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It’s the news that political boffins up and down the country have been waiting for – May’s local elections are ON!

After last year’s cancelled elections, this will be the first time Britons go to the polls since the December 2019 General Election. Safe to say, a lot has changed since then!

These elections aren’t just for the self-confessed political geeks among us. The ramifications of May’s vote will have big implications on our everyday lives. Not the least for the people of West Yorkshire, who are electing their inaugural Mayor.

On Wednesday, at the West Yorkshire Economic Growth & Development Conference, we heard from each of the candidates who outlined their priorities should they be elected in May.

So, what have we learned about the candidates, and what does their future vision of West Yorkshire look like?

A New Power Dynamic?

What became immediately clear with each candidate, is that the role and responsibility of the Mayor won’t be confined to the current legislative powers of the position. Rather, the Mayorship is also perceived as a de-facto lobbyist, campaigning on behalf of the region across policy issues and seeking to influence central government on matters relating to West Yorkshire. For example, Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester was cited as an example by Labour’s Tracy Brabin and the Green’s Andrew Cooper, as a Mayor standing up for the region and lobbying central government. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat Stewart Golton, compared the success of devolution in Scotland to what could be achieved in West Yorkshire.

Therefore, we should expect that whoever wins, we are likely to see a Mayor eager to get involved and make a noise. As they make this role their own, it will be interesting to watch how Council Leaders and local MP’s manage this new power dynamic.

Transport

With sweeping new powers over transport, unsurprising that this issue was prominent throughout each of the discussions.

It should be expected that whoever wins, the new Mayor will get behind the development of a mass transit system for the region, an issue of broad consensus amongst the candidates. Tracy Brabin (a self-proclaimed ‘bus fanatic’) and Stewart Golton argued that improved connectivity was vital to improving social and economic equality across the region, equipping more deprived communities with opportunities to access jobs and investment. Andrew Cooper was also supportive, but warned that there was a risk of losing focus on the benefits of active travel schemes.

No such agreement was found on HS2, where Golton and Cooper expressed their opposition, whilst Brabin was supportive but described her frustration over the lack of clarity from central government on the Eastern Leg. Perhaps, a slight glimpse into how the Mayorship will be used to champion the region.

Commuters will rejoice that there was broad consensus about fixing the region’s railways and delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail. But before anyone gets too excited, it should be noted that policy detail was lacking here.

Planning & Development

Community engagement, sustainable development, and sector collaboration were all topics raised by the candidates. However, notably missing from each of the presentations was a meaningful discussion on greenbelt development and spatial planning.

Stewart Golton argued for further investment to prioritise the delivery of 15-minute neighbourhoods, and pledged to work closely with the sector to help identify housing need. He pressed the importance of consulting local communities, and argued that community-led legislation should be enshrined in law.

Meanwhile, Andrew Cooper focused primarily on sustainable development, arguing that more must be done in the sector to help contribute to Carbon-Zero targets. He argued for the establishment of a Green Building Fund, to support sustainable development and bring public sector buildings up to efficiency standards. Cooper called for a suspension to ‘Right to Buy’ and for an acceleration in the construction of more social housing.

Tracy Brabin echoed Cooper’s comments on sustainable development, and pledged to work with developers to identify housing need.

The Elephant not in the room

You may have noticed a notable absentee from the above discussion. With a little under three months to go, where is the Conservative candidate? The Party is yet choose. But watch this space, with an announcement anticipated in the coming days.

Each of the candidates will be happy with their appearance at the Built Environment conference, with no real memorable moments or blunders. Without a Conservative candidate, Tracy Brabin is the clear frontrunner in this race. However, as we draw closer to election day, a more in-depth policy discussion is needed.

With social distancing and the ongoing battle against Covid-19, this will be an election campaign like no other. Candidates will need to be innovative in how they engage with the electorate, particularly in reaching seldom heard groups and unrepresented communities. Whilst it’ll be difficult with social distancing, politicians need to make great effort in how they engage with residents to legitimise the Mayoral position.

So, whether you’re a commuter, looking to buy your first home, or concerned about the climate crises, this election isn’t just for political boffins, it’s for you.

If you’d like to find out more about how Social provides support for the built environment and political spheres, you can visit Social Place at our website, or contact me at jared.kerr@social.co.uk or Leeds MD Pete Wrathmell at pete.wrathmell@social.co.uk.