It is a big role and the winner will be responsible for transport, housing, skills and an extra £1.8bn of long-term funding for England’s second largest economic area after London.
They will take office at a critical time for the city-region which has been hit hard by the pandemic. Since it began, 53,000 people in West Yorkshire started claiming unemployment-related benefits and many businesses are struggling to survive. There are three key priorities that the metro-mayor will need to focus on to build back better.
First, they must tackle the city-region’s persistent educational underperformance that limits its economic potential. In Bradford, the share of people with no qualifications is six percentage points above the national average, which of course means that local pay and living standards also suffer.
The new metro-mayor will need to target their £63m adult education budget in the areas that need it most – Bradford and Wakefield – and ensure that as many people as possible have access to courses and careers advice.
To make it easier to help people who could have been out of the education system for decades the metro-mayor should expand provision of evening and weekend classes and shorter more informal courses.
The new metro-mayor should also be open to borrowing good ideas from other cities. In Liverpool the metro-mayor launched a successful scheme to link young people up with apprenticeships in a similar way that UCAS links them up to universities.
The winner will also need to get to grips with West Yorkshire’s traffic congestion which is stunting local economic growth and killing people.
As many as one in 20 deaths in parts of West Yorkshire are linked to air pollution according to a previous Centre for Cities’ study. Because of this it is essential that the metro-mayor gets people out of their cars and onto buses, trains and bikes. They’ll need a mix of carrots and sticks to do this.
The carrot should come in the form of an affordable and efficient public transport system that people actually want to use. Over in Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham is bringing the buses under public management, promising cheaper fares and simpler, integrated routes. The first West Yorkshire metro-mayor should also do this.
The stick should come in the form of congestion charging. I know that this will be controversial for many, but congestion charges are proven to reduce both traffic congestion and air pollution. The funds raised by charging drivers could then be re-invested in the public transport system, as they are in London.
The metro-mayor’s third key priority needs to be to encourage people back into West Yorkshire’s urban centres. At its lowest level in 2020, visitor numbers in Wakefield city centre were down to just 11 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. In Leeds city centre the situation was even worse, with numbers at just seven per cent.
While shops, pubs and restaurants remain half empty, there’s a real risk that unemployment will continue to rise across West Yorkshire as more businesses go under.
As the vaccination programme progresses and restrictions ease, the metro-mayor needs to champion West Yorkshire’s businesses with a campaign to get people back spending time and money again in central Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield.
Whoever wins has a big job ahead of them. In addition, the winner will need to raise the profile of the metro mayor as an institution.
Recent Centre for Cities’ polling has shown that less than half of people across West Yorkshire were aware of today’s poll and 97 per cent couldn’t correctly name a candidate.
While I’m sure that these figures will improve, the metro-mayor will need to raise their profile in the way that Sadiq Khan in London and the aforementioned Andy Burnham have.
But, while the challenges that the new metro-mayor faces are great, they will also have the chance to make meaningful changes to the lives of the 2.3 million people.
If they do their job properly, they could transform the city-region and show the remaining 30 per cent of people in parts of Yorkshire without a devolution deal what they’re missing out on.
Andrew Carter is chief executive of Centre for Cities.
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