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09.02.17

WMCA mayor must hit ground running with quick-win transport fixes

In the early days of office, the new West Midlands mayor must quickly focus on cutting down on car use and encouraging other forms of transport as a quick-win policy before focusing on longer-term priorities, such as boosting skills and raising the region’s international prestige, a think tank has said.

In a report – one of a string of similar briefings across other mayoral regions – Centre for Cities outlined the main priorities that the incoming West Midlands mayor must tackle in order to “hit the ground running” and “mean business from day one”.

At the minute, Conservative’s Andy Street, Labour’s Sion Simon, Lib Dem’s Beverley Nielsen, UKIP’s Peter Durnell and Green’s James Burn are all gripped in competition to be chosen as the region’s first metro mayor, which is set to take place on 4 May.

Analysing what the chosen candidate must focus on, Alexandra Jones, CEO at Centre for Cities, argued that traffic congestion is a “big problem” across the West Midlands, especially in Birmingham and Wolverhampton, and could prove a good opportunity to secure a quick policy win.

“By announcing their intention to address this problem on day one, the new mayor can demonstrate their ambition to have a tangible impact on behalf of local people in their initial months in office,” she argued.

“In particular, the mayor should avoid the temptation to scrap the M6 toll, and instead use scarce public resources to improve bus and rail travel across the region – for example, by making it easier to use the Swift smart travel card across all networks. Not only will this help cut congestion, it will also make it easier for people to access jobs and amenities across the West Midlands.”

In the long term, the think tank suggested the two chief priorities for the mayor should be supporting more people to move into employment by strengthening local skills, and acting as an ambassador for the region on a global stage.

According to Jones, around 61,000 people in the West Midlands are currently seeking jobs, with employment in the region being nearly 10% lower than the national average. One way to tackle this problem, she stated, is to encourage more big firms in the area to work alongside schools, FE colleges and universities to equip more people with essential skills.

The think tank’s findings largely echoed similar remarks from the Resolution Foundation, which argued in December that the new mayor must view unemployment as a top priority given the “huge task” of turning the city-region’s economic prospects around.

The Foundation’s report closely followed a plan launched by Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP to add £29bn to the region’s economy by 2030, including by creating a whopping 250,000 private sector jobs.

In September last year, a consultation into the powers of the new elected mayor found that residents viewed transport and employment as their top priorities. The proposal that received the strongest backing from the 1,300 respondents was that the mayoral combined authority should have powers to deliver an “efficient integrated West Midlands Transport Network”, whilst 77% of respondents also backed powers to “deliver better skills and training”.

Raising the profile of West Midlands internationally will also be vital in ensuring the region can rival Greater Manchester and other places, said Centre for Cities, thus allowing local businesses to “flourish in the years to come”.

“The mayor has a big role to play in this by acting as a spokesperson for the region on the global stage, forming networks with other cities across the world and taking firms on trade envoys on behalf of the West Midlands,” added Jones. “This will be crucial in attracting more foreign investment, helping local firms in all sectors to export internationally and boosting jobs across the region.

“There’s a lot at stake for the new mayor, and showing that they mean business from day one will not only be vital in building trust with local people across the West Midlands – it will also be crucial in achieving their vision for the city-region and securing the long-term future of the mayoral office.”

In the latest edition of PSE, set to hit desks next week, Jones explored mayoralty more generally, arguing that London’s current and former mayors offer important lessons on the opportunities and potential pitfalls the new metro mayors will face.

 

(Top image c. Cristian Bortes)

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