The first hustings for the West of England’s mayoral candidates felt different to the usual tribal exchanges we’ve seen in recent elections.
It was a decent, intelligent debate with different ideas and approaches emerging about how to meet the region’s need for more housing, decent transport and a highly skilled, successful economy.
The region is six weeks away from electing the person who will oversee about £1bn in investment in addressing these three challenges.
Everyone seems to agree that these issues are crucial to the West of England’s future success. Anyone who lives or works in the area knows its traffic and housing problems can get people fired up.
A nice start
But last night’s hustings didn’t have that edge. They were, well, nice by the low standards set by recent campaigns.
There were no personal attacks. Candidates’ points got a fair hearing. There were no jeers from the crowd and no online nastiness that I’ve seen. It makes a change from some of the anti-social nonsense that’s soured recent elections.
Does this make for an interesting or exciting campaign? Are people going to get fired up about the contest, even though the issues they are debating affect everyone?
The candidates have a tough gig in this respect. This is a new role that is not universally supported by local partners. Every step will take time to embed and be widely understood. The success of the mayor will be determined by the extent to which they can work successfully with government and local councils.
They will be asked ‘can you really do that?’ when they talk about implementing their ideas; in some cases, the honest answer won’t be yes. This may be why some candidates have appeared light on detail (see below). Some have not gone beyond saying that they will tackle the housing crisis, for example, but don’t yet say how they intend to do this.
Some of this isn’t sexy stuff, to be fair. Collaborating, building strong partnerships and respecting opposing views will be crucial for the new mayor. There is a sense that all the candidates get that.
There are some ideas emerging too. Setting up a housebuilding social enterprise to deliver affordable homes on public sites (Lib Dem), support for modular building methods (Green) and a focus on larger sites (Conservative) all featured in candidates’ housing pledges. I’d say we need all of these things (no silver bullets, etc). But at least there is some detail to underpin the promises.
Green belt question
It was interesting also that no candidate committed to looking at green belt development. Some said they support developing areas near existing infrastructure, which makes a lot of sense and is welcome. But the West of England Joint Spatial Plan consultation highlighted that this option involves some green belt development.
I felt the urge to ask ‘can you do that?’ but it didn’t feel like a nice thing to do. There’s plenty of time for this to happen in the next few weeks!
Want to find out more?
As I’ve said, the information about candidates’ policies is not too detailed. Here’s some information about the metro mayor candidates and their policies, where it’s known to exist. If I’ve missed anything, please let me know.