By announcing a snap general election - the third in seven years - the prime minister might have appeared to be doing her bit for the UK’s democratic vitality. But, in firmly pushing the year’s major electoral event out of the limelight, the opposite may have been achieved. With concerns over election fatigue and a lack of public awareness about the May 4th mayoral and local authority elections - not helped by the absence of a public information campaign to drive voter engagement - mayoral elections with significant implications for the transport sector were always at risk of underwhelming on the most basic of measures.
An ideal world would have seen waves of popular support voting in six new combined authority mayors - with the successful candidates consequently enjoying the legitimacy that backing would bring. But the reality is that, almost irrespective of voter turnout, new mayors for Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, and the West Midlands - not to mention for the West of England, the Tees Valley, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough - have the potential to shake up the way in which transport policy for around 10 million people is developed, decided, and delivered.
In Greater Manchester, the new mayor and former Labour health secretary Andy Burnham will assume responsibility for franchised bus services, railway stations and smart ticketing, paving the way for a system of integrated ticketing across the combined authority region.
Among a number of business controls, he will also assume responsibility for the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers. Like his counterparts in the West Midlands and, to a lesser extent, the Liverpool City Region, Burnham will be a prominent player on HS2, with the hybrid bill for Phase 2b (Crewe to Manchester) currently scheduled to arrive in parliament by the end of 2019, within his first term.
Time will tell the extent to which Burnham is able to deliver on his manifesto commitments, which include appointing an ‘active travel commissioner’ to help forge better cycling and walking infrastructure (including by breathing new life into neglected former railway lines and canal towpaths), reinvesting Metrolink profits into network expansion, and advancing a train station modernisation programme. Working with Rail North, he will also seek to improve the quality and capacity of rolling stock in the city region.
Manchester Piccadilly train station
Burnham’s win in Manchester, with 63% of the vote, was always expected. The same was true of Steve Rotheram’s victory in the Liverpool City Region (59%). His sights are set on making sure any forthcoming trans-Pennine ‘high speed’ rail link delivers maximum benefit to his new constituents. Echoing the party line, Rotherham will argue that HS3 should be re-branded ‘Crossrail for the North’ and is expected to lobby Westminster for Crossrail 2 to be paused until HS3 reaches construction phase. He has also signalled his support for improving direct rail services between Liverpool and North Wales, a cross-border economy with significant growth potential. Within the city, Rotherham’s campaign promised to re-open Toxteth’s St James’ station to enhance the metro network, and open a new station in the Knowledge Quarter.
Of the ‘big three’ mayoral elections, the West Midlands result was the most surprising. While the bookies had eventual winner Andy Street as favourite, the expectation of many was that Labour’s Sion Simon would hold out by capitalising on the left-leaning character of much of the combined authority region. Indeed, staunchly-Conservative Solihull is seen to be ‘what won it’ for Street; the other boroughs having far more of a red tinge.
It also seems plausible that the EU-scepticism of significant quarters of the West Midlands, including Birmingham itself (the only major city to vote Leave), helped to swing the final tally in the favour of the ex-John Lewis MD. Street, with a campaign war chest of around £1m and making the most of people’s positive associations with his former employer, now finds himself with the challenge of uniting a region marked by contrasts between rural shires and the UK’s second city.
On transport, Street will be eager to put his mark on the strategy of Transport for the West Midlands (TfWM), the new transport arm of the West Midlands Combined Authority that was established last June, dissolving Centro in the process. We might expect him to pursue a plan which links the area’s cities and boroughs, perhaps by extending the Midlands Metro. However, his biggest challenges will include cutting through the traditional rivalries of the towns that make up the West Midlands. Fortunately, he will not have to start from scratch. TfWM has aided the concept of ‘West Midlands Rail’ - a partnership of fourteen metropolitan, shire and unitary local authorities - and has been quietly working on a strategy for ratification by the mayor.
The local elections also threw up some interesting stories. In Glasgow, Labour lost majority control for the first time since 1980. Yet the SNP failed to win overall control so will struggle to deliver their manifesto pledge to reform the Strathclyde Partnership for Transport - by bringing it under the direct control of the city government. With no overall control, there are valid concerns that city decision-making will slow down, with only the least controversial of policies finding traction.
The subway is currently undergoing a near-£300m refurbishment including new trains and upgraded signalling and control systems being provided by a consortium of Ansaldo STS and Stadler.
Mayors overseeing combined authorities have a major role to play in rail policymaking. They will control important levers of devolved power over strategic transport planning and become influential in lobbying central government on, for example, rail franchise specification and supplier procurement. As recent years have shown, the Pandora’s Box of devolution is hard to close once unlocked - if combined authorities are effective, political momentum will see them acquire further powers.
With Westminster consumed by Brexit, mayors will also be important for picking up balls dropped by ministers - or for making sure they aren’t in the first place.
However, creating a new tier of government also adds complexity and uncertainty. Each mayor will have their own strategy to implement and their own way of doing business, neither of which will be immediately obvious (to business nor to the mayors themselves!). Those seeking to build dialogue - and maybe even forge behaviour change - will therefore benefit from a highly strategic approach to engagement, based on good intelligence and establishing effective relationships with mayors’ offices. The organisational personality of existing devolved bodies may also change to meet the reality of the new mayoral regimes. This will have implications for those who already work with sub national transport bodies.
Once embedded, each mayor, perhaps motivated by the white heat of localism, should be receptive to those who are offering them solutions to the strategic challenges they face. Businesses could also find mayors more open to dialogue than the ‘play it safe’ elements in Westminster.
In this context, if the rail industry can be proactive partners with the new institutions created by devolution, it will eventually pay dividends.
Ben Blackburn, Account Director