Levelling up, Covid & net zero: 3 challenges for the new West of England Mayor

Ahead of the 2021 local elections, ICE South West hosted a debate for West of England mayoral candidates. Katy Toms, Regional Chair, highlights some of the key infrastructure points discussed.

View from the Bristol Channel of the West of England area.
View from the Bristol Channel of the West of England area.
  • Updated: 27 April, 2021
  • Author: Katy Toms, MEng (Hons), CEng MICE

On 6 May 2021, voters in the West of England will elect a new Metro Mayor. A change of leadership is guaranteed, as the incumbent Conservative Mayor, Tim Bowles, is standing down after four years in charge of this diverse area of the South West.

The formal geography for the West of England covers three local authority areas: Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol & South Gloucestershire. Think of it as Bristol, Bath and the myriad villages and communities around and between these two cities. Given its location, the West of England has a pivotal role to play as an economic gateway and infrastructure leader for the wider region.

So, what can we expect from the new Metro Mayor?

One of the first opportunities for the declared candidates to set out their vision came at the West of England Mayoral Debate on Tuesday 23 March, organised by ICE South West in partnership with other professional bodies in the region.

The online event put the would-be Mayors in front of an audience of civil engineers, architects, planners, designers, contractors, consultants, and future professionals to answer tough questions on infrastructure and the built environment. For 90 minutes, the candidates were quizzed in turn on their plans to deliver infrastructure investment to meet the needs of the region, its communities and environment.

Here are three key themes from the debate and an overview of what those seeking election had to say about meeting the major challenges ahead:

Post-Covid impact and recovery

The event coincided with the first anniversary of the UK lockdown, so the impact of the coronavirus pandemic was an obvious place to start. Research for ICE, carried out by YouGov, shows that 81% of adults in the West of England Combined Authority area are likely to choose walking to carry out their day-to-day activities after the pandemic – well above the 61% of adults nationally who said they would be likely to choose walking for their day-to-day activities.

Did the candidates for Mayor foresee behaviour change reshaping the West of England in the years to come?

Labour’s candidate, Dan Norris said it was all about thinking differently. He said this could offer a great opportunity to improve the environment and make lives better for people in the region. But he warned that everyone needed to be part of the recovery conversation.

For Jerome Thomas of the Green Party, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown just how quickly we can change our way of life in response to a serious crisis. He said: “One of the opportunities from that is the ability to be able to think and create a hyper-local economy and 15-minute neighbourhoods… where as far as possible all the facilities that we need for a good life are within 15-minutes’ walk or cycle in our towns and city centres.”

Liberal Democrat candidate, Stephen Williams highlighted the need for the post-Covid recovery to be both green and socially just. He pointed to the pockets of deprivation in the West of England where people needed support to adjust to the changes brought about by the pandemic.

Samuel Williams for the Conservatives said the pandemic had taught us that we can and must live, work, and engage locally. He also highlighted the importance of digital infrastructure and better connectivity.

Net zero and decarbonisation

The environmental impact of infrastructure is high on the agenda for civil engineers and built environment professionals, but also for the West of England public. In the same YouGov poll, 63% of adults in the region said that ‘improving the environment’ was important to them when considering new infrastructure projects in their local area. The topic came to the fore early on in the debate, with the candidates being challenged on their plans to adapt to the climate emergency.

Jerome Thomas for the Greens said we need to look at all aspects of our lifestyle that generate carbon emissions to establish how best to reduce them. On transport, he said preventing the expansion of Bristol Airport was crucial as flying remains the most carbon polluting form of travel.

Liberal Democrat, Stephen Williams called for a national centre of excellence for green technology to be set up in the West of England. He also highlighted the Zero Carbon Homes legislation that he helped to introduced as a Housing Minister in the Coalition government. “One of the things that the regional Metro Mayors can do is asked for powers to be devolved to them so that they can innovate in their own region,” he said, “So I would ask for the Zero Carbon Homes power, a law that exists, to be devolved to the West of England.”

Samuel Williams, the Conservative candidate, praised the current Mayor for laying the foundations for progress on net zero. He said the results of the government’s Transport Decarbonisation Study would provide science-based targets to inform further investment in cycling and walking, and the Regional Recovery Plan would help support housing retrofitting and training for the green jobs. He said: “We need to change the way we are living, to lobby government more, and have strong bold leadership for the West of England.”

Dan Norris of Labour said leadership from the Metro Mayor would be key in adapting the climate emergency and delivering on net zero. He said that leadership was about collaboration and recognising the expertise among infrastructure professionals that can help the next Mayor make good decisions on decarbonisation.

Levelling up

The term ‘levelling up’ is generally taken to mean the process of rebalancing the UK economy between London and the South East and the rest of the country.

But with no formal definition where does this leave regions like the West of England?

This point was highlighted in the recently published Manifesto for infrastructure on the West of England, produced by the South West Infrastructure Partnership. It supports calls by ICE for a levelling up definition from national government, which will enable Mayors to deliver infrastructure investment that achieves the greatest economic, social, and environmental benefits.

During the debate, the recent failed bid for Freeport status by the Port of Bristol was raised as part of the discussion on levelling up. Conservative, Samuel Williams said while that was disappointing, there were many opportunities to grow the region’s economy, and he would be knocking on the door of Number 11 for investment, if elected.

Stephen Williams for the Liberal Democrats felt the West of England had a lot of catching up to do and believed the area was being left behind, compared to other Metro Mayor regions, because it had not spoken clearly and powerfully with one voice.

Labour’s Dan Norris agreed and wanted to see a reframing of the levelling up agenda. “I want to see levelling up that is East to West, as well as North to South, so that we get the things that we need,” he said. “We have not had extra money for our towns or high streets, there’s a whole range of things we’ve missed out on. And that change comes from us working together so we have a strong voice.”

Jerome Thomas for the Green Party said the levelling up should be seen in the context of moving towards a zero carbon economy and rebalancing the health of the local economy, active travel, and housing, at the same time as working towards a zero carbon future.

Whoever becomes the next West of England Mayor, it is clear that how they lead on infrastructure and the built environment will prove pivotal in meeting the region’s challenges.

Watch the debate

1All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 7000 adults, with 93 adults in the West of England Combined Authority. Fieldwork was undertaken between 8 - 11 March 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

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