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We have voted for devolution and with it comes a new leadership role. But what is a metro mayor and who is in the running to be ours?

Words: Sid Ryan

map of the area to be ruled overLast summer, Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire councils voted in favour of devolution, or shifting power from central government to a more local level. A side effect of this has been the creation of the role of ‘metro mayor’, a new elected leadership position for these areas. But so far, the roll out of these plans has not been smooth and in fact, may also have passed many by.

Much like the ‘Sustainability and Transformation Plans’ currently rocking the NHS, devolution and the metro mayor it will bring seem like good ideas on the surface, but are they actually of any benefit to Bristol? With metro mayoral elections on the 4th of May approaching fast, there’s not much time left to figure out how these plans will affect the city and the region.

The metro mayor will be the chief of a new West of England Combined Authority (WECA), responsible for housing and infrastructure development, transport, adult education and attracting foreign investment. In effect, it will be a decision making panel chaired by the new mayor and made up of the elected leaders of each of the three councils, Marvin Rees (L) for Bristol, Tim Warren (C) for Bath and North East Somerset and Matthew Riddle (C) for South Gloucestershire.

“This is an opportunity to break down some of the boundaries that haven’t helped us in the past,” said Marvin Rees at the first meeting of the Combined Authority, held in the Watershed. “There’s not unqualified love for the model we’ve been presented with, but we recognise the reality that government needed this structure, and we need it to have a national voice.”

What will it do?

Working from the existing ‘Joint Transport Plan’ and ‘Joint Spatial Plan’, the Combined Authority will mostly be reviewing assorted financial projections, loan agreements, bidding documents, and reports from consultants and deciding where to spend the money.

Dave Redgewell from the South West Transport Network thinks that the Combined Authority will have a hard time choosing what to do with its budget of only about £30m per year. “A new railway line would cost around £80m and the MetroBus between Cribbs Causeway and Aztec West is about £30m. Even smaller things like a new bus route or a new train station would cost £5-6m. They don’t have enough to fund the roads or the buses already, let alone build anything new.”

This means that a large part of the organisation is still leashed to central government, spending a lot of time bidding for assorted pots of funding for national infrastructure. But devolution could mean the region benefits from a second devolution package further down the line, on top of the £30m a year it’s set to receive under current plans.

Adding to the problems is North Somerset which was supposed to be the fourth member of the Combined Authority but rejected the deal. This was intended as a tactical withdrawal to force concessions out of the government. But the bluff was called, and now the county is locked out until the next metro mayoral elections in 2021. Despite the Combined Authority being designed to avoid this, it’ll now have the complication of having to commission bus routes that start in one region and end in another.

Who will win?

What could have been a vibrant campaign about deciding the future for the South West threatens to be rather damp: ‘Let’s pick a colour and wait and see.’

Whoever ends up metro mayor will have a diverse set of objectives and limited resources. It will be difficult to satisfy the responsibilities for housing, transport, skills and investment simultaneously. Will they try to forge the area into a self sufficient city-state? Will we become a major metropolis, with new road links to Bath and beyond and satellite towns to fill out the green belt? Or will it be the laissez-faire approach: companies bring jobs, jobs bring growth, and growth brings happiness?

It seems likely that the Conservative candidate will ride the tide of Conservative voters in Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire to victory. That would make South Gloucestershire councillor Tim Bowles, a business manager for RTH Plc, a company which designs events and exhibits for modelling the latest jet engines and missile systems, the new metro mayor.

However, with turnout for the elections expected to be so low, there’s still a chance for upset if one side can encourage more voters to the polling station. The risk will be that the left wing candidates neutralise each other’s votes, so the second preferences could be crucial. Ladbrokes tips Lib Dem former MP for Bristol West, Stephen Williams, as a narrow winner. Labour’s Lesley Mansell, a Corbyn-leaning equalities and diversity manager at Southmead Hospital, could also get a good look in if more centrist Labour voters choose to offer their support.

Darren Hall, who appeared on the Bristol West ballot papers in the 2015 general election, is running for the Greens. The nominally independent (but widely considered centrist-Labour) candidate Dr John Savage, current chairman of University Hospitals Bristol Trust, might not find an immediate use for his knowledge of NHS bureaucracies, but considering that plans are afoot to integrate health and social care within the next few years, his skills could become essential before too long.

Although most of the candidates have declared themselves in the local papers, the official list of candidates can only be announced once the application window closes on April 4th. That leaves voters a week to get registered if they’re not already, and then just a month to discuss and debate the issues.

It’s quite sad that the timing of the election means the candidates have barely got time to put together their platforms, and communicate them to almost a million voters. What could have been a vibrant campaign about deciding the future for the South West threatens to be rather damp: ‘Let’s pick a colour and wait and see.’

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