Most people have not heard of Dan Norris. Despite being the most powerful figure in the West of England, he is not even the most famous Norris from the area. That is not surprising: most people have not heard of most Metro mayors, barring a certain high-profile former MP. One of two Labour candidates in May turned a Metro Mayoralty from Tory to Labour, the former Wansdyke MP has recently made a return to local politics eleven years after losing his Westminster seat. Yet given the task ahead of him, he could yet find himself in the public eye.
Norris is the Mayor of the West of England, comprising of the City of Bristol, South Gloucestershire & Bath and North East Somerset – three of the four areas that used to make up the County of Avon until 1996. While Bristol also has its own Mayor, it is with the Metro Mayor that power lies with regards to transport.
In Westminster, Norris was at the time a loyal Blairite, having been a junior DEFRA minister and voted for the Iraq War. Being a Metro Mayor probably makes Norris the most powerful member of that tradition, and while he never rose to prominence, simply having experience in government sets him apart from most Labour Metro Mayors and MPs.
Norris seems to be following his tradition, taking an approach much more in tune with the Labour right than the one of “municipal socialism”. Norris’ main aim has been primarily about consensus building, trying to get a buy-in from the region’s various political leaders. With such a finely balanced Combined Authority (Norris and Marvin Rees are the two Labour members, plus the leaders of Tory South Gloucestershire and Lib Dem Bath & North East Somerset and a member of the Local Enterprise Partnership), this strategy has so far avoided big and public rows about what projects are funded in what areas of the region.
It is a notable difference that sets him aside from Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, whose time in office has been dogged by criticism over his accountability, most notably over the Bristol Arena. Rees escaped Norris’ attempts at peacemaking, with tensions simmering over Rees’ insistence on pushing for the Bristol Underground, and Norris’ targeted remarks saying there can be no “pet projects” in the region. They also clashed over Rees’s support for the controversial “carbon neutral” Bristol Airport expansion, something Norris has opposed, and recently got WECA to pass a motion to oppose.
Aside from the classical Labour fratricide stories, good news for the region is on the horizon. Norris has recently secured between £550 and £880 million from the £4.2 billion pot of money available to metro mayors from central government to create more integrated transport networks. Although the region is yet to get its own “Levelling Up” White Paper (it is currently expected in the autumn), what this initial sum of money is spent on may be an indication of Norris’ priorities.
These are busy times for Norris. He begins his term of office without much infrastructure in place, which considering that five of the other city regions (Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, the North of Tyne, the Sheffield City Region and Merseyside) have some kind of mass transit system that predates their metro mayor, shows how uphill his battle to fix the West’s transport issues is, and how unlikely it is that he will. The West has not had an overarching body responsible for this kind of cross-border infrastructure since Avon was abolished in 1996, and given that the first of the newer generation of mass transit projects in the UK was only four years old at the time, this partially explains why sorting the regions transit issues is the biggest issue Norris has on his plate. This money on its own is nowhere near enough, given that it cost £350 million to build the new Manchester Metrolink line, but it’s still worth examining what the money might be spent on to try and see where Norris thinks the transport priorities ought to be.
It is unlikely that projects like the Bristol Underground, seen by many as pie-in-the-sky project, will be funded. It is also unlikely that bus franchises will be funded, such as those in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire, as Norris was the only candidate in the May election not to sign up to a pledge to investigate initiating the process if elected. It would seem that Norris’ political instincts when it comes to transport are somewhat mixed, as he is focusing on terrible rural connectivity, but seemingly not willing to take the plunge on what would arguably be a popular move and an easy political win.
Most likely to get the majority of the funding is the series of projects that make up the first part of the 10 year rail delivery plan agreed by WECA in 2020. Those projects include the opening of a new station on the Severn Beach Line that is already signed off on, and the reopening of the Henbury Loop Line to passenger traffic. The Henbury Loop would also be coupled with three new stations, and a more ambitious proposal to build a station on the line to Gloucester at Charfield may also appear.
The rail delivery plan also included proposals to improve a number of other existing stations, and at minimum should include step free access at Lawrence Hill station, where disabled passengers wanting to travel towards Bristol Temple Meads are in the ludicrous situation of having to travel one stop in the opposite direction and change trains. Buses should also be on the agenda, not only should Norris focus on the terrible rural connectivity that is not unique to the region, but also on Bristol’s “bus deal,” and also on finally introducing the “missing” South Bristol Link route that was a planned part of the Metrobus project.
For those of us with a keen eye for devolved matters in English City Regions, how this first batch of money is spent will give us an indication of Norris’ priorities when it comes to arguably his most important portfolio, and will also send a signal as to whether he can finally start to solve the region’s transport issues. This matters to Norris, his campaign was focused on the failure of the previous Tory mayor’s failure to deliver for the region. The possibility of a new transport system is a way to define the start of his mayoralty, and to prove to his constituents that he is a mayor who will get things done.
Norris has a choice ahead of him. With Rees unlikely to be on the scene beyond 2024 and elections in the other authorities in 2023, he is going to have to deal with a series of different figures in order to get the buy-in he seeks. If Norris can rise above the internal Labour bickering, he has the power to determine how he will be viewed. He can either be a Mayor who is known for delivery, such as Andy Burnham or Ben Houchen, and uses that image as a springboard to greater electoral success, or he can go the way of the man he replaced, Tim Bowles, bowing out after a single term, with his own party leader struggling to remember his name.
This article is part of The Social Review’s series on Metro Mayors and Local Government, with a commitment to publish at least one article a month on the subject – but we want as many as possible. If you have an idea for an article, please read our pitching guidelines and email us at email@example.com.