Metro Mayor’s plans to improve housing and transport in Bristol

September 28 2018
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WHY does a city need three mayors?

by  Paul Breeden 

Some in Bristol may only be dimly aware that we have a Lord Mayor (ceremonial), a city mayor (Marvin Rees, taking the place of an old-style council leader) and now, since May 2016, we also have a metro mayor – Tim Bowles, who leads the new West of England Combined Authority, or WECA. 

Mr Bowles accepts that WECA’s name, and his own, may not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. 

Indeed, he’s resisted calls to make himself more famous by becoming the “Champion of Metrobus” – a plea made to him by several Bristol councillors when the long-delayed £230 million rapid transit scheme became bogged down in difficulties earlier this year.

But with some big announcements expected this autumn from WECA on transport and housing across the West of England, there will be a lot of reasons for all of us to pay more attention to this new authority. 

Four new Metrobus routes; tens of thousands of new homes; building in the Green Belt; and new rail and rapid transit routes, including to Bristol airport, are among the projects for which Mr Bowles expects to win hundreds of millions in public and private investment by 2036.

 In fact, despite his reluctance to be identified as the figurehead for Metrobus, he has got together with Bristol South MP Karin Smyth to reinstate the “missing link” – the Metrobus route connecting Long Ashton and Hengrove. This route was one of the main justifications for the £45 million South Bristol Link Road until it was quietly erased from the Metrobus route map earlier this year. It has now been restored (though with no opening date). 

“I think the important thing here is to understand how different everybody’s roles are,” he says, in his rather austere office in Bristol’s Temple Quay.  

He’s not here to do the work done by the three councils that WECA covers – Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset, and South Gloucestershire.  

That means he won’t get involved in the Metrobus routes which were planned by the three councils before WECA came along. Nor will he influence planning applications or dictate exactly how major projects should work. Instead, WECA brings all three council leaders together to make plans for the big issues that affect the region – housing, transport and skills training. Mr Bowles seeks consensus, and then goes to Whitehall seeking government approval and funding.

He hints that, finally, we may be about to see the fruits of discussions that started since he took office when WECA was a tiny body with just seven staff. Compared to most public authorities, it’s still small – just 40 staff, to be expanded to 72 eventually.

 We can expect public consultation this winter on both the transport and the housing and infrastructure plans.

 WECA’s Joint Transport Strategy calls for four new Metrobus routes by 2036. One route would go to Keynsham along the A4 Bath Road, and another possibility is an orbital route around the city. The orbital option might depend on a long-debated South Bristol ring road to link the A4174 from Hicks Gate to the new South Bristol Link at Hengrove.

The Bath Road plan will demand a string of measures – including perhaps the controversial use of the Callington Road link, the old rail line between Brislington and Avon Meads, as a relief road to free space for bus lanes on the A4.

 Mr Bowles will not be drawn on the specifics. “But it’s really important for your readers to know that we are working together on this,” he says. 

 WECA, he says, has already drawn the promise of hundreds of millions in funding from Whitehall for plans which the three councils couldn’t have secured individually. “But we aim to find other ways of ribbing more investment,” he says.

 Mr Bowles is also talking to potential private investors – including, intriguingly, a Japanese rail company. Again, he won’t reveal the project under discussion. But the East Japan Railway Company (EJRC) is one of the biggest rail firms in Japan, operating several of the famous high-speed bullet lines, or Shinkansen, which travel at up to 200mph. We’re unlikely to get one of those – but EJRC also operates the futuristic Tokyo Monorail, to Tokyo’s Haneda airport.  

What’s top of everyone’s wish list for transport in the West? A better route to Bristol Airport, of course, and Weca’s Joint Transport Study says rail is the preferred option. 

EJRC has form in the UK, too: it has a 15 per cent stake in West Midlands Trains. 

“The route to the airport is vital, and the people I was talking to are interested in that,” says Mr Bowles, adding that his visitors were impressed with the speedy rail link from London. 

 “It can help us bring more visitors in to our World Heritage city of Bath, as well as those coming here to work in the aerospace industry on the Northern Fringe, as well as making it easier for South Bristol folk to get to the new jobs that will be created as the airport expands.”

 Will the Japanese investors be interested in Marvin Rees’s idea of an underground network that could form part of a rail link to the airport? That’s not clear, but “Marvin and I work very closely,” on this and other projects, he says.

 One of the metro mayor’s messages to investors is that they will be investing in success, not subsidising a region that needs a handout. 

 “We are the only city region that pays money back to the Treasury,” he says. “Other regions cannot show that level of return. We are not looking for handouts, and we must keep driving that message.”

 So will Mr Bowles and his new authority soon gain widespread recognition from the public? 

His critics say he’s failed to make a mark in his first year and a half. A former South Gloucestershire councillor and ex-chair of Winterbourne parish council, he has not sought the limelight so far in his career. On the other hand, he hasn’t put a foot wrong: refusing to be drawn into the Metrobus controversy, which involved plans drawn up years before he took office, may be seen as a wise move. 

 His low visibility is partly a measure of his limited powers, and the fact that so far, Weca has had little direct contact with the public. And that’s about to change with the consultation expected to start soon. 

November and December will see the public consulted on the Joint Spatial Plan, the regional plan for creating 105,000 homes, 82,000 jobs and infrastructure that involves (among other things) using a “modest” 0.65 per cent of the Green Belt around Bristol and Bath, in places such as Ashton Vale and North Keynsham. Plans to build thousands of houses on the fringes of North Bristol and South Gloucestershire will have a major impact on the amount of traffic heading through Bishopston to the city centre. 

In the New Year there will be separate consultation on the Joint Transport Strategy, which will also have a big impact on the region. WECA aims to complete feasibility studies into three park and ride schemes - one each for the A38, A4018 and M32 - by the end of 2019.

WECA has a role to support skills training and business strategy and controls adult education across the region. The authority is promoting Bristol North Fringe as a leader in high-value design with a new aerospace Innovation Centre at Filton and proposes an Institute of Technology to train hi-tech workers and reach under-represented communities.

A new project, Futurebright, helps people in work get training and add new skills to better themselves www.futurebright.org.uk 

The advantage of having a mayor leading a local authority is that they can be an attention-grabbing figurehead who can stir debate and get things done. The downside, as Marvin Rees is finding with the Bristol arena, is that the attention can become uncomfortably hot when a major plan draws major dissent.  

Tim Bowles is about to become the figurehead for the biggest changes to the West region’s landscape and travel facilities for decades. It will take a shrewd operator to steer these changes – many of which are undoubtedly needed – without taking the flak for the less popular plans. Life is about to get very interesting for the metro mayor.