A Mayor getting a grilling from a respected former broadcaster on his first 6 months in office – that was the format that greeted attendees at the Forward Planning Network’s second event, which was organised by JBP Associates and held in partnership with law firm Burges Salmon last week.
Former BBC Newsreader and now JBP Senior Counsel Clarence Mitchell interviewed West of England Mayor Tim Bowles on the big issues facing the transport, housing and skills sectors in the region in front of an audience from across local industry.
The audience heard some familiar announcements; research into driverless cars, plans for new MetroWest suburban rail services, rail stations at Filton North and Portway Park & Ride, as well as investigations into underground, overground, (wombling free) mass transit solutions.
But there were interesting new points made too. On planning, the Mayor was keen to stress that the power to introduce a Mayoral Spatial Plan comes in ‘from May 2018’ rather than ‘on May 2018’. Let the Joint Spatial Plan process run its course, was the message – a process which to date has seen the West of England avoid the Secretary of State Sajid Javid’s ‘naughty step’ and which sees the Mayor without a vote. There would then be a view over whether a Mayoral Plan would be needed to add anything, especially given that the Mayoral version would only cover 3 of the 4 authorities covered by the JSP. Wider planning issues such as ‘digital’ and ‘business development’ could feature in any Mayoral Plan according to the Mayor.
On housing, WECA has been one of the first authorities in the country to commission work to understand the construction skills challenge given not only the infrastructure set out in the Joint Transport Study, but also the impact of the enormous Hinckley construction project.
On skills, the Mayor is taking businesses back into schools to help ensure careers services are helping young people to train for the skills gaps industry is identifying across the local economy.
Throughout the interview, the Mayor’s outlook seemed one of frustration on the one hand and optimism on the other.
Frustration with the challenges associated with starting an organisation from scratch (in contrast to other Combined Authority areas where formal staffing structures were already in place), the lack of a job description given that it’s a brand new role and a sense that the wider public do not yet understand what its purpose is. For example, the Mayor does not have a vote on the JSP, despite the public believing that he in fact does.
The audience though was left with a distinct sense of optimism radiating from the Mayor – optimistic about what can be achieved because, as a former South Gloucestershire Councillor, he has seen what has already been built over recent years through collaboration between councils, business and government. Optimistic about future devolution deals around housing delivery and apprenticeship levy. The Mayor even feels its glass ‘half full’ over Brexit.
In six months, the Mayor claims he’ll be able to point to 12 months of announcements which will show why the devolution journey has been worthwhile for the region, its businesses and communities.
But no rest for him in between – it’s a 7 day a week job with relaxing breaks at events like ours!
Written by James Hinchcliffe, Lead Political Analyst, JBP Associates – Bristol Office