My campaign to be the first regional Mayor of the West of England has got off to a flying start. After the selection of weak and inexperienced candidates by the Conservatives and Labour, I’ve been heartened by the reaction of people saying that they are glad the Liberal Democrats have put forward a strong choice. I have the right mix of local knowledge and experience of national power to make a success of the role of regional Mayor.
The Liberal Democrats are poised and ready to fight an upbeat campaign, ambitious for our region. I will work to grow our economy in a sustainable way. I will prioritise affordable homes and decent public transport. I can win an election in the West of England. The bookies agree! After my candidacy was announced Ladbrokes made me favourite to win, just ahead of my Conservative rival. The candidates from Labour, Green Party and UKIP are rank outsiders.
The Metro Mayor will work with a new Mayoral Combined Authority (MCA) made up of the council areas that cover Bath, North East Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire. The Mayor and MCA will have new powers that are currently exercised by government ministers in Westminster. This is the latest step in making Britain a less centralised country. The West of England and several other English regions are at last catching up with Wales, Scotland and London. The new West of England Mayor will be on a par with the Mayor of London.
The primary duty of the Mayor and MCA will be to grow and develop the region’s economy. To support this task, the Mayor will take on powers over roads and public transport, the allocation of land for jobs and homes and the provision of skills and training for adults. In the coming weeks I will be setting out my ambitious plans for using these powers. I will be publishing my vision in a detailed manifesto. This will not be based solely on my own ideas and experiences. I will draw on the ideas of my liberal colleagues and also a wide circle of local business leaders, social entrepreneurs and experts in the policy areas for which I hope to become responsible after the election on 4th May.
The following is therefore just a taster of my forthcoming plans for the West of England. I will set out some broad principles for the policy areas that fall within the remit of the Metro Mayor and also how I would work with others to achieve my aims.
The West of England is already the most prosperous city region in England. We could become even more prosperous if the factors that hold us back are tackled. These are mainly the shortage of affordable homes of all types and the woeful state of our public transport.
I also want our growing prosperity to be shared more evenly. There are some social groups that have been left behind. I will work hard with employers and training providers to widen the opportunities for single parents, newly arrived communities and those who have led dysfunctional lives. I see an enhanced role for social enterprises in tackling the issues that can hold people back.
Prosperity is also uneven in a geographical sense. The northern fringe of Bristol has seen an economic boom. The poor transport infrastructure has put huge pressure on local roads and made it difficult for people living in south Bristol or North East Somerset to access the new jobs. I will work with employers and investors to focus on the Temple Meads Enterprize Zone and other areas that would benefit from new employment. I see the priorities as Severnside, south Bristol, the Norton-Radstock area and Bristol Airport.
I will work with Business West and UK Trade and Investment to bring international investment to our region and also to grow our exports. Tourism and the creative industries are already making a great contribution but I believe the twin strengths of Bath and Bristol can be optimised by marketing them together as a world renowned brand.
The West of England’s prosperity has been underpinned by membership of the European Union’s Single Market and Customs Union. I worked with others to secure a strong Remain vote in the area. As Metro Mayor I will continue to fight against the damaging hard Brexit being pursued by the Conservatives, with the connivance of Labour. I will defend the rights of the tens of thousands of EU nationals who live and work in the West of England. Their contribution is essential to many of our key industries, our universities and our public services.
Affordable homes for everyone
As a country and a region we have failed to build enough homes in the last 40 years. The rate of house building in the West of England has not been enough to cater for our growing region. This puts huge financial pressure on people. House prices in the West of England are on average 10 times the level of salaries, with the ratio worst in Bath.
There is a draft “spatial plan” for the housing needs of the next 20 years, produced by the local councils. It is flawed and I will review it if I am elected. It puts a huge amount of pressure on the towns and villages of South Gloucestershire, the area that is already over-heated. The MCA is an opportunity to plan holistically for the economy, housing and transport. I will insert several guiding principles.
Firstly, a presumption in favour of development first within our two cities and several towns on brownfield land. I will establish a Mayoral Development Corporation to assemble land. I would prevent any urban sprawl of Bristol north of the M4. The green belt between city and country must be stoutly defended in that area. Similarly, I do not want to see towns and villages blended into each other. This is not a city versus country issue. The character of our towns and villages is appreciated by Bristolians and Bathonians as much as it is treasured by town and village dwellers.
New homes must be accompanied by enhanced bus and rail services to make the communities sustainable. I will help the councils raise the finance necessary for them to build more homes for social rent. The state must be more interventionist in the housing market as private sector providers will not plug the gap. I will also provide for a growing appetite for customised and self-build homes.
Public transport in the West of England is shockingly inadequate. Our bus services are not integrated, the largely cash based payment leads to slow journeys, congestion and pollution. The local rail services for Bath and Bristol are the worst of any city region in England.
I will use new bus regulation powers to push through cashless payment on board buses. More park and ride is needed around both cities but must not blight the rural landscape, such as the proposed Bathampton Meadows site.
Rail services must be expanded, with extra services for Yate, plus new stations at Ashley Down, Charfield and Saltford. I will also press ahead with the long hoped for new passenger services on the existing freight lines across north Bristol and to Portishead.
Rail and road services do not stop at the West of England boundary so I will work with the leaders of Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire to champion our wider regional case to central government. In particular, I will lead a deputation to Westminster to demand that our rail electrification is put back on schedule.
New housing areas will be built on existing transport corridors, making them more viable and strengthening the case for new transport investment. I will encourage the councils to continue enhancing cycle routes.
The post 19 skills budget transfers from central government agencies to the Metro Mayor in 2018. In the meantime I will plan with employers and colleges for the transfer. I will be particularly interested in proposals to tackle the gender imbalance in some apprenticeships. I also want to alleviate the pockets of long term worklessness in parts of Bristol and Bath. I will draw on my experience as Communities Minister to make sure that newly arrived immigrants have the language and other skills necessary for integration.
My style as Mayor
I know some people are sceptical about the need for another directly elected Mayor. However, devolution in England has been painfully slow and so we must seize this opportunity, make it work and demonstrate that our region can take on more responsibility in the years ahead.
As West of England Mayor I would firstly seek to work harmoniously with the leadership of the three council areas. I will welcome strong scrutiny from the 200 councillors and also draw on their detailed community knowledge. As someone who has served as a ward councillor and a national government minister I will be able to reconcile community interest with strategic vision. I will also want to harness the abilities of the nine constituency MPs in the West of England. I will be accessible to residents with public meetings across the whole area, urban and rural. I will be a strong voice for the region, meeting directly with senior members of the government, many of whom were my colleagues in the coalition.
Finally, the West of England has been a region too long over-looked by successive governments. We have not shouted loud enough for investment. The new Metro Mayoral office will bring this regional reticence to an end. I will bring together Bath, North East Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire – Together, with one voice.