Thursday 6 May is election day. Here’s a quick guide to the role and candidates for Mayor for the West of England Combined Authority.
This mayor leads the West of England Combined Authority. Don’t confuse this with the Mayor of Bristol, who leads Bristol City Council.
The West of England Combined Authority was created in 2017, following a deal between central government and the local authority areas of Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset, and South Gloucestershire.
The combined authority mayor oversees a small annual budget of around £30m, or about £27 per head. Given this small budget, the mayor’s main tool is their convening power: they try to get the local authorities to link up where there could be benefits.
These issues might include transport across the combined authority area, economic growth, workers’ skills and training, or plans for housing. The mayor may also be able to use their role to persuade central government to provide more funding to the region.
Tim Bowles, for the Conservatives, was the first person to be elected Mayor for the West of England in 2017. Never heard of him? You’re not alone: Prime Minister Boris Johnson could not name the combined authority mayor when asked. Mr Bowles is not standing again.
Who are the candidates for Mayor for the West of England?
There are four candidates. You must vote for a first choice and you can also vote for a second choice.
Dan Norris (Labour Party)
Dan Norris has pledged to make jobs his priority if he wins. He says he has a plan to create 23,000 new ‘green jobs’ and promised to hold a jobs and skills summit in his first 100 days as mayor. The other areas he says he would focus on include public transport, affordable homes, fast and affordable broadband.
Norris has said the government’s so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda needs to have an east-west as well as north-south dimension when considering regional inequalities. He has called for West of England area to ditch its ‘WECA’ acronym due to it being too anonymous to enable it to fight its corner.
He told one election debate event that the mayor’s budget is “too limited to be experimental,” adding: “We want things we know work and to implement them as quickly as possible.” He also criticised Labour’s stance on Bristol Airport and said he personally opposed expansion.
Norris was the MP for Wansdyke from 1997 to 2010, but lost his seat to Jacob Rees-Mogg after boundaries were redrawn to create the current North East Somerset constituency. In Parliament, Norris consistently voted for the Iraq war, for university tuition fees and almost always for greater EU integration. Under the then Labour government, he had some responsibility for the government’s environment policy, and also served as an aide to former foreign secretary David Miliband.
He trained as a child protection officer with the NSPCC. He is on the board of the Snowdon Trust, a charity helping disabled children studying in the UK. He also has a role with Kidscape, an anti-bullying charity.
Jerome Thomas (Green Party)
Jerome Thomas’ pledges are built around the idea of a ‘green new deal’. Thomas hopes to create ‘good homes and secure jobs’ in a way that tackles climate change. He says he will use the mayor’s power to compulsorily purchase land to build new homes.
Thomas has written that “toxic air is a genuine public health crisis across Bristol”, and has called for electric scooters and e-bikes to be better integrated as public transport solutions to help tackle congestion. On transport, he has also pledged to “reject a future of airport expansion and road building”, telling a recent hustings that he would halt contruction of new roads within his remit, and favours reallocating the budget to pay for cycling infrastructure.
Elsewhere Thomas has branded local levels of food poverty a “disgrace”, promising to focus on enabling better access to high-quality affordable food via a regional strategy, and linking this to more sustainable farming methods.
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He has also launched a manifesto for women, called the Womanifesto, following a prompt by Bristol Women’s Commission for candidates to include women in their policy statements. “Starting from a lower base of less secure jobs and lower pay, women have been more likely to lose jobs or pay during lockdown, and may have had to do most of the childcare and home educating while schools were closed,” he says. “This pattern of social and economic inequality must be recognised and addressed.”
Thomas has had a career in business. He set up and ran Metro Safety Group, a fire, health and safety services company that now employs 80 people across the UK. He is still on the board of the company in a non-executive role.
He is standing down from Bristol City Council, where he is currently councillor for Clifton, in order to run for metro mayor. His record with the council includes putting forward a motion to call plans for airport expansion “incompatible with carbon reduction targets”. He has also criticised the council’s investment in Bristol Energy.
Samuel Williams (Conservative Party)
Samuel Williams originally planned to stand in Bristol’s mayoral election, before dropping out and switching to the combined authority mayor. He has said “jobs, homes and investment” would be his priorities if he wins.
Williams’ pledges include delivering six new railway stations, at Avonmouth, Ashley Down, Charfield, Henbury, North Filton and Portishead, creating training schemes that match local opportunity, and building homes on brownfield sites in Bath and Bristol. He also says he will employ ‘community ambassadors’ – who would foster collaboration between the mayor’s office, local councillors and the charitable, business and education sectors – as part of a ‘levelling-up’ agenda to ensure economic growth is fair.
Williams says he has developed asthma since moving to Bristol. He says he worries for residents’ health, including his two daughters “growing up in a city that is polluting their lungs”. He would like to see the money from clean air zones spent on “other forms of transport such as e-scooters”.
Despite this, Williams also says he is not opposed to airport expansion, claiming that profits from Bristol Airport could be put into research to deliver “the first fully sustainable carbon neutral airport”.
Williams trained to become a priest in the Church of England, attending an evangelical Christian training college in Dorset, before setting up his own business. He lives in Windmill Hill in Bristol and works for a speech-writing and communications company. He also has a role with Christian Aid, organising an ‘ethical business network’.
Stephen Williams (Liberal Democrat)
Stephen Williams’ pledges include thousands of green, affordable homes and new bus routes and train stations. He would plan to make West of England a centre for retraining into green jobs.
On transport, Stephen Williams has said: “Bath and Bristol have the worst public transport in England. I would force bus companies to have new orbital routes around the communities of both cities, and new links to the surrounding countryside. There would be simple fare schemes and all buses would run on clean fuel by 2030.”
Another early priority for Williams would be a park-and-ride scheme to divert people off the M5 and onto the Severn Beach line. Similarly to the Greens’ Jerome Thomas, he has said he would immediately stop work on new road schemes.
Williams claims that elsewhere in England, combined authority mayors have received ‘extra powers and hundreds of millions of pounds’ from central government, but that the West of England region has missed out and that “the Tory regional mayor has shown little imagination or ambition for returning us to prosperity”. He pledges to work to receive more power and funding for the area.
Williams was Bristol West’s MP from 2005 to 2015, before being defeated by Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire. He was the Liberal Democrats’ first openly gay MP. As an MP he almost always voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits and for academy schools. He says he was the “only MP in the area who did not support airport expansion” back in 2006/2007, and that as a result he received a furious response from the airport and chamber of commerce.
Williams gained experience in the 2010-2015 coalition government working on housing, and voted consistently in favour of the controversial ‘bedroom tax’ that penalises social housing tenants who live in homes with spare rooms. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, it emerged that while in government, Williams had, along with other ministers, rejected a request to review fire safety in tower blocks.
He stood as a candidate for Mayor for West of England in 2017 and came third.
Williams grew up in south Wales and worked as tax advisor and accountant before becoming an MP. He lives off Gloucester Road in Bristol.
How to vote
The registration deadlines have now passed. If you have a postal vote, it must be returned before 10pm on Thursday 6 May.
To vote in person, go to your polling station on Thursday 6 May, between 7am and 10pm. Wear a mask and take your own pen or pencil, if you can.
When voting for the Mayor for the West of England, you have a vote for your first-choice candidate and, if you want to use it, a vote for your second-choice candidate. Read the instructions on the ballot paper carefully – and don’t be afraid to ask the polling station staff if you have any questions, they’re there to help.
You can see a sample ballot paper and get more information on the role and the candidates in the official booklet, available online here.