West of England Metro Mayor Debate: Transport Infrastructure

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Fascinated by the recent devolution plans for a metro mayor, the other night I went along to the debate concerning the candidates’ plans for transport infrastructure in the West of England. I’m of the firm belief that a metro mayor is something we need, providing a clearer plan for the region and almost certainly making Bristol’s transport more efficient, due to the communication between the three areas it will concern: Bristol, Bath and South Gloucestershire. Well, that was Osborne and Cameron’s opinion, is it coincidence that I feel similarly?

Transport infrastructure is possibly the most important aspect of this new role, particularly as South-West England’s transport is among the worst in the country and anyone driving in Bristol or Bath at rush hour can almost certainly define “gridlock”, with some creative language for effect. Each candidate had their own take on the issue.

Will the new metro mayor deliver on Osborne’s devolution vision?

Needless to say, the debate would be titanic in size in order to get a proper discussion on West of England transport, with all its challenges and opportunities. The three hour runtime gave all the candidates an appropriate amount of time to answer the questions and highlight policies. A point to note is that UKIP’s Aaron Foot was not present at the debate.

The debate began with an address from the chief executive of Bosch UK, who outlined his take on the election, stating that the West of England has huge strengths, including dynamic digital infrastructure. The new metro mayor would need to take advantage of connectivity, as they will have a huge opportunity to drive forward their agenda.

Following this, there was some scene-setting for the role, nothing not already discussed, such as bringing together the three local authorities (Bristol, Bath and South Gloucestershire), how the Mayor would have a significant budget of £900m over their term and would speed up the delivery of housing. Each candidate was first required to give a short statement.

Dr John Savage, the independent candidate, started first, stating that while the area has seen 30 years worth of improvements and has the highest GDP outside of London, the West of England is still less well-off in terms of infrastructure than European competition. “All people don’t share in prosperity”. Transport is important and he aims to reduce congestion by 15%. He dramatically mentioned how there is a “tendency to be complacent – destructive and wasteful of human opportunity”.

Stephen Williams, Liberal Democrat, spoke next, exclaiming that the role presented exciting opportunities and comparing it to the position of London Mayor. He mentioned that previously we have lacked the opportunity to decide on how our local economy is made up. On transport, he said that the region has “woeful public transport” and is without the tools to deal with the problem.

Labour’s Lesley Mansell followed, saying she wanted “to do things differently”, mentioning that she isn’t a career politician. She wants the region to “work together to deliver on local projects”. There was mention of the housing crisis and how people need to be put first on their daily commute, as well as working with businesses, employers and commuters.

Darren Hall, representing the Green Party, gave his backstory, explaining that he is an unusual Green candidate as he used to be an engineer in the RAF, worked with British Aerospace and had 10 years in the Home Office. He said Bristol can use a metro mayor as an opportunity to gain the highest quality of life with a strong work/life balance: “Opportunity to prove to central government that we’ll do things differently”.

Tim Bowles, the Conservative, was last. He said this was a “good sign of engagement”. He highlighted his success in a professional career and as a local councillor. He wanted to take an active focus and address the future, seeking economic growth and working with councils and businesses.

When questioned about the necessity and importance of the role each candidate gave well-planned answers. Savage wanted authorities to work together, with good people making a contribution. Williams said it was “the way Osborne wanted to do it”, and the government will know who to turn to, which hadn’t been the case in the past. Mansell mentioned that local authorities hadn’t worked together before. Bowles gave possibly the most memorable answer: “accountability”. Finally, Hall mentioned that housing and transport currently don’t make sense with local authority boundaries.

After questions about the scale of the authority and the third process of the “devolution deal”, the first question from the audience came from a representative of the Federation of Small Businesses, who asked how the candidates could enable the growth of small businesses.

The most convincing answer probably came from Bowles. He mentioned that infrastructure in the form of broadband and telecoms was key, as well as giving people appropriate premises to work with and allowing business owners to work close to where they live.

Equally, Williams and Hall gave good answers, with Hall mentioning a circular economy where profit remains in the region, helping the unemployed get back into work and referencing how automation is hurting small businesses. Williams admitted that it was difficult to get new space for businesses and that investment into that space would be key.

The candidates were also asked what their three main priorities for transport in the West of England are.

Darren’s one-word reply was “busses!”. He wants to open up the market in the West, particularly non-profit companies. He also mentioned that new technologies such as AI can change the way we think about transport.

Bowles went for a joined-up solution, identifying there is no single answer to transport issues in the West. Realistically it would be best to work on road networks, such as introducing motorway junctions and airport links where they’re needed.

Mansell wanted integrated train services along with free bus passes for the elderly, the disabled and potentially 16 to 18 year olds. Starting schools later was also a proposal to reduce cars on the roads at peak times. Additionally, there was the hint of looking at planning an underground system.

Williams’ main focus was reducing congestion, mentioning how harmful emissions affect public health. Further, he argued that if infrastructure had better connections public transport would reach passengers at peak times more efficiently. There were also mentions of three new railway stations and driverless cars.

Savage called for “real public transport”. He said that we shouldn’t “pursue the persecution of drivers” and that trams are the answer, as it is a proven form of transport in Bordeaux, Bristol’s twin city. He wants everyone to be within a ten minute walk of public transport. Later on in questioning, he said it would be vital to make public transport free for the young.

After the debate I spoke with Nick Sturge from the Institute of Directors. He felt there was confusion from the panel about the powers the role might hold. Good, honest leadership would be needed to bring together the strengths of the three local authorities. Prosperity is needed for economic growth.

So, what were my thoughts on the debate?

I agreed with Nick that the candidates seemed confused about the powers, although I did feel that most of the candidates understood the key points of the role and that several good cases were made. I don’t want to endorse any candidates for the sake of press neutrality.

I think this is a vital role that will do the West of England a lot of good, particularly on transport. We’re hopefully going to see more clarity on regional matters and potentially more efficient delivery. I can’t emphasise how important it is that people turn out and vote in this election!