Devolution has enabled me to make a difference – Mayor Tracy Brabin in conversation with Urban Transport Group

Tracy Brabin
Monta Drozdova

Tracy Brabin, the Mayor of West Yorkshire, began her conversation with the Urban Transport Group with a trip down memory lane – recalling what made her want to put her hat in the ring to become the first female Metro Mayor. As an MP in the Commons, she saw the local problems and knew what she wanted to do to try to solve them but lacked the powers and money to make a meaningful change. According to Tracy, the Mayor’s role is exactly what she needed to take on these challenges. Since becoming the Mayor of West Yorkshire in 2021, Tracy has embarked on big ticket changes for the region’s transport networks.

In the interviewer’s chair was the well-known businessman and key voice for investment in transport and the North, Juergen Maier CBE, the Vice Chair of The Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

Both Juergen and Tracy reminisced about their childhood experiences of the West Yorkshire bus networks, which both recognised ‘weren’t great’ at the time. These memories led Tracy onto one of her key transport initiatives in the region – improving bus services. The region-wide consultation on whether to proceed with franchising is currently ongoing, with the Mayor expected to make her decision early next year. For Tracy, franchising is more than operational arrangements, it’s about making the bus network deliver for social good over profit.

The Mayor was famously behind the now national bus fare caps initiative, launching her ‘Mayor’s Fares’ in September 2022 in a bid to grow patronage post-Covid. It’s clear that this initiative has helped the region recover well – with weekday bus patronage now at around 86% of pre pandemic levels – as well as, according to the Mayor, helping to save £11m for passengers. “But there of course is no point in cheap fares, if the bus doesn’t turn up,” she noted, going on to set out the investment she is making to support the network, from bus priority lanes to more routes and safety officers.

The Mayor and Juergen also keenly discussed the many possibilities of delivering hydrogen buses for the region. Currently, only 2% of West Yorkshire’s bus fleet is electric and there are limits to replacing the fleet with EVs in the region, from topography to grid capacity. The wider Yorkshire region seemingly has the capacity and opportunity to kickstart the hydrogen economy, but both Juergen and Tracey recognise that more central direction, leadership and investment is necessary to make this a reality. As is embracing and facilitating public-private partnerships to make the most out of the private sector’s capacity and capability.

Affordable, reliable, safe and sustainable bus services are at the heart of West Yorkshire’s transport network success and future decarbonisation goals, particularly given the region’s low car ownership levels. However, bus is by no means the only part of the region’s transport future. According to the Mayor, the future is now squarely routed in the region’s Mass Transit plans.

Leeds is amongst the biggest urban conurbations in Europe without a mass transit system. It’s not as if plans for a Leeds tram have not been discussed before, of course, but according to the Mayor, “the stars have now aligned” to make it a reality. The mass transit plan is a major, decades-long transformation of the transport network, which will need substantial central and local investment. With the Government backing the plans with some initial funding as part of the Network North proposals, and local planning ongoing, the Mayor still has her eyes set for spades in the ground in 2028.

Devolution has made much of this planning and investment possible. According to the Mayor, the region has seen an investment of £2.8bn thanks to devolution. Beyond the investment, it’s the powers and a strategic approach that devolution has enabled, that is crucial to the Mayor. The current arrangements, however, are not the final destination for the region, as Tracy continues to work with the Government to unlock the next stages of powers and funds, such as those accessed by Greater Manchester and West Midland’s Trailblazer deals. A key goal of this for the Mayor is to unlock single settlements, which would move beyond the “beauty contests” of current competitive funding approaches which continue to plague transport funds.

As Juergen moved the discussion on to the Mayor’s 2024 outlook, devolution, as the most cost-effective way forward to deliver growth, is amongst Mayor Tracey’s key asks from a future government. And aside from a General Election, the Mayor will have her own local re-election battle to fight in May. The campaign, along with serval key local decisions, including the future of franchising, will see a busy first few months of 2024 for Tracy Brabin.

Monta Drozdova is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group

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