James Burn answers our questions to the WMCA mayoral candidates

Q: The UK city with the longest experience of a directly elected mayor is, of course, London. What lessons can we learn from their experience, and how will the situation here in the West Midlands differ (if at all)?

A: The biggest lesson we can learn from their experience is the importance of the check-and-balance system of having a directly elected Assembly to involve and speak up for all Londonders that sits alongside the mayor. That’s also the biggest difference between the situation here – we won’t have such an Assembly. Instead, we have one scrutiny board made up of the colleagues of the people running the Authority itself meeting a handful of times a year. This needs to be urgently addressed if the authority is to have any legitimacy and to serve everyone’s interests.

Q: The Combined Authority area is a very odd shape, omitting most of the districts in

Worcestershire and Staffordshire from which a large number of people travel into the main cities regularly for work, shopping, entertainment, culture, etc. How can a joined up transport strategy best take into account those current ‘black holes’?

A: We took 5 months to get to the stage it took the Manchester CA 5 years to get to. That’s meant some very odd decisions were made, including the current two-tier membership. We need to revisit this. Obviously trains and buses do not stop at local authority borders. The mayor will have to make bold decisions about transport that will benefit and impact on areas that didn’t vote in the mayoral election. Whether or not mayors do that is another matter!

Q: If elected, what measures would they put in place to encourage the third sector and volunteers to step in to make up the likely reduction in Local Authority public sector service provision in current economic/fiscal/funding environment?

A: The first thing to do is to recognise that these cuts have been forced upon Councils by central government and we need to educate the public about the very real impact of them so the government are encouraged to reverse them. We also need to work with other mayors and the LGA to the same end. We should not leave the provision of services to volunteers, or outsource them to voluntary groups in the hope they can do them much cheaper. However, I would encourage volunteering in general as it has had and always will have a very important role in society, benefitting the person doing the volunteering in addition to providing a benefit from their volunteering work.

Q: How do they intend to preserve the Green Belt while encouraging the use of land to improve economic development?

A: I would work with the Land Commission and set up a Citizen’s Jury to look at this issue. At present, the mayor has no power over planning and cannot buy land without the permission of the Local Authority area affected so the mayor doesn’t really have a say over protecting Green Belt at present.

Q: There is nothing about the natural environment in your manifestos, so how do you propose to protect and enhance the natural environment in the West Midlands to maximise the benefits to the health and well being of people, and ensure that the natural capital of the region is included in the economic benefits of the combined authority?

A: That’s not the case. See page 45-46 of my manifesto.

Q: Since 1918, The Birmingham Civic Society and its members have been working together to make Birmingham a better place for everyone. How will the candidates ‘work to make Birmingham a better place for everyone’?

A: We need an Assembly to speak up for everyone’s interests and every area. No mayor, with the best will in the world, can understand the needs and priorities of 3 million people. We also need to involve people far more in decision making through use of participatory budget setting, Citizen’s Juries and through putting representatives on the board from small business, the voluntary sector, the community and more.

Siôn Simon answers our questions to the WMCA mayoral candidates

Q: The UK city with the longest experience of a directly elected mayor is, of course, London. What lessons can we learn from their experience, and how will the situation here in the West Midlands differ (if at all)?

A: Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan have all been significant figures. Securing resources from central governments, whether Conservative or Labour, for London. Delivering major achievements for the city. Over time, increasing engagement of Londoners, not least through voting in mayoral elections, with the Mayor of London.

I would expect that engagement with the Mayor in the West Midlands will similarly increase over time. Ken Livingstone became Mayor of London in 2000, 14 years after Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council (GLC). When Margaret Thatcher got rid of the GLC, she also ended six metropolitan counties, a middle tier of government with a lot of geographical consistency with those areas that will elect Mayors on 4 May.

With the West Midlands Combined Authority, we are recovering the tools to run our region. As we take back control of our region, the path that we take will be rooted in the particularities of the West Midlands, not London.

All parts of the UK exist, however, within a highly centralised political structure. Under successive Mayors, London has sought, and secured, greater flexibility to take things forward on their own terms. Fiscal Commissions have been convened to assist this process.

Working with commissioners from across the West Midlands, representing the full, magnificent diversity of our region, and utilising the expertise of the public, private and voluntary sectors, Shabana Mahmood MP is chairing a Fiscal Commission for the West Midlands on my behalf.

According to Treasury figures, Scotland receives £10,536 per head of public expenditure compared to £8,816 in England and only £8,750 in the West Midlands. The West Midlands Fiscal Commission will look at how we can move on from these unequal funding settlements.

You ask about London but equally, Scotland has benefitted from devolved arrangements, which it has used to elect administrations putting Scotland’s interests first. It is no coincidence that Scotland has retained a generous funding settlement.

It is time for the West Midlands to stand up for itself and really take back control.

Q: The Combined Authority area is a very odd shape, omitting most of the districts in Worcestershire and Staffordshire from which a large number of people travel into the main cities regularly for work, shopping, entertainment, culture, etc. How can a joined up transport strategy best take into account those current ‘black holes’?

A: We cannot limit our ambitions for transport at the borders of the Combined Authority. No matter what geography the Combined Authority takes, it will inevitably be necessary – unless goods and people are only to move within the Combined Authority – for transport strategy to be devised over a larger geography. High Speed 2 is an obvious instance of where this will be necessary.

I’ll work with business to create a coordinated strategy across High Speed 2, the new HS2 college and the HS2 supply chain to make sure that people in the West Midlands fill as many HS2 jobs as possible. Once in office, I will commission and publish a testing set of timed benchmarks to this end.

I’ll push for funding for HS2 phase 2, to connect us quickly to northern markets and ports. I’ll make sure the HS2 growth board is chaired by the Mayor so I can put the emphasis on quality of jobs and social justice.

I put forward many more steps to improve transport in my manifesto. This includes asking Birmingham Airport to bring forward a plan to build an integrated HS2 station and passenger terminal and safeguard the space for a second runway when needed, creating an airport bigger than Gatwick that helps create 167,000 new jobs in the region over the next 30 years. This would give the West Midlands one of the top twenty airports in the world – we deserve no less.

Q: If elected, what measures would they put in place to encourage the third sector and volunteers to step in to make up the likely reduction in Local Authority public sector service provision in current economic/fiscal/funding environment?

A: The voluntary sector makes amazing contributions but it works best as a complement to the work of the public sector, not as a substitute for it. We need to ensure that essential public services are properly funded. We will do this by having a Mayor prepared to stand up to the government.

The voluntary sector representatives that I have spoken to tell me that, unfortunately, they have felt excluded from WMCA processes to date. I will change this.

We will make the WMCA constitution fit for purpose, including much wider representation on the WMCA board, with three non-voting trade union seats and formal representation for the voluntary sector, young people, disabled people and wider civil society, as well as the business and local government representation which already exists.

We will also develop a system to allow maximum public scrutiny of WMCA decisions – creating an open data portal for WMCA data, and the data of other public bodies in the West Midlands, to obviate the need for Freedom of Information requests. All stakeholders – including trade unions – will have access to relevant information in sufficient time to properly input into WMCA decision-making.

Q: How do they intend to preserve the Green Belt while encouraging the use of land to improve economic development?

A: I will create a Mayor’s Office of Housing and Development to oversee the development of a statutory Regional Spatial Plan which gives structure and direction to the house building programme that the West Midlands needs – as well as making clear what land is available for business development. This plan will support equal access to arts and culture, sports and leisure, public transport and public spaces. It will aim for everyone to live within 30 minutes by public transport from an outstanding arts/cultural institution, excellent sports/leisure facility, and an inclusive green space.

In addition to protection for green spaces within the Regional Spatial Plan, I will take further steps to increase access to green spaces – with some illustrations of this provided below.

Q: There is nothing about the natural environment in your manifestos, so how do you propose to protect and enhance the natural environment in the West Midlands to maximise the benefits to the health and well being of people, and ensure that the natural capital of the region is included in the economic benefits of the combined authority?

A: My manifesto makes various commitments in relation to the natural environment. For example:

We will place trees at the heart of development, and protecting ancient woodland and ancient trees – as well as local biodiversity in all its many forms. New housing projects should aspire to at least 20 per cent tree canopy cover. Access to green spaces improves wellbeing and more tree coverage will enhance air quality in the West Midlands.

I will also support the Heart of England forest, an environmentally important reforestation project on the southern edge of the conurbation. We must improve and expand the green spaces of the West Midlands – preserving species such as rare black redstart, white clawed crayfish and internationally renowned populations of great crested newts and bats.

Q: Since 1918, The Birmingham Civic Society and its members have been working together to make Birmingham a better place for everyone. How will the candidates ‘work to make Birmingham a better place for everyone’?

A: We can be a world leader in the manufacture of electric cars, as well as self-drive vehicles. We have globally renowned universities – partnerships between them and business can create new opportunities in sectors as diverse as clean energy and life sciences, computer games and professional services. We must consolidate our place as the crossroads of England through airport expansion, HS2 constriction, and metro extension. Infrastructure improvements that will bring additional employment and crucially enhanced connections – across the region, the country and globally. 

We need the dynamism and hard graft of West Midlands businesses to build these new industries and jobs. With a more strategic approach to filling the skills gaps of today and tomorrow. With regional planning that clearly identifies what land is available for business and residential development. With an urgent reduction in traffic congestion and increased capacity on our roads, not least by taking ownership of the M6 Toll.

We need, in short, a new partnership in which the change-making entrepreneurship of business is aligned to political leadership at a regional level – the office of Mayor. At the moment, we are not getting some basics right. For example, we lack coordinated inward investment, marketing, and export strategies for the West Midlands. As a region, we must pull together to fix our own problems.

I’ve talked about taking back control of the West Midlands. This is exactly what I mean by this: the region fixing our own problems and taking control of our own future.