Naked Politics Blogger
The West Midlands Mayoral Contest
You would be forgiven for thinking that the West Midlands was not about to elect its first Mayor. With sparse coverage in the media and the unfolding drama of Brexit there seems to be little space to discuss the fledgling West Midlands Combined Authority. However, on 4th May 2017 the people of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley , Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton will elect a Mayor that will have control over an annual budget of £36 million. However for all the talk of a “Midlands Engine”, a poll undertaken in 2016 found that only found that only 40% knew the Mayoral election would be taking place.
In 2012, the electorate of Birmingham did not share David Cameron’s enthusiasm for Metro Mayors and rejected a referendum that proposed installing one. Five years later, voters across the West Midlands are getting a Mayor, regardless if they actually want one. Whoever takes office in May 2017, will have the difficult job of continuing to secure the buy-in of other local politicians and the general public. In areas like Sandwell and Walsall there is a fear that the new funding for the West Midlands through the Combined Authority will simply mean ‘more for Birmingham’. One of the key challenges for the new Mayor is to make sure the benefits of devolution touch every part of the West Midlands. This problem is compounded by the fact that residents in areas outside of the main conurbation such as Redditch and Cannock Chase will be affected by decisions made by the Mayor but will not be able to pass judgement at the ballot box. Without a tangible sense of progress the new role of Mayor risks becoming as maligned as the role of Police and Crime Commissioner.
Much like London, transport policy will be a key battleground for the runners and riders in the West Midlands Mayoral contest. Labour’s candidate Siôn Simon, has touted several ambitious policies such as introducing 24 hour bus services on popular routes and scrapping the charges for using the M6 Toll road. This would be music to the ears of anyone who has commuted in or out of Birmingham during rush-hour. Similarly, Conservative contender, Andy Street has pledged to redress the balance of spending on infrastructure projects, that currently sees Londoners receiving seven times the amount of funding that Midlands residents do.
However, it is HS2 that dominates the transport debate in the West Midlands. Optimists suggest that HS2 will bring businesses to the West Midlands and increase the value of housing. However, others have grave doubts about the economic benefits that marginally quicker journey times to London will bring. Furthermore, the arrival of HS2 will not significantly reduce congestion on the existing rail network in the West Midlands. A common fear is that wealth will stay in the capital and the West Midlands will be consigned to becoming little more than a commuter belt.
A poll conducted by the Birmingham Mail suggested that West Midlands residents want the new Mayor and the Combined Authority to focus on housing as a matter of urgency. This concern appears to be well founded, with The National Federation for Housing suggesting that only 48 per cent of the new homes needed to meet demand were being built in 2014. Since then not enough has been done to reduce demand. The Mayoral candidates will need to ensure they have an offer to those who aspire to both home-ownership and those who are contented to rent. Furthermore, as Birmigham and the surrounding areas receive new funding and development the Mayor and Combined Authority will need to ensure that a similar pattern of gentrification and “social cleansing” as seen in areas of London does not occur in the West Midlands.
It is clear that the role of the West Midlands Mayor has the potential to deliver real change especially in the areas of transport, mental health and housing. The Mayor needs to be innovative and make full use of the levers for change they have been granted by Whitehall. Failure to secure the confidence of local authority leaders and voters could see the ‘Midlands Engine’ stalling.