Tim who? We profile the Metro Mayor for the West of England, who cut his political teeth in South Gloucestershire

October 29 2018

What is the point of the Metro Mayor? Tim Bowles may have been a South Gloucestershire councillor but he is now in charge of the regional West of England Combined Authority, or WECA.

Mr Bowles accepts that WECA’s name, and his own, may not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But with some big announcements expected before the end of the year from WECA on transport and housing across the West of England, there are many reasons for all of us to pay more attention to this 18-month-old authority.

In fact, in the past few days he has flexed his muscles in the area of transport, by announcing he will call in the managing director of First Bus, James Freeman, to discuss “cancelled services and unacceptable delays” facing bus commuters across the region. He is promising to discuss the shortage of drivers, current levels of congestion and the need to continue to work on a regional bus strategy.

He has also staged a summit of England’s Metro Mayors, running at the same time as Bristol hosts a Global Parliament of Mayors, at which the regional leaders have called for more devolution and funding. Among those attending the summit are higher-profile national politicians-turned regional mayors, such as Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham and Dan Jarvis, from Sheffield City Region.

He’s not here to do the work done by the three councils that Weca covers – South Gloucestershire, Bristol and Bath & North East Somerset. That means he won’t get involved in the three existing (or almost existing) Metrobus routes, which were planned by the three councils before WECA came along.

Nor will he influence planning applications or dictate exactly how major projects should work. Instead, Weca brings all three council leaders together to make plans for the big issues that affect the region; housing, transport and skills training.

Mr Bowles seeks consensus and then goes to Whitehall seeking government approval and funding. He hints that, finally, we may be about to see the fruits of discussions that started since he took office 18 months ago (when incidentally, Weca was a tiny body, with just seven staff. Compared to most public authorities, it’s still small, with just 40 staff which will eventually expand to become 72.)

We can expect public consultation this winter on both the transport and the housing and infrastructure plans. WECA’s Joint Transport Strategy calls for four new Metrobus routes by 2036. One possibility is an orbital route around the city.

Mr Bowles will not be drawn on the specifics. “But it’s really important for your readers to know that we are working together on this,” he says.

Weca, he insists, has already drawn the promise of hundreds of millions in funding from Whitehall, for plans which the three councils couldn’t have secured individually.

“But we aim to find other ways of ribbing more investment,” he says.

Mr Bowles is also talking to potential private investors – including, intriguingly, a Japanese rail company he has met the very morning of our interview.

Again, he won’t reveal the project under discussion. But the East Japan Railway Company (EJRC) is one of the biggest rail firms in Japan, operating several of the famous high-speed bullet lines, or Shinkansen, which travel at up to 200mph.

We’re unlikely to get one of those – but EJRC also operates the futuristic Tokyo Monorail, to Tokyo’s Haneda airport. And high on the wishlist for transport in the West is a better route to Bristol Airport. WECA’s Joint Transport Study says rail is the preferred option.

EJRC has form in the UK, too: it has a 15 per cent stake in West Midlands Trains.

“The route to the airport is vital, and the people I was talking to are interested in that,” says Mr Bowles, adding that his visitors were impressed with the speedy rail link from London.

“It can help us bring more visitors in to our World Heritage city of Bath, as well as those coming here to work in the aerospace industry on the Northern Fringe, as well as making it easier for South Bristol folk to get to the new jobs that will be created as the airport expands.”

Weca is in talks with the airport and with North Somerset Council, which isn’t part of it but does cooperate.

Will the Japanese investors be interested in Marvin Rees’s idea of an underground network that could form part of a rail link to the airport?

“That’s not clear, but Marvin and I work very closely, on this and other projects,” says Mr Bowles.

One of the metro mayor’s messages to investors is that they will be investing in success, not subsidising a region that needs a handout.

“We are the only city region that pays money back to the Treasury,” he says. “Other regions cannot show that level of return. We are not looking for handouts, and we must keep driving that message.”

So will Mr Bowles and his new authority soon gain widespread recognition from the public? His critics say he’s failed to make a mark in his first year and a half. A former South Gloucestershire councillor and ex-chair of Winterbourne parish council, he hasn’t sought the limelight so far in his career. 

His low visibility is partly a measure of his limited powers and the fact that, so far, Weca has had little direct contact with the public. That’s about to change with the consultation expected to start soon.

November and December will see the public consulted on the Joint Spatial Plan, the regional plan for creating 10,000 homes, 82,000 jobs and infrastructure that involves (among other things) using a “modest” 0.65 per cent of the Green Belt around Bristol and Bath. In the New Year there will be a separate consultation on the Joint Transport Strategy, which will also have a big impact on the region.

The advantage of having a mayor leading a local authority is that they can be an attention-grabbing figurehead who can stir debate and get things done. The downside, as Marvin Rees is finding with the Bristol arena, is that the attention can become uncomfortably hot.

Tim Bowles is about to become the figurehead for the biggest changes to the West region’s landscape and travel facilities for decades. It will take a shrewd operator to steer these changes – many of which are undoubtedly needed – without taking the flak for the less popular plans. Life is about to get very interesting for him.