Sion Simon is Labour MEP for the West Midlands and also Labour candidate for West Midlands mayor. He has launched his campaign to win the elections on 4 May and he was able to find time in his busy schedule to come to Brussels Labour and talk about his vision for renewing local government.
Regional devolution has been long overdue. The previous Labour government took bold steps to devolve the UK along national lines but regional devolution in England was not a priority. As a result, the UK remains the most centralised country in the industrialised world.
Only 19% of public spending is determined at regional level in the UK, compared to 50% in Germany. Most UK cities have a GDP per capita under the national average. Cities are centres of decay and inequality. Brexit makes reform all the more important because of the economic uncertainty and the need to attract investment.
A regional devolution process has been launched by the government, but it is quite gradual. Whereas the 1999 national devolution package established a complete framework with clear division of powers, the current process is open ended and starts with a bidding phase this May.
What powers and budget will the new Mayors have ? This is as yet undefined because the first question is what do we need to do ? We need to develop a vision about where do we need to get to in eleven years from now. Then we infer what powers should be devolved as a function of those goals. The first term of the new Mayors will be essentially spent on consultations but by the second term we should have a defined set of policies, in particular as regards housing; development planning; transport; health and social care.
As regards budgets, Sion Simon argued that the Barnet formula allocates substantial per capita grants to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But Birmingham has a lot higher unemployment and lower living standards so there is no quantitative argument to spend less on the West Midlands region.
However, the election challenge in 2017 will be to raise awareness in the electorate because the regional devolution process is unknown. The real test will be in 2020. However there is a need to deliver real change in the meantime. Areas where it should be possible to make a difference in the short term include transport ticketing; lowering rents on private housing; improving mental health care.
In the discussion that followed Sion clarified his position that whilst this government’s approach is insufficient, nonetheless he believed that it was an opportunity that had to be seized. Chancellor Osborne had realized that the regional economic imbalances were too great and that the South East was buckling. The new devolution had many flaws but was still an opportunity “to run our place”.
This devolution is based around the main connorbations and the West Midlands electorate comprises 2 million voters.
The new framework has a lot in common with the County Councils which were established in the 1970s and then abolished by Thatcher. In effect the Tories took away our manufacturing base and then took away our means to build it back.
Sion believed that England did have regional identities e.g. the Northeast but we didn’t have a tradition of regional government or a language to express our regional identities. The West Midlands has an identity linked to manufacturing, from steam engines and spitfires to electric cars. It is a creative engineering identity. A big part of the job of Mayor will be to articulate that identity, make it real and create a sense of pride.
He concluded by saying that the HS2 high speed rail link will be good for the West Midlands. The project itself will create jobs and in the longer term a 4% spike in growth is expected from the rail link to London. But Mayors will not have any say in the project, all power is in the hands of the HS2 company. There has not been enough local consultation and there is a risk of highly congested roads for decade to come during the building works as the local train service will be disrupted.