Linking the chain

When former bricklayer and Labour MP Steve Rotheram was elected to the most powerful job on Merseyside last May he made a range of ambitious pledges. Almost a year on, what progress has he made?

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It’s hard not to sympathise with Steve Rotheram. He is the first elected mayor of the Liverpool City Region – Merseyside with a bit of Cheshire stuck on for good measure – but earlier this year a local newspaper poll found that four-fifths of readers hadn’t a clue what he does.

If there is a theme to Rotheram’s pledges it is the interconnectedness of his mayoral functions

Their perplexity is excusable. There are at least 12 other mayors in his area, including Joe Anderson, the directly elected mayor of the city of Liverpool (starting to feel confused?) plus lord mayors and civic mayors of the five other local authorities that make up Rotheram’s domain. Even the village of Hale (population 1,898) proudly boasts its own lord mayor. All of which conjures up a Pythonesque picture of lots of men and women resplendent in ceremonial robes, gold chains of office and black tricorn hats wandering about the Pier Head.

“I don’t blame anyone for not knowing what my job involves,” Rotheram concedes. “People can’t be expected to understand the complexity of our political system when we have so many similar titles out there. This [post of directly elected metro mayor] was very quickly cobbled together by the government, which hasn’t helped an awful lot in getting the devolution message out.”

So what does he do? Plenty, as it happens. After resigning his seat as Labour MP for Liverpool Walton and winning a landslide victory in last year’s mayoral election, Rotheram, 56, has been given a £900 million investment fund and taken over strategic control of transport, housing, infrastructure, economic growth, employment and skills, tourism and culture across the city of Liverpool and boroughs of Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens, Wirral and Halton. His combined authority area has 1.5 million residents and an economy worth £29.5 billion a year.

Rotheram’s office – not one for the superstitious – is on the 13th floor of a recent waterfront development, from which he looks eastwards across the Albert Dock to the Mersey. It is here that he has formulated a range of major policy pledges, the most eye-catching being an ambitious scheme to harness energy from the twice daily tidal flow in and out of the river. A tidal commission has been set up, chaired by Brent Cheshire, who ran the Danish company Dong Energy when it was responsible for constructing the 57-turbine Burbo Bank wind farm in Liverpool Bay.

He sees not just a massive source of clean energy right on the Mersey’s doorstep but also a huge economic opportunity, with construction carried out ashore to provide a substantial number of jobs. The idea is to develop the barrage as a modular technology – perhaps at the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead – that can eventually be exported elsewhere in the world. “The time has come for tidal power,” he says. “And we think we can become Britain’s energy coast.”

Another flagship policy – quite literally – is the commissioning of a new Mersey ferry, which could well end up being called the Gerry Marsden if locals are asked to vote on a name. The idea hasn’t got beyond initial designs on a naval architect’s drawing board, but the tendering process is expected to begin this year.

The current ferry fleet is “knackered”, declares Rotheram. “One of them breaks down quite often. I mean, they’re brilliant for their age but that silt in the Mersey is like sandpaper rubbing against things, and they constantly need maintenance.”

His plan is not just to have a ferry carrying passengers across the river, but also one which can be hired out for cruises in order to subsidise fares. He hopes it will be plying the river before he is due for re-election in 2022.

A third big idea is his pledge to make the Liverpool City Region the most digitally connected part of the UK by linking to the Hibernia fibre optic cable, which runs beneath the Atlantic from North America and comes ashore at Southport. Consultants have been hired to work out how a vast network of ultrafast connections can be installed via railway lines and the Mersey tunnels, also taking in the Hartree supercomputer centre at Daresbury near Runcorn. No, it’s not to make movie streaming easier, he says, but to provide a huge economic benefit.

“We just think that when we plug into [what has been called] the fourth industrial revolution, we don’t know what it might be used for. With ultrafast and big data capabilities we can be at the centre of that future development.”

If there is a theme to Rotheram’s pledges it is the interconnectedness of his various mayoral functions. Therefore the Mersey tidal barrage, while promising substantial job opportunities, will at the same time create more apprentices, and he happens to have a specific duty to develop skills and apprenticeships. That is also true of the new ferry, if the tender is won locally. The connection between tidal power and ultrafast internet, meanwhile, is that the kind of big data crunching industries that would benefit from the Hibernia link are hugely energy intensive.

Apprenticeships are one responsibility he is particularly passionate about. His first job was as an apprentice bricklayer in Kirkby, and during seven years as an MP he campaigned for parity between vocational and academic training. So, now that he has been given the task of creating an apprenticeships and skills strategy for the city region, Rotheram has set up a commission to survey the needs of 2,000 businesses.

Along with Andy Burnham he is lobbying the government for a better rail infrastructure

But since last April, when the government introduced a levy on businesses with an annual wage bill of £3 million to pay for a target of three million new apprenticeships in England by 2020, there has been a 26 per cent drop in new apprenticeship starts. “We’ve said to the government, give us flexibility within that levy for the underspend, and we will deliver those starts, tailor those skills for the demands of employers. It’s up to the government now to see if they want to play ball.”

One problem is that educational achievement in the city region needs to improve. A significant local skills shortage has been linked to the fact that the number of students getting five good GCSEs is 5 per cent below the national average. Rotheram is keen to remedy this, and accuses the government of resisting the provision of further devolved powers that would help him do so.

Housing is another major responsibility, and he has pledged to end rough sleeping in his region. “The target needs to be ambitious,” he says. “Within 100 yards of this office people are now living in shop doorways. For me, just one is too many.”

A share of a £28 million pilot scheme with Manchester and the West Midlands will be rolled out soon to tackle the fundamental causes of homelessness and to help rough sleepers eventually regain control of their lives.

Rotheram promises 25,000 new homes by 2022. “Actually, that should be a minimum requirement, but we want the right mix of houses in the right places. What we need to do is try and ensure those homes are affordable wherever possible, and get the right type of housing in the right places. For instance, with an ageing population there’s a demand for many more bungalows.”

Asked for examples of work done so far he mentions the Halsnead Garden Village at Knowsley, which will deliver 1,600 homes, and the compilation of a register identifying 430 brownfield – previously built on – sites where developers will be directed to build new houses. Also, he is targeting hard-to-develop sites – he calls them “grotspots” – and mentions an area of Liverpool 8 where building work will start this spring.

On transport, he has funding to introduce new hybrid buses that will be more energy efficient and cut pollution. The fleet is leather-seated,
wifi-connected, has phone chargers, tables and even TV screens. Eventually he’s hoping to deregulate bus services to make them part of a transport network that better integrates with trains. “We don’t want buses turning up just after the train’s left.”

Along with close friend Andy Burnham, his opposite number in Manchester – they both gave up their Westminster seats to stand in last year’s metro mayor elections – he is lobbying the government for a better rail infrastructure connecting to HS2. “Passenger numbers between Liverpool and London are greater than Leeds to London, now,” he points out, and accuses the government of backtracking on the idea of a Northern Powerhouse. When elected last May, Rotheram said it was his and Burnham’s ambition to create a “North West Powerhouse”.

Other pledges include: introducing new fast-tag charges for Mersey Tunnel users, making cross-river travel easier and more affordable; a streamlined version of the current Walrus card for the Merseytravel public transport network, with smart ticketing like the London’s Oyster card; and establishing a new PR agency to sing the city region’s praises from the Liver Building’s rooftop.

“We’re on a journey here,” Rotheram says. “We’re not building things that you can actually see coming out of the ground at the moment, but when all that starts to happen people will start to identify with what it is we’re trying to change.”

And yes, he adds, they will know what the Liverpool city region mayor does all day.

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