Can the West of England’s new mayor tackle its collaboration challenge?

Although the West of England has had an incredibly tough year, it’s still one of the country’s best places to live and work by many measures.

Covering areas around Bristol and Bath, the region has the spirit, ingenuity and amazing places that are unmistakably its own. It’s also the most economically productive region outside London. But it’s the region’s human qualities that make it special for so many of us.  

Although many may not realise it, residents can decide this week who leads the organisaton representing the West of England on the political stage. Bristolians can vote on Thursday alongside electing their local councillors, Bristol’s mayor and Avon and Somerset’s Police and Crime Commissioner. 

‘Super Thursday’ presents an opportunity for candidates to lead a region that needs to make its case clearly.  

Business West touched on this point in its recent manifesto for the new mayor, who will lead an organisation covering Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire council areas. Full disclosure: I have worked with some of these organisations at Social. None are clients at the time of writing this.

A collaboration challenge

It goes without saying that strong leadership – however defined – is a vital quality for the West of England’s next mayor. Candidates often characterise leadership as making the case on a national stage to secure investment for housing, transport and jobs.  

Having worked in the West of England since 2010, I think there’s an important leadership trait needed that’s closer to home for whoever succeeds. Unifying local leaders and stakeholders around a clear set of priorities is vital. It’s also proved challenging over recent years.  

Unlike Greater Manchester, which is often cited as a benchmark for regional leadership, three different parties lead the West of England Combined Authority’s councils. Independent North Somerset Council, which stepped away from the combined authority it helped create in 2016, would add a fourth perspective if it returns to the fold. Colloboration is key to making this arrangement work. If it doesn’t, it’s doubtful that making the case to ministers will land well however strongly it’s made. I’ll return to this topic in a future post.

For now, I’ll share with you the four candidates’ responses to my question on the collaboration challenge at a recent hustings event organised by Centre for Cities and Business West. I asked candidates what would they do to address this challenge.

The different responses touched on the following points:

  • Creating and fostering good relationships.
  • Having a clear vision that people can get behind.
  • Engaging partners from Somerset, Wales and MPs across the region.
  • Being clear on priorities and saying ‘no’ when it’s important to do so.
  • Engaging communities.

In truth, we need all this and more if the West of England is to build on what makes it successful. The answers also highlight a lack of clarity over what leadership means in the context of the mayoral role. This is worth reflecting on if governance in our region is to work better. It has to mean more than banging the table to ministers.

You can watch the answers to my question below. Thanks to Centre for Cities for asking me to participate in the discussion.

Vote on 6 May

This is one question highlighting a challenge facing whoever the West of England elects this week. It’s important that the new mayor starts from a strong position. Having a clear mandate to lead will help him to make the case. That is where voters come in…

I don’t have the chance to vote in the West of England’s election on Thursday. If you do, whatever your views, please use it.

You can find out more about the candidates here (pdf).

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

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