes, jobs and transport connections which residents and businesses need to thrive. Moreover, a common complaint from businesses in the city region is that local political leaders do not shout loudly enough about its successes on the national and international stage. Bowles should consider how he can use the mayoralty as a platform to address that concern.
There have also been more concrete signs of progress in the city region under Bowles’s watch. For example, in August the West of England Combined Authority secured £3.9m from the Department for Work and Pensions for piloting an employment scheme to support individuals trapped in low paid jobs to achieve in-work progression. The pilot will run from January 2018 and will help improve the skills and opportunities to up to 3,000 adults. Bowles hailed this initiative as a way to support the most disadvantaged in the combined authority and promote inclusive growth, a key objective of his mandate.
Certainly, economic disparities are a significant issue in the West of England. While the combined authority performs better than the national average in terms of employment and skills, this masks significant local deprivation and inequality, with many residents unable to access the opportunities available. To tackle this issue, Bowles will need to work closely with Bristol’s city mayor Marvin Rees – for whom inclusive growth was a key part of his election campaign last year – to ensure that local and city region policy in this area works together in a strategic way.
Other areas which the new mayor has recognised as top priorities to address include housing and infrastructure. As we pointed out in our mayoral election briefing for the West of England, focusing on these issues will be crucial in securing the continued prosperity of the city region. For example, compared to other mayoral areas housing in the city region is extremely expensive – the mean house price in Bristol is approximately 100k higher than in Manchester and Birmingham, and over twice as much as in Tees Valley and the Liverpool city region.
Last month, Bowles and his team announced they will invest £6.5 million to kick-start projects and feasibility studies to build more homes and get the region moving. This is a welcome starting point, but the next step for the mayor should be to ensure his views and ambitions are reflected in ongoing housing and infrastructure plans for the city region. The councils that make up the West of England – along with North Somerset (who rejected the chance to be part of the devolution deal) – are currently developing a joint spatial plan, which they intend to submit to the Communities and Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid in March next year. While Bowles does not have oversight on this plan, he will have responsibility for delivering aspects of it. He should therefore use his soft power – and the substantial investment at his disposal – to influence the strategy and to ensure it is ambitious in meeting the needs of the city region.
Moreover, from May 2018 the mayor will also have responsibility for implementing a spatial development strategy for just the combined authority area. Ensuring that these plans are integrated and complimentary will be crucial for the mayor in having the biggest possible impact in addressing the West of England’s housing and transport needs.
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