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My plans for West of England skills for a thriving economy and cohesive society

April 30, 2017

The government will devolve the adult skills budget to the regional mayors in May 2018. In between then and now I will meet with employers, further education colleges and other skills providers to discuss the skills needs of our regional economy. In particular, I will seek to ensure that skills training and apprentice provision is matched to the strategic economic sectors set out in the economic plan in section 2 of my manifesto.

I will be a champion for local apprentices and will appoint an apprentice champion for each sector. The champions will showcase the opportunities available in each sector and will work with schools so that young people in their early teens appreciate the skilled path and rewarding career that is available to them through basic and advanced apprenticeships.

In line with my desire to make sure that our regional prosperity touches every community I will endeavour to take the skills and employment opportunities to every part of the region. This will involve intensive work with employers and skills providers in geographically discrete parts of the region where low skilled and low paid work is the norm. There is a social justice aspect to this work, ensuring that there are no gender or racial barriers to rewarding work.

The adult skills budget is not solely about employability. New skills offer opportunities for social interaction and social cohesion. I am particularly keen to make sure that women from newly arrived communities acquire strong skills in conversational English. This will not only enable them to access education and work. It will also help us build a more cohesive society.

I will encourage social enterprises to offer training and apprenticeships in some areas. For instance when I was Communities and Local Government Ministers I supported social enterprises with the budget for refurbishing empty homes. Some of the best social enterprises train the long term unemployed and those whose lives have followed a dysfunctional path. A virtuous circle of new homes and lives back on track can be created.

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My plan for building affordable homes and sustainable communities

April 30, 2017

As a country and a region we have failed to build enough homes in the last 40 years. The rate of house building in the West of England has not been enough to cater for our growing region. This puts huge financial pressure on people. House prices in the West of England are on average 10 times the level of salaries, with the ratio worst in Bath. Private sector rents are among the highest in the country, swallowing up 40% of disposable incomes.

There is a draft “spatial plan” for the housing needs of the next 20 years, produced by the four local councils, including North Somerset. It is flawed and I will review it if I am elected. It puts a huge amount of pressure on the towns and villages of South Gloucestershire, the area that is already over-heated. The document is not integrated with the draft transport plan, also produced by the four councils. The draft spatial plan sets a target down to 2036 of just over 100,000 new homes (including North Somerset), which needs to be tested rigorously to make sure that it is adequate for our growing economy and demographic change.

The new Mayoral Combined Authority is an opportunity to plan holistically for the economy, housing and transport. As the spatial plan is the one area where unanimity is required between the regional mayor and the councils, I will work hard with local government colleagues to agree a way forward. In addition, I want the public sector to once again become an active player in the housing market. The rate of building required in order to stabilise prices and rents is unlikely to be achieved by the existing private volume builders. My guiding principles for the spatial plan and my other housing ideas are set out below:

• A presumption in favour of development first within our two cities and several towns on brownfield land. The remaining land that is available for development in our urban centres must be developed intensively. This means greater density of population, achieved either by building multi-storeys or by terraced homes. Special consideration must clearly be given to the World Heritage City status of Bath.
• Land set aside for housing should include a plan for balanced communities. Where the new build is by private sector developers the presumption must be that the units are of different sizes, to cater for people at various stages of life and income levels, with appropriate contributions to affordable homes and local infrastructure.
• I will establish a West of England Homes social enterprise, Bristol and Bath Homes Limited. This will build homes for sale and also purpose built blocks of flats for private rental. The surplus from these commercial activities will be invested in building homes of various sizes for social rent. I will seek power from central government to safeguard these social properties against the “right to buy.” While ownership and control of Bristol and Bath Homes Limited will initially be with the Mayoral Combined Authority I am keen to involve more people. Community shares would be a good way of raising more capital. I would also be keen to work with the emerging network of social capital providers.
• I will establish a Mayoral Development Corporation to assemble land where there are disparate land holding ownerships. I will seek additional borrowing power for the three local authorities in order to finance my proposed housing social enterprise. I established this principle when I was a DCLG minister, persuading Treasury colleagues to selectively raise the borrowing headroom for councils that were at their debt ceiling.
• I would prevent any urban sprawl of Bristol north of the M4. The green belt between city and country must be stoutly defended in that area. The green belts along the A4 corridor must also be defended. I will prevent any ludicrous proposal to merge Bath and Bristol into a West Megalopolis.
• Similarly, I do not want to see towns and villages blended into each other. For instance, Keynsham should remain distinct from Saltford and Coalpit Heath separate from Yate. The proposal for a new garden village of Buckover in the north of the region will be seriously flawed if it is planned to be built too near to Thornbury. This is not a city versus country issue. The character of our towns and villages is appreciated by Bristolians and Bathonians as much as it is treasured by town and village dwellers.
• New homes must be accompanied by enhanced bus and rail services to make the communities sustainable. This need is pressing in Thornbury, Yate and in the Filton Airfield redevelopment. The Somer Valley also needs better transport links and local jobs.
• I will also provide for a growing appetite for customised and self-build homes. Serviced plots will be incorporated into the spatial plan. Similarly, there is scope for more home building by community land trusts.
• I will continue my constructive relationship with private sector house builders. I am particularly interested in them embracing modular building techniques, in order to reduce the time taken to build a home. Off-site construction also helps ensure compliance with building regulations for home energy efficiency. I will also work with the sector to deliver my inclusive skills policy. I want to see construction apprenticeships taken up by more women and black and minority ethnic people.
• Bath and Bristol benefit enormously from our four universities. We already have high retention rates among graduates who decide to build their lives and careers in their adopted cities. Our thriving economy needs to attract and retain highly skilled workers from all over the world. Solving the affordability crisis is critical to our economic success. But the growing number of students has also put huge pressure on the local housing stock and led to the unbalancing of some communities. I will work with the universities to identify land for more purpose built accommodation for students. It is essential that this accommodation is affordable for students from low income families.
• I will also work with the private sector and use my proposed Bristol and Bath Homes social enterprise to construct purpose built accommodation for older people. High quality homes for sale or lease would give an opportunity for older people to “right-size” out of family sized homes.
• House building is not just about numbers; standards matter too. As the minister responsible for housing regulation I put in place new standards for room dimensions and for greater home energy efficiency. Home buyers want high standards and I will work with the sector to make sure our new homes are of the highest quality.
• I will also take an interest in the existing housing stock. The least energy efficient homes are those built more than a decade ago. As part of my economic plan to make the West of England a world leader in the low carbon economy I will bring together landlords, financiers, energy companies and others to plan for the retrofitting of older properties to increase insulation, reduce carbon emissions and eliminate fuel poverty.
• Finally, I have long taken an interest in the rights of tenants. As a minister I put in place various new regulations to protect private rental sector tenants. I will work with the local councils and various campaign groups such as Shelter and Acorn to make the West of England a fair and secure place to rent a home.

West of England Devolution – the next steps

April 30, 2017

Devolution is a journey, not an event. The settlement that come into effect in May 2017 is just a modest beginning for the rebalancing of power away from our over centralised government to our city sub regions. We have seen in the last decade that the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland and also the Mayor of London, have received greater powers. Greater Manchester, which has piloted the non-London city region deals, is to receive greater control of the regional NHS budget from May 2017, as well as the powers that are to be devolved here in the West of England.

I will put together an ambitious pitch to government for an enhanced devolution settlement for our region. Devolution is an opportunity to do things differently and there is no reason why the government should not grant us greater flexibility to deliver the responsibilities that will be devolved in 2016. My proposals for extra house building and improved air quality would be strengthened by a modest increase in our new powers. But there is also a major opportunity to ask for additional areas of competence to be devolved from 2021, or sooner.

There is a compelling case for our region being able to retain more of our tax base. We are a net exporter of revenue to the Treasury. When I make the case for more investment in local infrastructure I am not asking for subsidy. I am asking for us to have the ability to spend more of our own money. I would prefer this not to be a met with an additional hand out. Rather, it would be better to have full local control of council tax (which would help the three local authorities) and business rates. I also believe that the Mayoral Combined Authority should be enabled to test new taxes and levies. This should include a hotels tax (adding a small amount to nightly hotel bills) and the ability to levy a pollution tax on vehicles.

I will negotiate with the government a second devolution deal for the transfer of major new competencies in 2021, at the commencement of the second mayoral term. At this time I am wary of replicating Greater Manchester’s second deal, with a transfer of NHS powers. I believe such a transfer is fraught with risk, until there is a sustainable long term funding base for both the NHS and social care. I have advocated a hypothecated tax (based on the existing national insurance system) for the joint funding of NHS and Care.

I believe there is more scope for a devolution of powers from the Department of Work and Pensions. This would enable a joined up approach to tackling worklessness and poor pay, sitting alongside the skills powers that are being devolved in 2018. I am also interested in the devolution of some aspects of the Ministry of Justice, such as the education of prisoners and the operation of restorative justice and probation.

Several devolution options are possible. I will put together a cross party advisory group to consider the next steps on our devolution journey. This group will include MPs, councillors, business leaders and academics. I will take soundings from service users and advocacy groups as to how more local control could enhance public services.

Devolution – making the most of the opportunity

April 14, 2017

My first political act was to wear a “Yes” badge during the 1979 referendum on devolution to Wales. Prime Minister Callaghan’s plans for both Wales and Scotland failed. We had to wait until 1997 before any government tried again. The Blair government devolved powers to the nations of Wales and Scotland and also to Northern Ireland and London. But devolution to English regions outside London stalled. Worse, the Labour government continued the practice of its Conservative predecessors and emasculated and hobbled local government.

The Coalition Government began the reversal of this trend and localism was championed by Liberal Democrat ministers, including myself. A report prepared for the coalition recommended that the practice of central government handing out grants after a bidding process should end. The replacement would be a network of directly elected regional mayors, who would receive devolved budgets and spend them according to their local priorities. In the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish referendum the cabinet committee on devolution, of which I was a member, decided that solving the “England Question” was urgent.

England is the most centralised country in Europe. Paddy Ashdown used to joke that only Malta was under more central direction from its capital. In May 2017 that joke will be redundant. Most of the English city regions will elect a mayor, responsible for managing large devolved budgets and exercising strategic control over some key policy areas. This is an exciting opportunity for Bristol, Bath and the surrounding towns and villages in South Gloucestershire and North East Somerset. We will be able to shape our local economic development and crack some of the transport problems that have remained unsolved for decades. We will be able to plan strategically and holistically how to grow our communities, with new homes and places of work.

Our region may be small, compared to London or the West Midlands. But we pack a big punch. The West of England, centred on its cities of Bath and Bristol, is the most prosperous city region outside London. Our vibrant economy is a net contributor of taxes to the Treasury. Our products are consumed the world over and people from around the world visit us. Yet we are often over-looked by central government. Investment in public transport goes elsewhere. Our achievements in culture and technology are undersold compared to other regions, let alone London. Some of this neglect is our own fault. We haven’t shouted loud enough about our attributes. Our voice is muted as it has been so fragmented.

Once the regional “metro” Mayor is elected, this shyness must end. If I am elected I will bring our cities, towns and villages together and speak on their behalf with one clear voice. I will bring together the three local councils that make up the Mayoral Combined Authority. The role of regional mayor will require skills of diplomacy to bring people together to agree strategic solutions to our common problems. The mayor will also be the principal voice for the region in the corridors of power in London. The strength of that voice will be amplified if the mayors of all the city regions, including London, are able to collaborate. My experience as a councillor, MP and government minister means that I am strongly equipped to achieve effective collaboration.

I will use the mandate derived from the people of all our communities to bring together Bath and Bristol. Our cities have their own special characteristics but together they are stronger than their parts. I want to make Bristol and Bath a world beating brand, a favoured location to live, work, invest and visit. As Mayor I would build strong working relationships with all our English neighbours and put joint cases to London for investment in local transport. For instance the traffic congestion in east Bath requires action in Wiltshire on re-opening local rail stations. I will also seek to have a constructive relationship with the government of Wales on the significant number of cross border issues, such as rail electrification and the Severn Bridge tolls.

English devolution is now finally underway. I will make the best possible use of the powers that are being transferred in 2017. I will bring together all of the MPs and councillors, regardless of party, to make devolution work. I will consult them, the business community and the public as to how we want devolution to develop in the future. We are starting an exciting journey and our final destination must be the sort of local empowerment for both the councils and the region that our European neighbours take for granted.

My plans for a prosperous and sustainable West of England economy

March 20, 2017

My ambition is to make Bristol, Bath and the West of England the most dynamic, pleasant and sustainable place to live, work, invest and visit. I will use the office of Metro Mayor to work with businesses and other political leaders to establish the region as the best place to start and grow a business. Investors and employees will be attracted by a high quality of life, with good connectivity to the rest of Europe and the world beyond.

The Bristol and Bath cities region economy is already the most prosperous in England outside London. It contributes over £25billion to the national economy. The taxes its people and businesses pay subsidise the rest of the country. I am not attracted by prosperity for its own sake. Our region’s wealth must be grown in a sustainable way, with opportunities for everyone to share in our growing success.

The Strategic Economic Plan produced by the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership in 2014 identified five sectors that are strong in our region and are of European significance. Professional and business services employ over 50,000 people. I started my own professional career with PWC, after graduating from Bristol University. The most iconic sector worldwide would be our advanced engineering, especially in aerospace companies such as Airbus and Rolls Royce. We are also well known for our creative and digital expertise, with Aardman Animations being the most famous. It’s less well known that Bristol and Bath is the largest cluster of silicon chip designers outside California. The SEP rightly recognises that the low carbon sector is well established here and has huge potential as we all transition to a more sustainable economy.

I will work to showcase and grow all of the above sectors. I would add that our universities are critical to our knowledge driven economy. They are especially strong when they collaborate, for instance in the Bristol and UWE joint Robotics Lab, the Bristol and Bath Science Park or the SET Squared Business Incubator. I will work to promote the tourism potential of both Bath and Bristol. The region is home to a strong agricultural and food and drink sector and I will work hard to sustain a strong rural economy. The West is also known for doing things differently and I see huge potential for the growth of social enterprises.

Here are some of my ideas for growing and sharing the opportunities of our strong local economy:

• Leading trade delegations of local businesses to win more inward investment, capitalising on what should be a world renowned brand of Bristol and Bath
• Establish Bristol and Bath as a national hub for the creative and digital industries, with new opportunities for growth at Temple Meads and Bath Quays
• Work with the Welsh government to make the Severn Estuary the world leader for clean energy from tidal lagoons
• Use part of the £30million annual investment fund that comes with devolution to create affordable space for start-up creative and high tech businesses and also for social enterprises
• Improve road connectivity with a new junction on the M4 to serve the Science Park, ensuring that villages north of the M4 are protected by a new direct link to Yate
• Share the growth potential more evenly so that north Bristol and South Gloucestershire do not overheat. There is potential for employment and housing growth in South Bristol and in the Somer Valley, with enhanced road links and new bus services
• Rail connectivity will be improved with at least four new stations (Ashley Hill, Portway, Charfield and Saltford) and I will lead a delegation of our MPs and business leaders to the Department of Transport to get electrification back on schedule
• The devolution deal allows the Metro Mayor to ask government for an increase of 2% in business rates in the region. I will work with the business community, including the Federation of Small Businesses, to prepare an investment schedule that would be financed by the increased revenue, before pursuing this option
• Jointly request with the Welsh Government that the Severn Bridge tolls should be scrapped, rather than reduced in 2018
• Bring together the cultural and hospitality sectors in Bath and Bristol to grow the number of domestic and international visitors to the cities
• Set up a joint house building social enterprise between the three local councils in order to build homes for sale and private sector rent with the surplus invested in homes for social rent. The home affordability gap in the West of England is one of the worst outside London and holds back our economic potential.
• Support Bristol Airport with a study into the potential for a tram link to Bristol
• Skills funding is devolved in 2018, I will work with local business leaders, colleges and other training providers to plan for a skills system that meets the business needs of the economy and also contributes to social mobility and social cohesion
• Work with DCMS to roll out broadband to all of the region’s villages so that business growth in a diversified rural economy is maximised
• I will be a strong voice for the 30,000 workers from other EU countries that are essential to our economy and public services. I will press the government to avoid a hard Brexit, which will be deeply damaging to our economy.
I will be publishing a full manifesto at the end of March and in the meantime would welcome feedback and other ideas for how we can grow a prosperous and sustainable economy.

 

UPDATE

The full and final version of the economy section of my manifesto can be read here http://www.stephenwilliams.org.uk/mayor_manifesto_economy

My plan for West of England trains and trams

March 14, 2017

Bristol and Bath must be the two cities with the worst local rail services. Cardiff, Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and so many others have amazing suburban train services. Cities like Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield have tram networks as well. All that Bristol has is the Severn Beach Line, serving the west and north west of the city plus a couple of stations in Bedminster on the line to Weston. Bath has local stations on the main line at Oldfield Park and Freshford. That’s it. Pathetic. No wonder only 2% of people commute to work by train, lower than anywhere else.

Plans have come and gone for the last 30 years. I remember the idea of the Avon Metro. While I was an Avon county councillor we had worked up plans for new trams, with the routes called the West Way. I still have the promotional brochures. The fragmentation of local government in 1996 killed the plan. We’ve never had the big regional transport authority, like Transport for London or Mersey Rail, which makes possible the planning for local passenger services. That will change on 4th May with the election of the new Metro Mayor to head up a new regional West of England combined authority. The Metro Mayor will be able to thrash out a transport plan for Bristol, Bath and the towns and villages of North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire.

Delivering rail improvements is much harder than enhancing bus services. There are lots of agencies with fingers in the railway pie. As Metro Mayor I would have to convince the Department of Transport, their agency Network Rail and the various private rail service providers. I would also have to bring on board our neighbours in Wiltshire and other counties. But there are some obvious quick wins. There are also some trickier projects. Here are some of my ideas:

• Open new local stations. The early priorities will be new stations on existing passenger lines that currently operate diesel trains. In Bristol these would be the old Ashley Hill station, between Stapleton Road and Filton Abbey Wood plus a park and ride on the Severn Beach Line as it abuts the Portway, taking traffic from the M5. In South Gloucestershire the front runner is Charfield, on the line between Yate and Gloucester. A dedicated bus would have to link with the nearby town of Wotton under Edge. Between Bath and Bristol I want to re-open Saltford station.
• Opening more local stations on existing lines depends on one very big factor – getting rail electrification back on schedule. Early on in my Mayoralty I would put together a deputation of MPs and business leaders to meet with the Secretary of State for Transport, who threw a spanner in the electrification works in 2016. This is not just about the London services from Bristol Temple Meads and Bath. Electrification of the main lines and some local lines would enable faster local electric trains. This would allow the timetable to be flexed to permit opening extra stations, for instance at St Anne’s and Winterbourne.
• New services on current lines. A direct link between Clifton and Bath would be very popular, with both commuters and tourists. Yate is a very popular station but the trains are overcrowded at peak times and there is only one train an hour. Extra carriages and twice hourly services would benefit Yate and Chipping Sodbury.
• New services on old lines. The line to Portishead must be re-opened. The town has seen a huge increase in residents, with many new homes. The road into Bristol is seriously congested. The rail line exists to the Port of Bristol and could easily take passenger services. I would work with North Somerset to secure the investment.
• The freight line across north Bristol, through Henbury, could also be opened up to passenger services. Stations along this route would serve the huge number of new homes being built adjacent to the old Filton Airfield. If the Port’s needs can be addressed then it could be possible to have a Bristol Circle Line, running services via the Severn Beach Line and Filton Bank.
• Commission a feasibility study on a rail link for Thornbury. The town is scheduled to have many new houses. The A38 and M5 are already under pressure. There is a rail line running from Yate to Tytherington Quarry. There is obvious potential for a passenger service into Bristol, where many residents will work.
• Commission a feasibility study into a tram link to Bristol Airport. The airport is badly served by roads and buses are often delayed in the Bristol built up area. The rail line between Bristol and Weston is not far away. The contours of the land make it difficult for a traditional rail spur, from Long Ashton. However, trams can cope with more severe gradients than trains and this could be a solution.
• Work with Wiltshire to make the case for new stations at Corsham, Box and Royal Wotton Bassett. Enhanced rail services in Wiltshire would greatly relieve car traffic pressure on east Bath.

I will be publishing a full manifesto at the end of March and in the meantime would welcome feedback and other ideas for how we can get a more extensive local rail network.

UPDATE

Here is the the full and final version of my manifesto section on transport http://www.stephenwilliams.org.uk/mayor_manifesto_transport

My plan for West of England buses

March 13, 2017

Bus services have been upsetting people for decades in the West of England. In my 25 years in politics in Bristol they have been a constant feature on the doorstep and in my mail. They are costly compared to many other cities. They don’t run late enough to the towns and villages in Gloucestershire and Somerset. In most cases they only take cash, slowing up the journey and causing hold ups along the route for other people. As they are all diesel propelled they contribute to poor air quality in both Bath and Bristol.

There has been very little that local politicians can do about these problems. Until now. The election of the West of England region’s first “Metro” Mayor will be followed by the awarding of new transport powers by central government. The Metro Mayor will be able to set franchises for bus services and insist on integrated and smart ticketing. This means that any bus company that wants to operate in the region will have to agree to the Mayor’s terms and conditions.

This is a big opportunity to transform local bus services. I have several ideas:

• A rapid move to a cashless payment system. This would include people being able to pay on entry to the bus with their debit card, a smart phone as well as other dedicated pre-paid cards and concession passes.
• A review of late night buses to the towns and villages around Bristol and Bath. This would take account of the needs of employees working late at various locations (eg Cribbs Causeway) and of people enjoying an evening out in both our cities.
• A review of Park and Ride sites and services. In some areas park and ride is an appropriate intervention to take cars off the roads into both cities. They work well at Newbridge and Brislington on the A4. The case for new sites should be rigorously tested to make sure that extra car journeys are not being created in the countryside and that air pollution is being reduced in the cities. Secure cycle parking facilities should also be available at all sites. Later services should be introduced for people leaving the theatres and other attractions of Bath and Bristol.
• Greater integration between bus routes and railway stations. Making sure that the three mainline rail stations are well served by buses. Some local stations could be better linked to the bus network. I plan to open a new rail station at Charfield, in the north of the region. To avoid an increase in rural car journeys this would be supported by a dedicated bus link to Wotton under Edge, the nearest town.
• A move to cleaner fuel and electric powered buses. Diesel fumes are a major public health issue. I will work with the Mayor of London and the other English regional Metro Mayors to develop a market for cleaner buses.
• Increased confidence in the timetable and information at the bus stop and on board. Buses should run to the published timetable but it is useful to know the real time arrival of the next bus when there are delays. Signage and voice information on board buses should be clear and take account of everyone’s needs.
• Making a success of “Metro Bus” in 2017. We’ve been enduring the disruptive roadworks and now we need to see the benefit of this huge investment in a dedicated route. I will consider carefully the case for further bus based rapid transit, for instance to Yate and Thornbury.

I will be publishing a full manifesto at the end of March and in the meantime would welcome feedback and other ideas for how we can get a high quality, reliable bus service.

UPDATE

Here is the full and final version of my manifesto section on transport http://www.stephenwilliams.org.uk/mayor_manifesto_transport