In May 2021 West Yorkshire is getting a mayor, a role similar to Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester among others. There will be an election on May 6 2021, in which citizens living in the areas covered by five local authorities, Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield, around 2.5 million people in total, all get a vote. The winning candidate will have the responsibility to improve things like buses and technical college education, and, if the official story is to be believed, an extra £30 million budget to spend on whatever they like every year for the next 30 years.
While elected mayors are commonplace around the world, they are still relatively new in this country, and, arguably, they are the first qualitative change in the governance of England since the suffragettes.
That is one of several reasons why Same Skies, the regional democracy think tank for West Yorkshire that I am one of the founders of, are grasping the mayoral election as an opportunity to change our region for the better.
Starting on Wednesday 29 July, we will be hosting and facilitating an Alternative Manifesto Process (AMP) to amp up the voices of citizens in West Yorkshire, and generate new ideas for things the mayor can do. These ideas will compliment and challenge the official party political manifestos put forward by the candidates to be mayor. We hope to publish the best and most popular ideas in a printed book. This will be a follow up to ‘What Kind Of Region Do We Want To Live In?’ – a book of hopeful ideas from West Yorkshire writers that Same Skies produced in 2019.
Throughout the summer and autumn we will be working with people and organisations across the region to host a programme of events in which experts and members of the public get together to look into an issue in more detail.
The first session will be asking “Do we need more homes for people in West Yorkshire? If we do, where should they be, what kind of houses and who should build them?” The event will take place online at 6pm Tuesday 25 August, and is open to anyone who registers in advance.
AMP will also feature a website where people can submit ideas to be discussed and shaped. Everyone who suggests or improves an idea will be properly credited for their contribution.
Most importantly, we’ll be going to places around West Yorkshire to talk and listen to citizens where they are, not expect them to come to us. Same Skies have a long track record of doing that, including going to many of the markets in West Yorkshire, taking paper and felt tip pens, and asking people to make hand drawn maps of the things they care about in their neighbourhood.
Once the AMP ideas have been collected and developed, the candidates for mayor will be invited to a series of public discussions to give their responses during the election campaign in Spring 2021.
The AMP campaign is being coordinated by Same Skies, the organisation founded by a group of volunteers in 2015 to give people in West Yorkshire a way to get involved in the debates about devolution, which is the process by which some powers are given back to local councils by the London government.
Our role in AMP is to encourage and gather ideas, making a space for discussing and shaping them. Where we can, we’ll help people who have a spark of something they care about to develop it more fully, perhaps by connecting them with experts at West Yorkshire universities and civic organisations.
If there are people doing great stuff in West Yorkshire that you know of, or places that would be good to go and talk to people about our region, please let us know here, and we’ll try and get in touch.
We hope that AMP West Yorkshire will work in two ways. We want to expand the range of possibilities that the candidates, and eventually the elected mayor, have to choose from when they decide what to do. Not every idea will turn out to be feasible, but some will become the new common sense, and others will be unexpected gems.
Secondly, we want to demonstrate not just the ideas the mayor could put into practice, but how we should think of the job of mayor. It is already built into the ‘combined authority’ structure that the mayor is a kind of chairperson of a committee of the leaders of the five West Yorkshire councils. The mayor can’t act without agreement from some or all of them, which means the mayor will need skills of pragmatism, careful explanation and careful listening. We want to see that facilitative, consensus and network building quality of the job pushed much further.
Can AMP West Yorkshire demonstrate the value of the mayor stepping outside the usual buttoned down circles of local institutional, public sector and business leaders? Who else could the mayor invite through the door for a cup of tea and a chat? That will take bravery from a new person in a newly created role, but that is the nature of the opportunity we now have.
And there is good reason to think that the mayor being someone who welcomes being fairly challenged, listens to counter cultural voices and brings together widely different networks, is the best kind of person to do the job.
The part that Same Skies plays in AMP West Yorkshire will be the humblest we can make it. We will be the back office, keeping things ticking over between now and May 2021, so that there are as many chances as possible for people and organisations across West Yorkshire to talk with and listen to each other about our shared future.
This has been our way of working from the start. Our first activity, in Manningham, Bradford, in 2015, was an open space conference, a format in which the agenda is decided on the day by the people who come along, not by the organisers. That event was on a Saturday, so that people at work during the week could come along.
If you would like to take part in AMP West Yorkshire in any way that feels right for you, drop us a line.
And please do let us know about people and places you think we should get in touch with or visit.
Andrew Wilson is from Same Skies Regional Democracy Think Tank. The images used in this piece are of Heritage HiFi, built by Paul Huxtable for the Sound System Culture project, a worldwide celebration that began as an oral history of Huddersfield reggae sound systems.