What are the big issues in the West of England mayoral race?

Bath, one of the region’s urban centres. Image: Getty.

The Centre for Cities’ recent hustings in the West of England, which you can listen to here, was the first in the city region’s mayoral race; and it offered a clear indication of some of the key issues that are likely to dominate debates between the candidates as the elections get closer. Here are four.

Improving public transport

Traffic policy played a prominent role in Bristol’s city mayor election last year, and so it was no surprise that this issue also proved to be one of the key points of discussion among the candidates for the city region mayoralty.

For Conservative candidate Tim Bowles, the key to addressing congestion problems across the city region was through better regulated bus services, which would help to make public transport more attractive to residents. Labour’s Lesley Mansell offered a different perspective, suggesting that greater employment flexibility and more working from home would help to alleviate the city region’s busy roads and transport system.

Green candidate Darren Hall argued for public ownership of the bus company. Bristol Council owns an energy company, he noted, so why could the city region not take full control of the bus network? For Stephen Williams of the Liberal Democrats, public ownership was a step too far; but he argued that greater regulation to deal with market failure in the transport system would be necessary to make it to work more effectively, for local people. John Savage, an independent candidate, promised a greater focus on both light rail and buses if elected.

Dealing with housing shortages

There is widespread consensus that a significant number of new homes are needed in the West of England to meet demand in the next decade, and housing was also a major issue in the debate.

Much of the discussion focused on addressing housing unaffordability, alternative delivery models and dealing with shortages. But there was less clarity on where these houses would be built – and whether this would involve building on the greenbelt, which makes up 48 per cent of land in the city region.

Lesley Mansell vowed to change planning laws in order to push through with applications for new housing developments which are currently stalled. Tim Bowles suggested that he would open up more publicly owned brownfield sites for development, but Darren Hall pointed out that one of the difficulties with brownfield sites is that ownership is split parties and this makes site assembly hard task. He highlighted the importance of the Bristol community land trust, which has delivered 15 new homes so far, and also emphasised the importance of connectivity, and density.

Stephen Williams said he was open to the idea of using some greenbelt land for homes, but emphasised that he did not want a megalopolis between Bristol and Bath; while John Savage also suggested that some greenbelt land might be required for the homes that local people deserve.

Addressing skills-gaps

A question from an Airbus representative raised the issue of how the candidates would improve skills-levels across the city region, particularly when it came to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Jon Savage emphasised the need to put more long-term investment into in-work training and helping marginalised people improve their skills, but acknowledged that this would take time to have results. Lesley Mansell highlighted the need to protect local advice centres which support young people with education and employment, and which are currently under threat from cuts.

Darren Hall also focused on young people, and said he would aim to create more business partnerships with local firms to help young people access jobs. Tim Bowles argued that he would get more young people studying these subjects by doing more to promote the fantastic career opportunities that are open to STEM graduates. Increasing the number of women in STEM will be vital to helping high-technology and research firms in the area to grow, pointed out Stephen Williams, and this will be even more important in case of a hard Brexit, something he promised to fight against.

A political voice for the West of England

As our recent briefing on the West of England highlighted, the new mayor will need to focus on raising the city region’s profile on the national and international stage, and a number of candidates were keen to talk up their capacity to do so. Tim Bowles, for example, said his connections with national government would enable him to secure more powers for the mayoralty, as well as boosting its profile.

Stephen Williams claimed that as a former minister in the Coalition government, he had developed strong relationships with the Prime Minister, business secretary Greg Clarke and communities secretary Sajid Javid, which would enable him to make the case for the city region at a national level. He also highlighted the halting of the electrification of the train from London to Bristol (despite electrification going ahead on the line from the capital to Cardiff, home of the devolved Welsh Assembly) as a sign the lack of political voice for the city region.

The debates from the hustings point to the fact the key priorities for whoever becomes metro mayor of the West of England will ultimately arise from the need to deal with the costs of the city region’s economic success. Having a clear plan in place to tackle its housing shortages and transport congestions, and to ensure it has the skilled labour market required to continue to attract high-paying firms and jobs, will be critical to making a success of the role in its initial years.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.

He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”