This May, parties will face their first electoral test since the Covid-19 pandemic, and voters will decide who has the most compelling vision of Britain’s ‘new normal’. This will be a vision that needs to deliver for villages, towns and cities across the country, while addressing underlying changes to living and working structures.

We are following five battles across the UK, each of which will have significant implications for development and infrastructure plans locally and nationally.

The battlegrounds we are focusing on are the West Midlands Mayoral, the Tees Valley Mayoral, Northumberland Council, West of England Mayoral, and Thurrock Council. These elections provide an excellent platform to examine the influence and cut-through of the government’s levelling-up agenda, writ large in the commitment to ‘build back better’ through extensive infrastructure development.

About the West Midlands mayoral election

The West Midlands electoral area includes the metropolitan boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. It is a diverse region home to over 2.5 million people. The area has the potential to spearhead the country’s green revolution, just as it did in the 18th Century with the Industrial Revolution. The candidates vying to win the upcoming mayoral election will need to be bold, ambitious, and optimistic.

Runners and riders

(First and second choice prediction poll conducted by Find Out Now (FON) from 1 to 7 April and first choice prediction poll run by Redfield & Wilton Strategies (Redfield) from 18 to 21 April)

In 2017, the election was a two-horse race between the Conservative’s Andy Street and Labour’s Siôn Simon. Street won with an extraordinarily slim majority of 3,766 votes in the second round. This election is predicted to be no different.

Andy Street (Conservative)

FON poll prediction – First choice vote share: 45% | Second choice vote share: 52%

Redfield – First choice vote share: 46%

Incumbent Mayor, Andy Street, is pitching himself for a second term based on his record over the last four years. He claims to have attracted £3.3bn worth of investment in the region since 2017 and has committed to securing £10bn in his next term. He also wants to deliver 100,000 jobs in two years. He hopes some jobs will come from leading infrastructure projects like HS2. He is a keen advocate for HS2, believing that it will make West Midlands the heart of the UK’s transport system, attracting businesses to the region.

Street unveiled a £15bn metro and rail masterplan for the West Midlands in 2020, including delivery of eight new Metro lines and 21 new rail stations by 2040. Planning permission has been secured to reopen five stations so far. They are expected to open by 2023 and cost £61m. While Street is a keen proponent of the plans, he is not providing all the funding himself and is undoubtedly benefiting from government support. The Department for Transport is providing £20m, Birmingham City Council £21m and the West Midlands Combined Authority £21m. Street claims that he secured £250m from the government to extend the rail network in 2017 and promises to “bombard Grant Shapps” with plans for eighteen more stations if he wins the election.

Street’s green credentials are noteworthy. He wants to make the region net-zero carbon within 20 years. He will agree on a programme of new segregated cycle routes, hire a new Executive Commissioner for cycling and walking, complete the roll-out of the West Midlands bike hire scheme and deliver more hydrogen powered and electric buses, including making Coventry’s bus fleet all-electric. He believes his infrastructure and development plans can be met without impinging on the green belt, something that remains to be seen.

Liam Byrne (Labour)

FON poll prediction – First choice vote share: 38% | Second choice vote share: 48%

Redfield – First choice vote share: 37%

Street’s primary challenger, Liam Byrne, is positioning the West Midlands region at the forefront of the green industrial revolution. He wants to convene a COP-WM to bring important stakeholders in the area together to make the West Midlands the first net-zero region and the green workshop of the world. This translates into a new training and skills programme which will provide 200,000 green manufacturing and trades jobs.

Byrne will create a new Mayoral structure called GrETHA (Green Energy, Housing, Transport Agency) and give it £500m of borrowing capacity to deliver those projects. The structure will issue West Midlands Green Bonds to further increase funding. Unlike Street, he does not rule out building on the green belt.

On HS2, Byrne wants to accelerate the project to provide more jobs. He previously led a campaign against the Washwood Heath Depot because he preferred the land to be used as a business park. He has criticised the planned design of Curzon Street station and proposed that a new science museum be built in it. He wants the £2.75bn contract to manufacture the HS2 train fleet to be given to a firm in the Black Country.

Byrne has pledged to create a 10-year transport plan including the setup of a West Midlands Project Speed to replace Street’s tube map and see how the transport infrastructure programme can be delivered faster. He will urge train companies to move to electric or hydrogen trains and aims to continue the ‘very light rail’ programme in Coventry to provide a fleet of 100 shuttles and reignite the East Birmingham and Solihull Tram proposal. He wants to make Coventry’s bus fleet all-electric and half of West Midland’s fleet electric or hydrogen based by 2025. The 2025 target is ambitious and provides more certainty than Street.

Byrne has promised to roll out a walking and cycling network across the region to double cycling use by 2025, so 50% of all journeys in town and cities are either or walked or cycled by 2030. He will also appoint an active travel champion.

Jenny Wilkinson (Liberal Democrat)

FON poll prediction – First choice vote share: 4% | Second choice vote share: N/A

Redfield – First choice vote share: 6%

What makes Jenny Wilkinson’s bid distinctive is the promise to establish local Citizens’ Assemblies to help find solutions to challenges, including the climate emergency and system racism in public institutions.

It is unclear whether voters will buy into Wilkinson’s call for direct democracy. Considering the stunningly low turnout of 27% at the 2017 election, residents do not appear to be engaged.

Steve Caudwell (Green)

FON poll prediction – First choice vote share: 8% | Second choice vote share: N/A

Redfield – First choice vote share: 5%

While Steve Caudwell is unlikely to cause any major upsets, if the frontrunners can convince Green voters that they have the best environmental solutions, that might secure them the edge as the second-choice candidate and win the second round.

Unlike the other candidates, Caudwell wants to bring buses back into public ownership and end the West Midlands Railway franchise.

Pete Durnell (Reform UK)

Redfield – First choice vote share: 4%

Pete Durnell is an anti-establishment libertarian who previously ran as a UKIP candidate in the 2017 mayoral elections.

He is the only candidate openly critical of HS2, calling it a “massive vanity project, and clearly not the best way to spend £100bn”. Instead, he wants to spend the money on an integrated transport network.

Voters might select Durnell as a protest vote, so who knows where their second choice will go.

Local issues

Unsurprisingly, the key concern for voters is health. This comes after Covid-19 has ravaged communities over the last year, causing 100,000 people to lose their jobs. According to Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ recent poll, the key issues for voters are:

  •  Health (50%)
  • Policing (42%)
  • Environment (37%)
  • Economic growth (33%)
  • Education (33%)

Of those key issues (note: education not included), Labour is more trusted than the Conservatives to deliver on all key campaign issues except for strengthening the economy. The green revolution and infrastructure development is key to economic recovery in the West Midlands, where the Conservative’s Andy Street is perceived as particularly strong. While Labour is trusted to handle the majority of local issues better, the Conservatives are polling ahead. Could Street’s record on infrastructure make the difference?

Wider picture

Whatever the outcome on May 6, the future of the West Midlands region is integral to the United Kingdom’s green revolution and economic recovery from Covid-19. The future Mayor needs to fight hammer and tong for the West Midlands to ensure it benefits from government funding and plays its role as the second most populous region in the country. Byrne has already criticised Street for not being bold enough and planted his flag as the candidate to do it. He said: “People in the West Midlands can name Andy Burnham and they can name Sadiq Khan, but they can’t name their own Mayor,” he said. “Lots of people in the Midlands feel we now risk being overlooked.” Will voters side with Byrne or will they back Street with his infrastructure and development focused record as Mayor and background as Managing Director of John Lewis?

This May, parties will face their first electoral test since the Covid-19 pandemic, and voters will decide who has the most compelling vision of Britain’s ‘new normal’. This will be a vision that needs to deliver for villages, towns and cities across the country, while addressing underlying changes to living and working structures.

We are following five battles across the UK, each of which will have significant implications for development and infrastructure plans locally and nationally.

The battlegrounds we are focusing on are the West Midlands Mayoral, the Tees Valley Mayoral, Northumberland Council, West of England Mayoral, and Thurrock Council. These elections provide an excellent platform to examine the influence and cut-through of the government’s levelling-up agenda, writ large in the commitment to ‘build back better’ through extensive infrastructure development.

About the West of England Combined Authority

The upcoming West of England Combined Authority (WECA) mayoral election will be the second election since the Combined Authority’s creation in 2017. Whoever is elected will succeed the Conservative incumbent and inaugural Mayor of the West of England, Tim Bowles, who is retiring at this election.

All bets are off in terms of the outcome of this election for two reasons:

First, the combined authority is young and preceded by only one previous election, won by Conservative incumbent Mayor Tim Bowles. Turnout for this election was low at a time when WECA was still obscure for many, and there were no accompanying local authority elections to draw citizens to the voting booths.

Second, WECA is equally divided along party lines. WECA is composed of three unitary authorities, namely Bath & North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire, and Bristol. The leadership is represented by:

  • Liberal Democrat Councillor Dine Romero of Bath & North East Somerset
  • Council Conservative Councillor Toby Savage of South Gloucestershire Council
  • Labour Mayor Marvin Rees of Bristol City Council

This means that, apart from Conservative WECA leader Tim Bowles, the Combined Authority cabinet is equally split between three major political parties.

May 6th will also be the day Bristolians get to elect their mayor, with incumbent Labour mayor Marvin Rees running for re-election. Rees holds considerable sway in the region, being at the head of the West of England’s biggest urban hub, which could prove to be a determining factor in the outcome of the regional mayoral election. The two incumbents have had a tumultuous relationship over the years, with Bristol’s Mr Rees claiming that the city was being excluded from key decision-making, and Mr Bowles claiming that Bristol City Council was blocking the planned expansion of WECA to include North Somerset. Although they called a truce earlier this year, the interplay of influence and power between city and regional mayors will certainly evolve following the election.

Whoever is appointed WECA mayor will exercise key functions devolved from the central government, as laid out in the West of England Devolution Agreement. Among these are responsibility over the local transport budget, control of over £30 million a year in funding, power over strategic planning and a new key route network, and responsibility for the adult education budget.

They also face a challenge that the Combined Authority, however effective it might be, has arguably yet to establish itself as a widely recognised political force in the life of those in the region, with a recent survey indicating that the current mayor has been operating under the radar for many residents.

Embracing infrastructure opportunities in the West of England

At a recent hustings event, housing and transport emerged as twin themes.

Labour candidate Dan Norris highlighted the case for affordable homes and emphasised the need for funding towards council homes and housing associations, while the Green Party’s Jerome Thomas would turn to the mayorship’s hitherto unused compulsory purchase powers as a way to buy land for new housing. Conversely, Conservative candidate Samuel Williams spoke of a ‘need to engage the market’ and his desire to see the private housing market play a key role in his vision to build 130,000 new homes over the next few years.

The election takes place against the backdrop of critical changes in the region’s transport infrastructure, with the West of England Mass Transit Project in its early stages and the Joint Local Transport Plan 4 (JLTP4) in its first phase of implementation.

Liberal Democrat candidate Stephen Williams and Jerome Thomas both agreed that they would tell officers to stop working on new roads, with Stephen Williams arguing that he would stop road construction in order to ‘work up how bus franchising would work best’.

Pointing to the fact that transport accounts for 34% of carbon emissions in the region, Jerome Thomas reflected an overwhelming agreement among candidates that sustainable transport and policies aimed at tackling the climate emergency must be at the forefront of any and all programmes. This consensus is a sign of the times for a region where a transport overhaul has long dominated the list of local issues, and where two of the most ambitious transit and road plans in England are currently underway.

While all candidates share ambitions for long-term improvements to dramatically change the way people move around the West of England, they had diverging ideas on what these would look like. Other than ideas ranging from Samuel Williams’s suggestion for trams, to Jerome Thomas’s proposal for a green bus and taxi fleet, details on what a green transport revolution would entail for the West of England are still unclear. What is certain however is that people in the West of England are impatient for a revitalised transport system, and that the upcoming Mayorship will likely go to the candidate most able to distinguish themselves as a champion for infrastructure and an advocate for transport.

Wider picture

The role of infrastructure development in the election and in the chosen candidate’s success cannot be overstated, as the region attempts to impose itself as a powerhouse in the wake of sweeping Government investment in infrastructure, and as the country prepares to rebuild post-Covid.

While the election will close on May 6th, the real race could begin thereafter, as the newly elected Mayor will take on the challenge of raising WECA’s profile. Tough choices will ensue, with a need for all three authorities as well as neighbouring North Somerset to overcome divergent party-political lines to work towards ambitious regional policies (including the 2030 net zero target and Joint Local Transport Plan), and major projects like Mass Transit and the Spatial Development Strategy. For any party to succeed, they must ensure they have understood residents’ concerns and have developed a decisive plan to deliver meaningful and long-lasting change to the region.

Copper Consultancy will be providing ongoing coverage of the May 2021 Local Elections. For more information, please contact jonathan.surridge@copperconsultancy.com

The government’s recent adoption of a new target to reduce emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 put renewed focus on sectors such as international aviation and shipping which previously sat outside the UK’s Carbon Budget. But the adoption of recommendations from the Climate Change Committee also has major implications for an industry much closer to home. James Gore considers the decarbonisation challenge faced by the housing sector. 

The UK has some of the most energy inefficient housing in Europe, a situation exacerbated by increased working from home during the pandemic. Many column inches have been devoted to the eye-watering cost of retrofitting existing housing stock, with the bill for the social housing sector alone estimated at more than £100bn. But, as the Climate Change Committee has pointed out, work is also needed to close the gap between design and actual performance of new homes when it comes to energy efficiency. 

Improving the performance of new and existing homes requires a workforce skilled in low-carbon heating and ventilation and closing this low-carbon skills gap could provide opportunities for young people who have been hit hardest by the economic impact of Covid-19.  But inspiring a generation to help make this happen requires a coordinated approach to communications from government and industry. 

At the same time, the sector must do more to counter negativity around the potential cost to homeowners and landlords of meeting the decarbonisation challenge.  Increasingly, organisations in the social housing sector are working together to procure services and develop the skills required to meet the decarbonisation challenge, and there is a strong case for this joined-up approach extending to the sector’s communications on this issue. 

Copper’s research into public attitudes to net zero emissions in the UK suggests the public are willing to invest in new technologies if this is accompanied by some form of incentive from government. But negative media coverage about the effectiveness of replacement heating systems risks reducing people’s appetite for making the required changes.  Without clearer articulation of the benefits for both individuals and society as a whole, the housing sector faces an uphill battle to convince the public the price is worth paying. 

In the run up to COP26, the housing sector will have opportunities to shine a light on these challenges and showcase steps it is taking towards a low-carbon future.  It is important that the sector speaks with one voice on this critical issue, making clear its ‘asks’ from government and communicating a positive message to the public about the opportunities that come from decarbonisation. By cutting through noise on this issue to communicate a clear and compelling message, the housing sector can emerge as a leader in the UK’s efforts to meet its net zero target. 

Find Copper Consultancy’s ‘Attitudes to Net Zero’ research here. For more information on how to address communications challenges around decarbonisation contact James.Gore@copperconsultancy.com 

In this blog Aliba Haque explores how cities in the UK and across the world are reimagining urban life and using their post-pandemic recovery plans to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis, in the third and final part of a blog series following on from our ‘Reshaping Towns and Cities in a post-COVID world’ webinar.

Many urban economists call cities the engines of economic growth.  Cities are the social magnets behind globalisation as well as the epicentres of new ideas and advanced technologies, the pools of high-skilled labour and dynamic manufacturing and the networks of goods, services and opportunities.

When the COVID-19 crisis brought cities to a halt, thriving public spaces emptied overnight. The pandemic altered the fabric of urban life and brought cities to the frontline of the response to the pandemic, with many adopting ‘agile approaches’ to overcoming challenges and implementing measures that support advancing environmental objectives as part of their recovery plans.

Smart cities

According to Capgemini’s (2020) ‘Fast-forward to the future: Defining and winning the post-COVID new normal’ 2020 report, the pandemic has ‘cemented technology’s role at the heart of transformation, driving new ways of interaction, sharing, engaging, and decision making’. Technology has been crucial to cities and how they have responded to the pandemic, implementing tools to measure contagion risk, social distancing measures and the continuation of vital services such as deliveries. Undoubtedly the COVID-19 crisis has renewed interest in the ‘smart cities’ policy approach where cities collaborate with the private sector to design, implement and encourage the use of technology across public infrastructure to “diminish the shortcomings of urbanisation for citizens” (Smart City Index, 2020).

In the UK, Newcastle used smart city technologies and deep learning algorithms to measure whether social distancing measures were being followed by citizens and used such data to analyse mobility patterns following lockdown measures.

Seoul and Daegu used artificial intelligence and innovative technology to promptly develop a coronavirus testing kit and a smart quarantine information system where inbound passengers could be accurately tested for COVID-19 instantly. Passengers could then be isolated to stop the spread. Both cities also used geo-localised mobile technology for contact tracing. Mexico City partnered up with Google maps and Waze to monitor mobility throughout the city, whilst Budapest used smart city tools to control large gatherings and identify places where there were high concentrations of people.

Working from home and social infrastructure

For large parts of the population, the pandemic has normalised remote working, studying and shopping. Termed the ‘Zoomshock’ (University of Nottingham, 2021), productive activities are moving workers from high-density urban areas back to low-density residential neighbourhoods. Whilst the potential for remote work varies by occupation, sector and country, advanced economies such as the UK, France, Spain, the US and Germany have reported high levels of employee time spent working remotely (McKinsey, 2020). This is likely to become the ‘new normal’ where companies, businesses and institutions will make the most of agile working patterns due to lockdown and social distancing measures.

Breaking through the digital divide

Yet, one of the many inequalities exacerbated by COVID-19 is the digital divide, specifically internet access and lack of adequate digital equipment or infrastructure. In New York, approximately 300,000 students did not have access to digital devices to complete their studies whilst in Yokohama, Japan, where students did not have access to the internet, some lessons were made available to watch on local TV stations. Milan called for the launch of donation services for devices and internet connections whilst the City of Toronto partnered with IT companies to provide free, temporary internet access to low-income neighbourhoods.

To prevent the risk of digital exclusion, it is important for projects in the UK to take lessons from these international cities and combine digital engagement with traditional methods such as newsletters, telephone surgeries and advertising projects in local newspapers and public information points.

The future of urban mobility

Whilst the crisis highlighted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our public spaces and the high street, the relationship between cities and urban mobility has also been strongly impacted.

Urban planners and developers have had to pause momentarily and rethink their approaches towards urban space, opening doors to conversations about alternative mobility measures. The 1000 Cities Adapt Now initiative, launched earlier this year by the Global Commission on Adaptation, has exemplified this, with 1,000 cities across the globe examining climate adaptability measures alongside post-pandemic recovery options that will have immediate benefits for the most vulnerable communities.

Already many cities are exploring transformational urban mobility plans by turning roads into open streets (as outlined in our blog on ‘Re-imagining city spaces in a post-Covid world’) and investing more in active mobility infrastructure.

Milan’s ambitious transport scheme places more of on an emphasis on public transport safety and accessibility, Southampton is promoting low emission transport options such as electric vehicles and scooter usage, Montreal plans to increase green space available to residents and Valencia has increased protections surrounding its green belt, as part of a climate resilience strategy.

Looking forward

Cities across the globe have played a crucial role to complement post-pandemic recovery responses, approaching the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis as opportunities to actively reinvent, innovate and sustain urban life.

As they seek to move from responding to emergency situations to long-term post-pandemic recovery strategies, decisionmakers for our cities will need to harness tools that can accelerate recovery, such as innovative technologies and widening digital access and participation.

Doing so will allow urban planners and policymakers to address and tackle the widening gap between building back better and infrastructure investment, to make urban centres better for our public health, economies and our environment.

For our cities to be part of a sustainable green recovery, the planning approaches and policy responses needed will have to demonstrate long-term innovation and future proof for resilience that goes far beyond temporary measures that merely ‘kickstart’ economies.

Recovery measures will need to systematically reassess how our cities function, how to tackle socioeconomic inequality and environmental damages caused by urban living and, most importantly, how to not only build back better but build back smarter.

To find out more about the importance of planning, regeneration and urban design in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery for our towns and cities, please contact Aliba Haque, Account Executive within Copper’s Economic Development practice at aliba.haque@copperconsultancy.com.