In May 2017, several English regions elected metro mayors for the first time. The directly elected metro mayors are chairs of combined authorities that have agreed to a devolution deal and are voted in by the electorates in the areas covered by these combined authorities.
Seven city regions agreed a devolution deal with the UK government and the first metro mayors were elected in most of these in May 2017: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough; Greater Manchester; Liverpool City Region; Tees Valley; West Midlands; and West of England. Sheffield City Region will elect its metro mayor in May 2018.
West is best
Tim Bowles is the metro mayor for the West of England, covering the Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire districts. He believes that the region’s commercial offering has been made stronger by these areas combining forces. “We have a joined-up brand and a bigger brand for the future. We are fortunate in that we have a great mix of sectors across the region," he says.
"It’s one of the strongest, most vibrant economies in the UK, has one of the best tech clusters in the world outside Silicon Valley, is the UK’s second leading financial services sector; and is home to the largest aerospace cluster in the UK and one of the leading ones in the world. We have a really strong creative industry. We are also really strong in our academic offering with four world-class universities. That’s what’s making major firms and start-ups excited about investing in the region.”
Mr Bowles adds that the region’s transport infrastructure is a big plus point. “We’ve got international deep-sea ports on the west coast, something that is going to be vital for the future," he says.
"Our ports are looking at how they can adapt to changing markets. For example, they’re setting up manufacturing operations for Hinkley Point power station [which is located in Somerset]. They will be able to take a lot of the concrete sections by sea from the port here down to Hinkley where they are building a new wharf and jetty. Our ports are also doing really well in auto imports and exports. And being on the M4/M5 motorway interchange, there are lots of opportunities for setting up national distribution centre operations. There are even opportunities to bring cruise liners into the port.
“We have brilliant connections into London by motorway and rail, and rail journey times are [becoming faster]. We’re also looking at improving suburban connections by reopening rail stations and developing new ones. We’re talking with the UK's infrastructure commission about how we can look at what shape that next stage of mainline [rail development] is going to take and how we can connect to it."
The skills of the region’s employees and its standard of living are also proving to be major lures, according to Mr Bowles. “We’ve got companies moving out of London to come here because we’ve got this immense pool of talent, a good quality of life and a favourable cost of living. We also have a strong tourist and visitor economy, but this could get even better,” he says.
Ben Houchen is the metro mayor for the Tees Valley, which covers the Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland and Stockton-on Tees districts in north-eastern England. He believes the new role provides a focal point for both national and international investors, saying: “We’ve found that businesses like the high profile position of a mayor that speaks on behalf of the region and takes a much more strategic view, rather than having to speak to MPs or local authorities who are quite restricted to their political areas. We’ve got funds with which we can support the building of infrastructure. We can also help businesses to invest by putting the infrastructure in and creating the environment which attracts them to places such as the Tees Valley.”
The Tees Valley established the first mayoral development corporation outside of London in August 2017. “Knowing that the mayoral development corporation was going to be established and chaired by the mayor, we’d already had more than 60 enquiries from businesses looking to invest tens of millions of pounds... which will create thousands of jobs,” says Mr Houchen. “They came from everywhere – from North America to the Far East and everywhere in between.”
There are already many international investors in the Tees Valley. “When it comes to light and heavy industry and advanced manufacturing, the Tees Valley always plays a part because Tees Port is the deepest port on the east coast,” says Mr Houchen. “We see most interest from the Far East, partly because we already have Far Eastern investors in the Tees Valley and others see opportunities associated with that.”
He adds that the region’s infrastructure is good, and money is being invested to improve it further, which is encouraging UK firms to set up distribution centres locally as well as enticing investors from other sectors. “We can bring the added value of being able to upgrade the infrastructure, help investors politically with planning, and welcome them and say this isn’t going to be like building a factory in the south-east; this will be very welcome. We’ve got good, skilled workers who, with a bit of upskilling and retraining, are very well to go into advanced manufacturing, clean energy and that type of industry,” says Mr Houchen.
With such a diversity of industries and businesses in their regions, both mayors are preparing for Brexit. “Talk to some industries and they’re excited. Others are concerned,” says Mr Bowles. “We are a globally trading region and have expertise in lots of international businesses. It’s very important to us that we represent the region and the voice of business in international trade when we have our talks with Westminster over the future. We have great trading relations with Europe, but as so much of what we are doing is global, it’s not all negative for us.”
Mr Houchen also highlights his region’s global credentials. “Teeside has been exporting to the world for the past 150 years – we built the Sydney Harbour Bridge," he says. "We’re doing all sorts of wonderful things with the rest of the world that don’t include Europe. We’re a much more outward-looking global area than people realise. But people want a step change and they want decisions to be made locally. They’ve very much bought into the fact that given the tools to do it ourselves, we can succeed, but we’ve got to be given those tools. And I think people are quietly optimistic about Brexit.”