The West Midlands Forum for Growth? Well if I were you I wouldn’t start from here.

I attended the West Midlands Forum for Growth yesterday at Resorts World. It was the official conference of the West Midlands Combined Authority, and I was attending on one of two free tickets given to civil society bodies, as part of the group of civil society organisations aiming to have a voice in combined authority matters. Tickets in general cost somewhere in the low hundreds of pounds.

In Andy Street’s keynote address, he told us the WMCA would be judged on its performance on two issues: growth, and public services and the lives of citizens. He said that although we were performing well on the first, we were not delivering well on the second. He said that there was no purpose in economic growth[i] if does not deliver the improvements in the lives of citizens.

This was a really important and honest admission for our mayor to make, at the start of an event that harnessed one day’s worth of the thinking power of hundreds of people in positions of significant power and with years of experience. It should have been the start of a challenging and free-thinking discussion about how we would make sure this happened.

There was a general sense of positivity in the room – that the West Midlands authorities were now seriously collaborating and that the devolution deal, land use and investment policies being followed were going to lead to opportunities. I didn’t really share that sense: I was thinking about Andy’s statement and wanting to discuss how we could address this need and make the West Midlands’ agenda deliver prosperity that was shared fully across its people with public services that met their needs.

But that discussion did not happen. There was nothing really different or challenging. The solutions are to have the biggest site, the fastest train, the tallest building, the greatest growth – the illusory trickle down of machoeconomics.

What about exploring the inclusive prosperity potential to be gained from enabling small development on small sites, not just big development on big sites? What about increasing local ownership? Fostering local supply chains? Raising the lowest wages? A focus, as with our social care report with New Economics Foundation, on the ‘foundational economy’, of providing the things that we all need such as food, energy, care, education?

A discussion on ‘liveability’ towards the end covered many of the right things about wellbeing but didn’t really address how the growth agenda should achieve them. It was more as if liveability was something you did in order to create more growth, not something that growth needed to achieve.

Belatedly, I started to realise what this event was really for. The vast majority of attendance, alongside public sector people, were in roles relating to development: (architects, developers, project management). There was little input from voluntary sector or small business, let alone of course from active citizens. There was none of the cross-sector debate about how policy can make a real difference, as there was at regional conferences of the early noughties[ii]. I assume that all those present had an interest in being enthusiastic about the agenda in order to facilitate access to new developments in whatever capacity they were operating. While they might have cared about it, their role and expertise was not to help deliver policy, investment and practice that meet those public needs.

This, I guess, is fine. There probably SHOULD be an event (probably in a car-centric and unsustainable consumer-orientated venue[i], probably for a prohibitive fee) that brings such people together to create a positive buzz around the devolution agenda and to network about the business opportunities that will result.

But should that event be the official Combined Authority conference? Given the Combined Authority’s remit that Andy laid out, does its real conference need to bring in a wider range of perspectives, some experts in public services and local economics, in a vastly more participative format (I counted 4 questions from the audience in 6 hours) and perhaps not charge them £300 for doing so?

We’d be happy to support such a WMCA conference in 2018.

Karen Leach

[i] I cycled there and back. Alongside the asphyxiating fumes, the only way out as a cyclist was take the third exit off the M42/A45 roundabout in three lanes of motorway-hungry traffic. I am sure I lost one of my nine lives.

[i] Yes, we are aware of the the grim realities of the impacts of such growth on our future on a finite planet. Having gone many steps backward since the not-ideal era of Regional Development Agencies, we’re currently aeons from being able to debate this. Instead, we hope to enable policymakers to see that other objectives and measures are more critical, and that this will reduce the focus on, and eventually the impact of, such growth. We know that this won’t be in time to stop dangerous levels of climate change or the depletion of finite resources, but we have to start somewhere.

[ii] And no, I never thought I would be highlighting those as pinnacles of sustainability and social inclusion.

Smile, you’re on TV! A West Midlands Combined Authority meeting is filmed

As Localise West Midlands, we are playing an important role in pressing for and enabling a civil society voice about the West Midlands Combined Authority, bringing together people and organisations that have knowledge and experience around economic issues, transport, housing and health.  We have blogged before about the West Midlands Civil Society Forum.

West Midlands Combined Authority Board meetings are held at different venues around the region, but are not livestreamed.  Even when the meetings are held in rooms equipped for webstreaming, the facility is not used.  As WMCSF, we’ve asked why this isn’t happening, and been told it probably won’t happen till the mayor is elected.  Until it does, we try to get to each meeting, to observe proceedings and to make the point that people are interested in the combined authority.

But last Friday’s meeting was held at Nuneaton Town Hall.  Again, the chamber has cameras but in this case they aren’t set up for webstreaming.  Uniquely though, local Green Party councillor Keith Kondakor has been using the right to film meetings to put proceedings on a YouTube channel.

So here for the first time is a WMCA Board meeting for the wider public to see:

 

 

Transport for the West Midlands?

transportlogosWhat will the Combined Authority mean for transport?

What things do we want to see from the Metro Mayor?

How might you like to get involved in shaping this agenda?

An opportunity to find out about the new transport powers and budgets held by the West Midlands Combined Authority, and consider and discuss what this could mean for communities across the West Midlands…

Wednesday 14th September, 6pm to 8pm

The Warehouse (Birmingham Friends of the Earth), 54-57 Allison Street, Digbeth, Birmingham, B5 5TH

An evening open to anyone who wants to find out more and may have things to say or ideas to share about developing the excellent transport system that this region needs.

For further information, contact joe@greentravel.org.uk

A People’s Plan for the West Mids? Worth a shot, but needs the people

While we and some other organisations in Birmingham have been busy forming the Civil Society Forum to provide a voice for civil society into the workings of the new Combined Authority, Hodge Hill MP Liam Byrne has been trying to do something a little similar via a deliberative democracy process he’s called the People’s Plan.

peoplesplan2The website says “We want to work together to give the politicians a plan that we think will make a difference. So: pitch in. Give us your ideas for what needs to change!”

It provides a forum and stepped process for people to propose, comment on and discuss ideas to influence what the Mayor might see as priorities. So far, a fair range of proposals have been put forward – some strategic, some a bit less so.

It also says “The Metro Mayor will be elected to control big budgets and make big decisions. They’ll play a big role in shaping the future of where we live.” But looking at the content of the Mayoral Powers consultation on the WMCA website, it looks as if WMCA governance could end up being an odd hybrid of the Mayoral role and collective decision-making. I’m all for collective decision-making rather than the current obsession with macho  individual leadership, which is why I was sceptical about the proposal of a Mayor for Birmingham – but how effective will it be to try to combine the two, potentially leading to a constant power struggle between factions of Leaders and the Mayor?

Either way, we really need to help those in charge of forming this subregional tier to help themselves by involving civil society, because so far there’s frankly not been enough participation. The People’s Plan format certainly has its merits for this – it’s based on open source deliberative democracy tools from DCENT, and, for better and worse,  is free from the ongoing collaboration commitment that our Civil Society Forum needs, enabling people to contribute freely as and when they can. But it’s only going to be as useful as the ideas that are brought together in it, the breadth and depth of its debate, and the diversity of the voices that contribute. As the website says “The more people who participate, the more legitimacy and impact our work will have.”

So let’s promote it, engage with it, suck it and see.

Karen Leach

News from the Combined Authority AGM

The West Midlands Combined Authority intended to hold its inaugural AGM last Friday, 10 June, but a little local difficulty in the House of Commons meant that the legislation hadn’t been completed in time.  They went ahead with the planned business, intending to ratify it once the powers had been vested in them.

The meeting was held in Hall 4 at the ICC, around a huge table to accommodate the council leaders, chief execs, LEP and others.  There had been very little publicity for the event, but there were a number of interested people in the public seats.

Much of the agenda was formal acceptance of constitutional matters – the agenda and papers are here:

https://westmidlandscombinedauthority.org.uk/committee-papers/west-midlands-combined-authority-board/

Cllr Bob Sleigh from Solihull was elected chair and Cllr Pete Lowe from Dudley was vice-chair.

The reports pack does include the governance structure at p37, which is worth a look as it indicates the areas of future work. The portfolios were not allocated though: this was deferred/delayed to an unspecified future date.

There was an intervention from David Jamieson, the Police and Crime Commissioner about the powers of the mayor and the potential for the WMCA to veto the mayor’s decisions.  He felt he couldn’t support the transfer of police powers to the mayor on that basis.

The Strategic Economic Plan was not available in advance: despite being launched before the meeting, it was not handed out until the relevant item was reached on the agenda.  The online version is quite hard to find but this is the link:

https://westmidlandscombinedauthority.org.uk/about/strategic-economic-plan/

Some of the diagrams do require a measure of caution – see Ravi Subramanian’s take on one of them:

The idea was repeated that this was part of a nest or set of SEPs which incorporates the three LEP SEPs.  The versions shown for this were the 2014 ones, so no formal updating has yet taken place.

Martin Reeves, the “Head of Paid Service” and Chief Exec at Coventry CC, introducing the SEP, said that the dynamic economic impact model was the most exciting part of the strategy.

The Strategic Transport Plan was also presented – this was part of the papers circulated in advance, as above.   The chair of the transport delivery committee will be Cllr Richard Worrall from Walsall, but the decision on a vice-chair was deferred.

There were also updates from the three commissions:  Norman Lamb MP gave an interesting verbal update on the work of the Mental Health Commission.  While he did emphasise that their work was about reducing the cost of mental ill-health and addressing the impact on productivity, he talked about the West Midlands leading the way nationally and that it was not a one-off exercise but the start of a journey.  They have looked at the work of Thrive NYC, which is led by the Mayor of New York,and favour a similar concordat approach.  He also mentioned the criminal justice system and that they have identified that mental health treatment orders are not being used.  The full report from the commission will be launched in September, but there were no notes or slides from his update.

The Land Commission update really just identified that they are not under way yet.  The one which worried me was the Productivity and Skills Commission report.  Sarah Middleton, the chief executive of the Black Country Consortium, gave a brief report.  The chair of the commission would be announced shortly.  Desktop research had been done re mapping and research, and there would be a workshop on 4 July for regional and national experts to identify lines of enquiry. This would be business-led with support from the universities.    There seemed to be very little planned to involve local groups or to allow the voices of young people and seldom heard groups to be heard.  Nick Page, chief exec at Solihull MBC, seemed to be the lead on that, so organisations who feel they should be there should probably contact him.

Overall, it was difficult to tell if the less than inclusive approach was deliberate, or accidental given their timescales and resources.  We do need to keep reminding the Combined Authority that civil society expects them to make some of the effort to engage.

Karen McCarthy

Roundtable meeting: Shaping the Combined Authority’s economic agenda

We are organising a West Midlands Civil Society Forum roundtable meeting to discuss and influence how the Combined Authority’s economic agenda can best meet the needs of all communities and neighbourhoods. This will be on Thursday 9th June at 4pm in Birmingham. Venue to be confirmed. It is open to all interested civil society organisations in the area – although as a roundtable meeting there are limited places.

As background – we have been involved in establishing a West Midlands Civil Society Forum, to provide a voice for civil society into Combined Authority decision-making. We are at early stages – with positive noises from the Combined Authority about our role – and are seeking new organisational members. For more information and to join the wider Forum, click here.

Although still in embryonic form, the Forum is establishing working groups on issues that the Combined Authority will be addressing, and is aiming to engage as much of civil society as possible in these discussions. This roundtable is part of that process: as an immediate outcome its results will be summarised in a short statement and fed into the Combined Authority leadership to be taken into account in its decision-making. In the longer term we hope to establish an economics, training and development working group to continue engagement with the Combined Authority.

If you’re interested in attending, please email karen@localisewestmidlands.org.uk telling us what civil society organisation you represent and we will let you know if there are still spaces.

If you can’t make the meeting, but would like to contribute to our thinking, please send us an email with your thoughts and we will feed this in and keep you informed. And don’t forget you can join the wider forum as above.

Karen Leach (LWM) and Ted Ryan (RnR)