End of term report: How is Tim Bowles doing as mayor of the West of England?

The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol. Image: Getty.

Concluding the Centre for Cities’ round up of the first half-year of metro mayors, we look at Tim Bowles, mayor of the West of England.

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 few months, and the challenges he faces.

Progress

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.


Challenges and opportunities

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 £6.5m 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.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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Everybody hates the Midlands, and other lessons from YouGov’s latest spurious polling

Dorset, which people like, for some reason. Image: Getty.

Just because you’re paranoid, the old joke runs, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. By the same token: just because I’m an egomaniac, doesn’t mean that YouGov isn’t commissioning polls of upwards of 50,000 people aimed at me, personally.

Seriously, that particular pollster has form for this: almost exactly a year ago, it published the results of a poll about London’s tube network that I’m about 98 per cent certain* was inspired by an argument Stephen Bush and I had been having on Twitter, at least partly on the grounds that it was the sort of thing that muggins here would almost certainly write up. 

And, I did write it up – or, to put it another way, I fell for it. So when, 364 days later, the same pollster produces not one but two polls, ranking Britain’s cities and counties respectively, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that CityMetric and YouGuv are now locked in a co-dependent and potentially abusive relationship.

But never mind that now. What do the polls tell us?

Let’s start with the counties

Everybody loves the West Country

YouGov invited 42,000 people to tell it whether or not they liked England’s 47 ceremonial counties for some reason. The top five, which got good reviews from between 86 and 92 per cent of respondents, were, in order: Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, North Yorkshire and Somerset. That’s England’s four most south westerly counties. And North Yorkshire.

So: almost everyone likes the South West, though whether this is because they associate it with summer holidays or cider or what, the data doesn’t say. Perhaps, given the inclusion of North Yorkshire, people just like countryside. That would seem to be supported by the fact that...


Nobody really likes the metropolitan counties

Greater London was stitched together in 1965. Nine years later, more new counties were created to cover the metropolitan areas of Manchester, Liverpool (Merseyside), Birmingham (the West Midlands), Newcastle (Tyne&Wear), Leeds (West Yorkshire and Sheffield (South Yorkshire). Actually, there were also new counties covering Teesside (Cleveland) and Bristol/Bath (Avon), too, but those have since been scrapped, so let’s ignore them.

Not all of those seven counties still exist in any meaningful governmental sense – but they’re still there for ’ceremonial purposes’, whatever that means. And we now know, thanks to this poll, that – to the first approximation – nobody much likes any of them. The only one to make it into the top half of the ranking is West Yorkshire, which comes 12th (75 per cent approval); South Yorkshire (66 per cent) is next, at 27th. Both of those, it may be significant, have the name of a historic county in their name.

The ones without an ancient identity to fall back on are all clustered near the bottom. Tyne & Wear is 30th out of 47 (64 per cent), Greater London 38th (58 per cent), Merseyside 41st (55 per cent), Greater Manchester 42nd (53 per cent)... Not even half of people like the West Midlands (49 per cent, placing it 44th out of 47). Although it seems to suffer also from the fact that...

Everybody hates the Midlands

Honestly, look at that map:

 

Click to expand.

The three bottom rated counties, are all Midlands ones: Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire – which, hilariously, with just 40 per cent approval, is a full seven points behind its nearest rival, the single biggest drop on the entire table.

What the hell did Bedfordshire ever do to you, England? Honestly, it makes Essex’s 50 per cent approval rate look pretty cheery.

While we’re talking about irrational differences:

There’s trouble brewing in Sussex

West Sussex ranks 21st, with a 71 per cent approval rating. But East Sussex is 29th, at just 65 per cent.

Honestly, what the fuck? Does the existence of Brighton piss people off that much?

Actually, we know it doesn’t because thanks to YouGov we have polling.

No, Brighton does not piss people off that much

Click to expand.

A respectable 18th out of 57, with a 74 per cent approval rating. I guess it could be dragged up by how much everyone loves Hove, but it doesn’t seem that likely.

London is surprisingly popular

Considering how much of the national debate on these things is dedicated to slagging off the capital – and who can blame people, really, given the state of British politics – I’m a bit surprised that London is not only in the top half but the top third. It ranks 22nd, with an approval rating of 73 per cent, higher than any other major city except Edinburgh.

But what people really want is somewhere pretty with a castle or cathedral

Honestly, look at the top 10:

City % who like the city Rank
York 92% 1
Bath 89% 2
Edinburgh 88% 3
Chester 83% 4
Durham 81% 5
Salisbury 80% 6
Truro 80% 7
Canterbury 79% 8
Wells 79% 9
Cambridge 78% 10

These people don’t want cities, they want Christmas cards.

No really, everyone hates the Midlands

Birmingham is the worst-rated big city, coming 47th with an approval rating of just 40 per cent. Leicester, Coventry and Wolverhampton fare even worse.

What did the Midlands ever do to you, Britain?

The least popular city is Bradford, which shows that people are awful

An approval rating of just 23 per cent. Given that Bradford is lovely, and has the best curries in Britain, I’m going to assume that

a) a lot of people haven’t been there, and

b) a lot of people have dodgy views on race relations.

Official city status is stupid

This isn’t something I learned from the polls exactly, but... Ripon? Ely? St David’s? Wells? These aren’t cities, they’re villages with ideas above their station.

By the same token, some places that very obviously should be cities are nowhere to be seen. Reading and Huddersfield are conspicuous by their absence. Middlesbrough and Teesside are nowhere to be seen.

I’ve ranted about this before – honestly, I don’t care if it’s how the queen likes it, it’s stupid. But what really bugs me is that YouGov haven’t even ranked all the official cities. Where’s Chelmsford, the county town of Essex, which attained the dignity of official city status in 2012? Or Perth, which managed at the same time? Or St Asaph, a Welsh village of 3,355 people? Did St Asaph mean nothing to you, YouGov?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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*A YouGov employee I met in a pub later confirmed this, and I make a point of always believing things that people tell me in pubs.