In conversation with Tracy Brabin - RSA Comment - RSA

In conversation with Tracy Brabin


  • Arts and culture
  • Community and place-based action
  • Democracy and governance

Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin talks to Andy Haldane about her unconventional route into politics, her vision for devolution in the region, the power of the creative industries and the frustration of cancelled trains.

Lived experience is your superpower.

Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin

Andy Haldane: We’ll be discussing topics including devolution and decentralisation, to which you’ve given loads of thought and action. But first, can we let people know a bit more about your background?   

Tracy Brabin: I see myself as an accidental leader. I never anticipated being in this role or even a member of parliament. I grew up in Batley in a council flat with my mum, my dad and my sister. I was the first in my family to go to university and always, always, wanted to be an actor, which was a bit mad, as nobody in my family was an actor and we had no money. But I went to a really good school where they encouraged the arts, and that made me more determined than ever. 

Not having family connections, it was a tough job but, being proper raw Yorkshire, I was easy to cast, and not having gone to drama school I don’t think I had the rough edges smoothed off. One of my first jobs was in A Bit of a Do with David Jason, and then I developed a career as an actor, which is a real privilege given my background. 

But I always remembered where I came from, and I was always a member of the Labour party and would travel the country when I was in Coronation Street supporting candidates and MPs who were up for election. And that’s how I met Jo Cox, who was standing in Batley. I worked door-knocking for her election, and she did really well. And then she was murdered, and my life just took a different route.

At the funeral I asked one of her friends if there was anything I could do, and she said, “Do you want to be an MP?” It just fell into place. I was an MP for five years, four of which were on the shadow front bench, and then devolution hit. I was looking to find a woman mayor I could get behind and then I realised I had to walk the walk rather than talk the talk. So, here we are.

Haldane: You’re coming up to two years in post as metro mayor of West Yorkshire, the first metro mayor of West Yorkshire and the first female metro mayor. What have been the biggest challenges so far?

Brabin: Trying to define my own leadership style because I have no role model. I can’t think, “I’d be like that mayor, that’s a good way to be if you’re a female mayor.” So, it’s about empathy and natural instincts. Your own lived experience is your superpower – authenticity, being able to live in the community, gives you great strength. I use the buses and the trains; I know about struggling to get a GP appointment. If you live the life of the people you represent, leadership is a little easier.

The other mayors – there are 10 in the UK – have been nothing but delightful, welcoming, inclusive. We’re a powerful voice, and I feel there is strength in being in this gang, with common challenges. Politics sometimes seems to be getting in the way, and the mayhem of parliament for the last 18 months has been holding us back. On a recent trade mission to India, people were saying, “We’re not engaging with government, we’re just engaging with mayors, because there’s too much chaos.” Mayors are where we can deliver at a very local level and have relationships that are consistent.

Haldane: Might we be seeing a realignment of the political gravity? We’ve probably got far greater stability in regional politics than in national politics now. Does it feel like a pivotal moment for UK governance?

Brabin: I think eventually there will be PhD students looking at this! There is a bit of an arms race between the parties about who can hand over power fastest. We’re hearing from the Labour party that they want to oversee the biggest ever handover of power out of Westminster and Whitehall to the regions. My challenge to Labour is the time frames: will that be delivered at the end of the first parliament? We have to act fast, and I do think [Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities] Michael Gove really is chomping at the bit to give that power away. It’s an exciting time.

Haldane: On the trailblazer deals [agreements between Whitehall and local government that give mayoral authorities greater powers] you’re hoping to be next in the queue. What would you like the details of that deal to be? 

Brabin: Currently, the way it works is broken. For example, the levelling-up money. Bradford spent over £600,000 on consultants to put their bids in – they weren’t successful in any of them. Leeds spent £480,000, and not one of their six bids was successful. What an absolute waste of money. If you give that to mayors, you’ll get more bang for your buck, and you will stop this begging-bowl, Hunger Games-style pitching of one region against another, because our ambition shouldn’t be at the cost of someone else’s failure.

The trailblazer deal is also about being able to hold onto the increased business rates from growth, so you don’t always have to keep going back to government. We’ve got a £20m accelerator programme investing in business and then hopefully those profits come back to us to reinvest.

Haldane: The point is often made that along this road towards devolution and decentralisation, there need to be extra checks and balances for local leaders. How would you bring about improved transparency and accountability?

Brabin: You can’t get the money without being accountable, of course. I am very much used to being scrutinised and held to account, and not only in front of select committees. Fundamentally, I am also held to account by the 2.4 million people of West Yorkshire, and if I don’t deliver for the public, then I’m not going to come back in. Transparency is really important and there are opportunities for corruption, and that’s why we mayors have to be the squeakiest clean of any politicians. We have to be held to the highest standards. As an out-of-work actor, £3 meant a lot to me. So, when I’m talking about the City Regional Sustainable Transport Settlement of £870m, it’s gobsmacking. Every penny should be accounted for because that’s what the public expects.

Haldane: Can I ask you to say a little more about your ambitious plans around culture and the creative industries? I’d love to hear more about your Creative New Deal.

Brabin: It’s no surprise, given three decades in the creative industries, I really understand the power of it. Coming into this role, I was quite surprised that we didn’t have a culture committee. I know how culture has changed my life and the lives of the people that I’ve spent time with, whether that’s skills, self-confidence, better mental health, regeneration, opportunities.

We’re about to see an unprecedented amount of cultural activity in the region, which will be rocket fuel for the creative sector and its supply chain, upskilling a new generation of talent and boosting the visitor economy. The mighty Bradford will be the UK City of Culture in 2025, and leading up to it, we have ‘years of culture’ taking place in each of our other districts: Leeds and Kirklees this year, then Wakefield and Calderdale in 2024.

The Creative New Deal will make it possible for everyone to have access to a cultural life, not necessarily just coming to a theatre or going to the opera. Is there an opportunity for you to be in a choir? Is there a writing group in your local library? Culture should be available to everybody. We’ve allocated money towards creative social prescribing, so a singer could support a community who have dementia, for example, or dancers could support young people with poor mental health.

Culture is a powerful tool of wellbeing and joy, but there’s also a hard economic argument about investment, jobs and training. For example, the Mayor’s Screen Diversity Programme, run by Screen Yorkshire, was set up when I became mayor. Of the last cohort of young, diverse, working-class kids, 50% have gone directly into a job or further training in film and TV, and 43% of that cohort have a disability. Now, you don’t just get those life chances – you need interventions of the sort that we are creating. I’m hoping this will help us economically because young people won’t have to leave the region to fulfil their dreams.

If you’re looking for growth, invest in a sector that is already growing and grow it faster.

Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin

Haldane: I think our views on this are spectacularly aligned. Having grown up in the region myself, I know the parts that need some TLC, and I think culture as a regeneration tool is a compelling proposition. I wonder whether you sense that Labour and the Conservatives are both now recognising the creative industries as one of their priorities?

Brabin: Absolutely. If you’re looking for growth, invest in a sector that is already growing and grow it faster. The creative industries are one of the only growing sectors in West Yorkshire, and the fastest-growing in England outside London. Why wouldn’t we invest time and energy in it? Making it a priority has suddenly alerted people to the opportunities, economic and otherwise.

Channel 4 coming to Leeds was a real game-changer, but it wouldn’t have come without Bradford and the opportunity to access diverse talents. Its arrival has also developed a clustering of independent companies: EMI North, EMI’s first ever out-of-London office, is in Leeds. Production Park is Europe’s biggest and, I think, the only rehearsal space for global tours by musicians like Lady Gaga. We’re down to a small shortlist for the Croydon-based Brit School to open a Brit School North in Bradford. And at Tileyard North they’re now developing huge warehouses next to the art gallery and creating a state-of-the-art music production centre.

Collectively, we can be a beacon of creativity – a clustering of creatives that all help each other. By funding the years of culture, we’re enabling talent to roll on, with opportunities on offer throughout the series of events. So, for example, if you’re an intern in Leeds 2023, then you go on to Wakefield Year of Culture as a producer, then you’re an executive producer at Bradford City of Culture, and then you work for Channel 4.

This is a unique moment for West Yorkshire, and if we don’t do this now, there will never be another opportunity.

In our vision, kids from the estate where I grew up can go the whole way and do anything that they want because all the opportunities are here.

Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin

Haldane: I wanted to ask about the investment zone and why you thought of it as a positive step towards growing the cluster that you mentioned?

Brabin: Absolutely. The way that we pitched the investment zone is we’d like to co-create it with government, rather than having something off the shelf. We can’t forget that Canary Wharf was only successful because of the investment in transport: the DLR and the Jubilee line and so on. We have to get that from government, and that’s why mass transit is vital to our investment zone ambitions. So, I’m saying to government, “Do not let up on your commitment to mass transit.” That’s a massive investment proposition. But we’ve pitched our investment zones looking at the innovation arc, which is health tech up at the hospitals, but also Bradford has the highest number of AI and data analytics postgraduate students in the country.

But it can’t be just this one patch that ends up with people across Yorkshire flooding into that little piece of ground. We’ve got to have a more holistic view about how this is going to work. We’re flexible in what we can pitch, but digital, creative industries, health tech and AI also link with our ambitions around space. We’ve got Space Hub Yorkshire, which was launched a few months ago, so we’re in a good place.

Haldane: You touched upon mass transit. I thought I’d ask you about transport – something I know you feel passionately about. It’s sometimes said Bradford is the least well-connected city in the UK. Do you have a vision for what’s needed in the region?

Brabin: It is an issue we have been living with for far too long. Having a voice has been helpful because, as a commuter myself, I’ve been able to be furious on behalf of the public. We are losing people, investment and businesses – £2m a week – because of the TransPennine Express chaos. I want TransPennine to roll into Northern with the operator of last resort, but politically that doesn’t play well because it’s nationalising another rail network. But surely that has got to be a better outcome than what faces us.

My plan is that we have a new Manchester-to-Leeds line with that all-important stop in Bradford. You saw what happened in Birmingham: just a commitment from HS2 to go to Birmingham and suddenly investment flooded in. So, we need that new line and a bus network that works for the public and is interconnected with mass transit. I’ve been able to bring in the ‘Mayor’s Fares’, a £2 capped fare per single bus journey, but what I can’t do is stop bus companies cutting routes that don’t bring them enough profit. That is deeply frustrating.

My vision is for east–west interconnectivity that helps with connecting communities along the TransPennine line and a greater capacity for freight, and a great bus network that then feeds into mass transit that is a reliable, affordable, clean, green network. We have started the process. It’s long and arduous and may not kick off until 2028, but I am determined that, before the end of my second term – and hopefully I’ll come back for a second term – there will be spades in the ground on mass transit.

At the moment, we are a long way from that vision, and it’s impacting on everything, especially investment and access to culture. Only the other day I thought, “I really want to see that show, but can I guarantee that I can get a train home?” It’s hopeless. It impacts all of us on a daily basis.

Haldane: I want to end on an optimistic note because I know you’re a very optimistic person and it’s a tremendously important attribute in any leader. Could you end with some thoughts about what’s possible in the region, all the potential that can be unlocked?

Brabin: What would success look like? We were part of the history of manufacturing. We are at the heart of the UK and the heart of the north. We were game-changing when it came to the industrial revolution. We can be that again.

In our vision, kids from the estate where I grew up can go the whole way and do anything that they want because all the opportunities are here, and their family has the same life expectancy as others across the region. For too long it’s just been in the ‘too hard’ box that there are communities in West Yorkshire that are suffering bad health outcomes, aren’t earning enough and are living in poor housing.

Innovation is a priority, as well as creativity and creative problem solving. Being able to draw in investment but also allow our citizens to have access to the best opportunities. I think that is within our reach. We can close the health inequality gap, the opportunity gap, the social mobility gap, so that wherever you live in West Yorkshire, you have the same life chances. We can be seen not just nationally but internationally as the place to go for the smartest, the brightest, the warmest, the most optimistic, the most curious and the most creative citizens, who will help you bring your idea to fruition.

Mayors can be game-changers because we know our communities and we can do that bespoke tinkering at a local level that makes a huge difference.

Tracy Brabin was elected mayor of West Yorkshire on 10 May 2021. She previously served as MP for Batley and Spen from 2016 to 2021. Andy Haldane is Chief Executive Officer at the RSA.

This article first appeared in RSA Journal Issue 2 2023.

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