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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Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.