West of England Mayoral election: the impact on Transport
By Robert Holloway, Associate Transport Planner
As the West of England accelerates towards the election of a new regional mayor on May 4th, dubbed the “Metro Mayor” by the media, the campaigns of the respective candidates are in full swing and we have been along to a number of events to hear their respective thoughts on the various devolved powers. Of particular interest to PBA and our clients, not to mention the local population, is transport and exactly what the candidates, if elected, would do about it (transport apparently having only recently been overtaken by housing as the primary concern of those living in the region).
It was therefore particularly interesting to be invited to a transport-specific hustings recently, which was held at the impressive Bristol and Bath Science Park (which PBA helped to bring to fruition), facilitated by Tristan Fitzgerald Associates, hosted by Bosch and UWE Bristol and chaired by Professor Robin Hambleton.
It's worth noting that there remains a degree of uncertainty amongst the local population regarding the role of the Metro Mayor, how this fits with Bristol’s Mayor, what this means for the areas who chose not to have their own Mayor, and how exactly this effects regional governance. Indeed, I have come across confusion and scepticism from those who aren’t quite so close to planning as I and therefore don’t come into contact with the devolution agenda on a daily basis. Needless to say, the first order of business on the day, was for Professor Hambleton to give a brief explanation of the role and responsibilities of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) Mayor, before handing over for each of the candidates present to give their own view on the remit they hoped to secure.
Perhaps the clearest indicator of how each candidate views the transport problem was in their response to Professor Hambleton’s question of what their three key transport priorities would be if elected. Below is a brief summary of the responses, although please bear in mind this my shortened interpretation from my hurried notes:
Darren Hall, Green Party:
- “Buses, buses, buses”, including social enterprise bus companies
- Addressing car use, particularly in the city centre
- Technology, make the region ready.
Tim Bowles, Conservative:
- Need to work on the road network
- Particular focus on pinch points and new junctions
- Develop the station network, to include new stations and hubs.
Lesley Mansell, Labour:
- Integration of the bus and rail networks
- Free bus passes for elderly, disabled and young people
- Flexible working and staggered school times
- A wildcard: put trains and traffic underground.
Stephen Williams, Liberal Democrats:
- Congestion and air quality
- Connectivity, including public transport availability across the region
- Cashless buses and three new train stations.
John Savage, Independent:
- Money, public transport subsidies
- Won't pursue persecution of car drivers, although consider not driving one day per week
- Trains and public transport, everyone to be within ten-minute walk of public transport.
So, many similar themes as one might expect but some clear distinctions also. Public transport crops up in all, some innovative suggestions on flexible working, social enterprise and technology, very little mention of cycling (which was brought up later by an enthusiastic member of the audience) and of course the perennial congestion/road building conundrum.
Another theme was the approach to funding, some candidates made clear that £30 million per year in the context of the Council budgets was not a vast sum; others pressed their ability to achieve additional funding through Westminster contacts; whilst others identified some relatively grand plans without dwelling on how this might be paid for.
The overarching agreement that public transport should be prioritised and expanded upon is good to hear. A comprehensive, efficient public transport system is essential to a fully functioning city region and currently there is room for improvement. That task has begun with the likes of MetroBus and MetroWest, but there were clear sensitivities in the room about serving rural communities and certain demographics, which will hopefully lead to an extensive and inclusive system. Supplementing traditional bus and rapid bus services with other services more suited to the job in hand, meanwhile embracing developing technologies, also makes sense.
There was much discussion on the issue of congestion, the fact that the hustings was held on the north fringe of Bristol which has reportedly high car-dependency was not lost on the audience, and the views of the candidates varied from a clear focus on discouraging car use and embracing sustainable modes and technological ways to avoid driving, to those who would prioritise improvements to pinch points on the highway network.
Any successful transport strategy for the WECA area will need to be comprehensive and multi modal, likely utilising many, if not all, of the suggestions identified above. Of great interest will be how the successful candidate forms a team around them to deal with each of the powers which are devolved to them, including transport, and how this then feeds down to the respective authority areas. From a transport point of view, ignoring any other reasons for or against having a regional mayor, having an elected individual with an overarching remit to make transport in the region work, regardless of current County boundaries, appears to be a good thing. That this individual can also look to manage networks at a regional level, such as public transport, is also positive. You only need to travel to one of the other devolved regions to witness integrated ticketing and comprehensive systems to see how this could transform the currently patchy and confusing network in the West of England.
I don’t think that £30m per year would be quite enough to make all of the region's transport networks subterranean, although you can't contest that it is a strong vision!
It will be interesting to see the campaigns unfold further over the coming month, for those living in the region to hopefully be clear on what they are being asked to vote on come May 4th (and that they can drag themselves away from watching Star Wars for long enough to get to the polling stations) but of most interest to the Transport Planner is what happens next and how successful the new WECA Mayor is in transforming transport in the region.
Good luck to those who are in the running. Food for thought, if you were Mayor for the region, what would your three Transport priorities be?