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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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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