Let’s Chat: Tim Bowles, West of England Combined Authority Mayor

Our Let’s Chat series shines the spotlight on our all-important stakeholders that form a vital part of Engine Shed. Tim Bowles is the inaugural West of England Combined Authority (WECA) Mayor, who began his tenure with an office at Engine Shed. We caught up with Tim to discuss WECA’s achievements so far, the future of funding in the region, and Brexit preparations.

1. Tim, you are our Regional Mayor and you lead the West of England Combined Authority (WECA). For those who don’t know much about this role and the organisation, can you explain further. Specifically what powers sit with WECA?

It is a new role and a new organisation, and has come about because the local councils – Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire – recognised the need to be working across our region in a more strategic way. We’re working together to address some of really big challenges with the support of the Government.

One of the key areas is economic growth across the West of England. Along with the leaders of our councils, I am committed to delivering inclusive growth for everyone across the region to benefit from. Bristol is the country’s leading core city region – outside of London we are the only region that delivers a net contribution back to the Treasury. We have the challenge to continue that growth. Within that, there are a number of areas where we can make a difference. This includes transport and connectivity – we need to address the long-term challenges. Working with our councils we are developing a Joint Local Transport Plan, addressing how the region can keep moving and growing. We also need to ensure we have the right skills across the region to meet the needs of business. We’ve got clear challenges around housing – with a need for more new homes that are affordable, and we need more space to be developing businesses as we grow and move forward.

2. Since its inception, what has the West of England Combined Authority been able to achieve for the region?

We’ve created a brand new organisation from scratch and that takes a lot of work. However, we’ve already been able to shine a light on the significance of our region to Westminster and Whitehall and successfully argue for continued investment in our area. The Government is investing millions into the region solely due to the West of England Combined Authority. Our devolution deal means we receive £30m per year directly from Government, but in our first year we have managed to secure £150m funding. The recent Budget provided a further £23million into the West of England region only because of our Combined Authority.

We have now got an important bed rock, with key developments around our Growth Hub’s support for SMEs, skills agenda, Future Bright career progression programme for working people who are on benefits, a new Careers Hub and enterprise advisors going into schools to improve careers guidance, local rail progression. There’s a lot to be building on.

3. How have you seen the impact of these developments?

It’s great to go into schools to meet young people and see how our Careers Hub and enterprise advisors are showing the next generation what their opportunities are. We’re already seeing kids making decisions on what exams they should take to become part of our vision for economic growth which benefits everyone.

Future Bright is a new programme we’ve launched; helping residents who are in paid work and receiving benefits to top up their income, to make their way into secure, more meaningful and better-paid careers. This makes a really big difference in the inclusive growth agenda – especially as I’ve just been successful in securing changes from Government to widen the eligibility of applications, so that even more people can improve their career prospects.

With regard to local rail, we have new investment from Government around how Metro West can help people move across the region. This should deliver 1.5 million new rail passenger journeys, provide 80,000 people access and enable them to get away from relying on the car. For example, if you want to go from Clifton to Bath, you should be able to turn up and go there – just like the Tube in London. We’ve also got a big success story in terms of 5G across the region, and meeting new business challenges at the forefront of innovation.

4. What projects do you have on the go at the moment?

Our 5G-test bed is very exciting. We’ve secured £5million of government funding which means we can test new 5G technology that could revolutionise how we all live, travel and work – making communities safer, greener, more efficient and more attractive places to live. Our trial involves additional 5G infrastructure being rolled out at the Roman Baths in Bath, M Shed and in and around We The Curious and Millennium Square in Bristol. It will demonstrate how 5G can enable new visitor experiences. Funding will also be used to investigate how 5G can improve and manage communications when mobile networks face increasing demand. We want the West of England to be the world-leading region for 5G. Harnessing this new technology could hold the key to a more connected, more advanced and sustainable future for the West of England. As well as supporting our visitor economy, super-fast and ultra-reliable 5G is expected to offer an increased level of connectivity and new opportunities for businesses, including better remote working, and is likely to bring significant growth opportunities for our region’s successful tech sector.

We also have our Metro West project with investment in initial plans around the Rapid Transport Schemes – this is a combination of measures to help us move away from our reliance on the car. We’re also developing our regional Bus Strategy and will be consulting on it early next year. This will consider options to improve the performance of the bus network across the region and set out how further growth in bus usage can be encouraged, including specific proposals to create better, faster, more reliable and more accessible bus services.

With regard to housing, the Government’s housing deal has provided millions of pounds to help unlock how we are delivering homes – including more affordable homes. We are working with both Sovereign and LiveWest housing associations to get more much-needed affordable homes built in our region, more quickly, through a strategic partnership with Homes England. They plan to build 2,275 new homes across the South West of England by 2024 – with ambitions to deliver half of these extra homes in the West of England – a mix of social or affordable rent as well as shared ownership. This radical approach will help more people in our region secure the right type of home, in the right place and crucially, at the right price. I’m confident that the partnership will deliver successful places where people will aspire to be.

We also recently launched our ‘Love our High Streets’ initiative to develop business across so many areas with pilot projects on high streets in our region, looking at how communities and business see high streets evolving in the future.

5. What excites you about Bristol and Bath?

We are an economically successful region where businesses start, grow and thrive in high numbers. I’m really excited about what the future looks like. There is so much happening, and I’m trying to encapsulate all the things going on. I’ve lived in the West of England for decades and now as Regional Mayor, I can use my knowledge of where we live to benefit the region, embracing the opportunities and addressing the challenges we face. I’m here to look at the bigger picture to plan for future growth and improve people’s lives – homes, jobs, skills and transport. Our role is really about helping everyone – especially school children – to see a future that they are part of. It doesn’t matter where you are, there is a real buzz happening and we are keen to keep momentum going and empower more people to help write the next chapter of the West of England’s success story.

6. How would you describe Engine Shed?

Engine Shed is a great place to showcase how we think and do things differently. It’s all about the collaboration – that is the essence of why we are special as a region. Our ability to collaborate, work together and innovate – Engine Shed really sums it up. This morning, I took a visiting group of Trade and Investment advisors from UK embassies and consulates from around the world to Engine Shed to understand what we are and how we operate as a region.

7. What has Engine Shed done for the regional economy?

There are some real success stories about individual companies and organisations that have evolved and grown through Engine Shed, and they are already delivering so many jobs and so much value into the economy. It has a proven track record of delivering in that sense. But it’s also allowing innovators and entrepreneurs to collaborate and develop together. New businesses aren’t being closeted; they are open to collaboration and Engine Shed is the natural place that unlocks that potential to grow and collaborate.

8. What role can organisations, like Engine Shed and many others, play in delivering on the WECA agenda?

If you go right back to the start of our agenda and our drive for inclusive economic growth, the way in which Engine Shed does its work is vital to that. It also works with universities with the same agenda – look at the new University of Bristol campus – that is part of it too. Engine Shed plays a key part in inclusivity and breaking down barriers – helping people, companies and organisation to  develop, innovate and succeed. A great example is Engine Shed’s Scale Up Generator and Growth Map, supported by the West of England Combined Authority and Local Enterprise Partnership, which are a great addition to our Growth Hub website. Together we’re offering businesses more information, support and guidance to access finance and growth opportunities.

9. The Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) is another regional organisation, which has a role on the WECA board – how do you make this relationship work?

As you can appreciate, we have a lot of collaboration to ensure we work well together. One of the things we did shortly after inception was to work closely with the LEP’s Chair, Prof Steve West. We sat down and looked at what the LEP’s purpose was and started looking at how to attract people onto the LEP board – focusing on those who can support the strategy aspect and be committed to inclusive growth. The LEP is now leading on the investment strategy for the West of England. The LEP has a significant role in ensuring that we get business and academics together around our table, alongside much more work in our advisory board and strategies. It’s important for myself and others, that there is a figurehead for business and universities that has a voice.

10. How are you positioning WECA for funding from UK Government compared to others such as the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine?

I touched earlier on about how Bristol is the only core city outside of London that is providing a return back to Government – well what better way than to position ourselves than as giving a return on investment? We have a really strong positive business case for Government and the global market; to invest in the West of England and share in our success. It is the strongest message we can give as a single authority. However, we are looking at how can work even more effectively with other neighbours, such as the Secretary of State for Wales and the Welsh Government. We are developing stronger economic links with the Cardiff city region and other regions, as we are the gateway with Wales. We are working even closer with other areas along the M4 East to London. By developing relationships with regions to the East and West and bringing those together with definite business offerings, we can be even stronger together at certain times.

11. What would you say are the USPs for the WECA region?

One of the LEP Board members coined the phrase ‘creative collisions’ – referring to the way in which people collaborate and innovate and become much stronger. Central to this, are the innovator and entrepreneur, who are prepared to push boundaries – just like Brunel or the Concorde project which challenged the norm in their time. I’m seeing that happening all of the time across all sectors; it’s underpinning everything and is what makes the West of England such a great place to do business.

12. How is WECA preparing for the B-word… Brexit?

As a combined authority it does mean we are able to talk directly to Government with meetings at various ministerial levels, senior civil servants and politicians. I do this individually and when we come together as group of regional Mayors at Westminster and Whitehall. With the Department of Industry and Trade, we are constantly looking at ways the region can trade effectively around the world. A lot of our new business started life with a global perspective and we are genuinely finding new businesses who do look globally. Our single greatest source of new inward investment is the USA, which constitutes roughly 50% of all foreign direct investment in the West of England. We are following developments very closely and considering how we can maximise the benefits and address the impacts for our region. There is a bright future; larger companies are investing in innovation and new ideas such as aerospace. We are looking at new tech coming together, such as the National Composites Centre which is cutting edge, especially the way in which they are collaborating work with robotics and VR labs.

13. What does funding look like in the future for our regional economy?

As a combined authority, we receive £30m per year in Government funding, however that is not going to deliver all that we need. Additional investment is coming in from Government but we need to make sure that this isn’t the only route of investment into the region. We work hard with the Department of Industry and Trade to develop and market the West of England brand around the world. There is a lot of people looking at how investment in the region can come from companies, as our region delivers a return on investment, especially as some investment markets in the south east and London are slowing down. It is vital we continue to get the positive message to Government, going beyond the Treasury, and look at new ways of bringing funding to keep the region moving ahead.

14. What role do you envisage for WECA as an investor, in the broadest sense?

On the financial side of things we see millions of pounds in new investment. Our economic growth, how we are investing in people in the region, is part of the success story. Investing in people’s future will ultimately make a difference to people’s lives. These are the big things that the West of England Combined Authority can shape to improve opportunities for people across the region.

15. What’s next for WECA?

We’ve been delivering a lot of projects; setting up and building bold and ambitious aspects in all. In the new year, we’ll be consulting people on our Joint Local Transport Plan, which sets out the approach to the way transport will develop up to 2036 in the West of England. This is an ambitious plan to get people moving and tackle congestion, whilst supporting economic growth. It will consider a wide range of options which could support sustainable and greener travel including cycling, walking, bus, rail, mass rapid transit, and electric/ autonomous vehicles. Together we want to achieve our long-term aspiration for transport in the region – connecting people and places for a vibrant and inclusive region.

We also have the Local Industrial Strategy – the fact we were asked by Government to write our Industrial Strategy allows us to be clear as a region, with evidence where our real strengths are. These can be capitalised on by Whitehall, Westminster and globally. How we take this opportunity, and the work we are doing round the Industrial Strategy to clearly shape it, makes sure we continue to be at the forefront and leading work in innovation and new ideas. It’s a really positive future, the work we are doing provides a strong base in which the West of England continues to thrive and prosper.