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West Yorkshire has elected its first metro mayor. Tracy Brabin takes office at a tumultuous time as the city region looks to recover from Covid. If the city region is to build back better from the crisis with, as she wants, a “fair and just recovery” there are three policy priorities that the new metro mayor should focus on.
The West Yorkshire City Region lags behind other regions when it comes to economic performance, an issue that the new metro mayor is alive to. She should aim to tackle this issue at its root cause by targeting the skills dearth in Wakefield and Bradford in particular. In the latter, the share of people with no qualifications sits six percentage points above the national average. This is not only a problem for the people living in the city – who will be hard hit by knock-on effects for wages and real standards of living – but will also drag the economic performance in the entire region down.
If Tracy Brabin is to tackle this issue, she must follow through with her promise to base the recovery on skills. She should make the most of the new £63 million Adult Education Budget by targeting support to Bradford and Wakefield where it is most needed. This funding should be used to provide greater access and information on the types of courses that are on offer for people. This could include expanding the provision of evening and weekend classes or shorter and more informal qualifications.
Tracy Brabin should also take the best ideas from her new peers in other city regions, such as Liverpool City Region’s UCAS-style Be More apprenticeship portal to complement her plans for a “Levy Matchmaking Scheme”.
Although she does not have any formal powers over education, Tracy Brabin should also use her ‘soft power’ to campaign against educational underperformance and improve schools’ standards. In Bradford the share of people achieving good GCSEs is 10 percentage points below the national average. Tackling this issue could involve extending support for extracurricular learning such as replicating the Mayor of Sheffield City Region Dan Jarvis’ Children’s University.
Tracy Brabin must also tackle traffic congestion in West Yorkshire, which is both restricting economic growth and damaging the health of local residents. This problem can be approached by encouraging them to ditch their cars in favour of using public transport.
However, if people are to be encouraged to swap cars for buses, the bus system must first be improved. Bringing buses under public management by introducing franchising across the city region is the only way that Tracy Brabin can achieve the improved and integrated transport system that people need. It is welcome news that she is keen to franchise West Yorkshire’s buses and she should push ahead with the plans as quickly as possible, as Andy Burnham is doing in Greater Manchester. Bus franchising would also unlock extra funding via the National Bus Strategy, which could then be invested in the public transport system.
On the other side of the equation, congestion charging and a workplace parking levy should also be introduced in Leeds city centre to encourage people to swap their cars for public transport. Both of these measures, while controversial, have been proven to work. The congestion charge in London reduced traffic in the city by 21 per cent and the workplace parking levy in Nottingham reduced both congestion and pollution by increasing the use of public transport.
Not only do these changes fall in line with Tracy Brabin’s aspirations for a green recovery, they will also make public transport a more efficient and attractive option. Fewer cars on the road and recycling extra funds raised from the congestion charge back into the wider transport system will help to achieve Tracy Brabin’s goal to join up West Yorkshire’s wider transport system. This will allow the whole combined authority to benefit as Leeds grows.
The third area that Tracy Brabin should prioritise as she takes the driving seat in West Yorkshire is to encourage people back into its struggling urban centres. Usually vibrant city centres have been deserted as footfall dropped throughout the pandemic, falling to as low as seven per cent of pre-pandemic levels in the centre of Leeds. This has left many shops, restaurants and bars struggling and risks further job losses and business closures if left unaddressed.
To address this issue, the Tracy Brabin should encourage people back into city centres when it is safe to do so. She should work with the Government’s Urban Centre Recovery Taskforce to launch a campaign to get people back into the city centres to spend time and money again in Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield.
But this won’t be enough to help cities reach their potential in the longer-term. Tracy Brabin should help Leeds prosper by allowing it to continue to grow the amount of high-quality office and co-working space in the city centre. This will not only benefit Leeds – Centre for Cities’ research has shown that when local city centres do well, they also increase the prosperity of nearby towns.
Elsewhere, the new metro mayor should follow through with plans to build an economy that “works for all parts of the region” by kick-starting growth in centres by making sure that the office space on offer is as attractive as possible. Previous Centre for Cities’ research shows that the centres of Wakefield, Huddersfield and Bradford are dominated by retail and industrial space and, where office space does exist, it is of low quality. Shifting towards more high quality office space will allow these places in the city region to reach their potential by making the city centres more attractive places to do business.
Tracy Brabin will have a lot on her plate now she has assumed the top position in West Yorkshire, but she must address these priorities if the region is to build back better from the pandemic and improve standards of living across the region in the long term.
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