Is the West Midlands about to steal the initiative on devolution?

Not gonna lie, we're starting to run out of stock images of the West Midlands. Image: Getty.

Every ministerial speech at last week’s Conservative Party Conference was peppered with praise for Andy Street – the party’s new candidate to be mayor of the West Midlands in 2017. It now appears a second devolution deal for the area is close to being agreed, this time focusing on allowing the region to retain more of the tax generated locally to reinvest in housing and infrastructure.

Although details of this latest proposed deal remain sketchy, and there has been no official confirmation from central government, any deal that marked a progression in the financial freedoms available to local areas would be hugely significant.

Despite the devolution deals agreed to date, the UK remains overwhelmingly centralised, with UK cities having limited say in the big decisions that shape their future. The level of taxes controlled locally or regionally in the UK is roughly 10 times less than in Canada, seven times less than in Sweden, and nearly six times less than in Germany.

But potentially just as significant is that it is the West Midlands which is now being touted as the area likely to receive fiscal devolution – as opposed to Greater Manchester, which has to date led the way with the most expansive and ambitious devolution deal of all those agreed.

The prime minister has been at pains to differentiate her approach to economic development outside of London from that of her predecessors, and to emphasise that the Northern Powerhouse – while important – is not the be all and end all for her government. And if the aim is to demonstrate this broader focus, there are a number of good reasons for the government to shift its focus to the West Midlands.

For starters, the area itself is large, with significant economic potential. The West Midlands Combined Authority comprises 12 authorities (including non-constituent members), is home to roughly 4m people, and boasts an £80bn a year economy. Having struggled for decades to shake off its post-industrial hangover, Birmingham city centre saw private sector jobs growth of 17 per cent between 1998 and 2011, and is now home to 40 per cent of the UK’s national conference trade, as well as Europe’s second largest insurance market.

In addition, unlike those mayoral races in Manchester and Liverpool, the Conservatives could feasibly win in the West Midlands in 2017. Labour’s lead over the Conservatives in the region was less than ten points at the 2015 General Election, and in the year since, this gap could have narrowed even before local campaigning begins.

The politics of England's city regions. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

In the spiritual home of the Labour “right”, the region’s traditional Labour voters may be turned off by its more recent leftward shift and the second leadership success of Jeremy Corbyn in the last twelve months. Furthermore, turnout will almost certainly be lower in May 2017 than in the general election. If, as usual, younger people (who are more likely to vote Labour) do not turn out, but older people (who largely lean to the Conservatives) do, that could help to tighten the race between the two leading parties and give Andy Street a real chance of victory.

A Conservative mayor of the West Midlands may also shift the political dynamic of devolution. Much of the Northern Powerhouse agenda and devolution to Greater Manchester was shaped by the close relationship and trust shared between Manchester City Council CEO Sir Howard Bernstein and George Osborne. But with the former retiring and the latter now on the backbenches, it is conceivable that, should he win, the future of the devolution agenda could instead be shaped by Andy Street’s relationship with Phillip Hammond and Theresa May.

Of course, we shouldn’t get carried away. The political leaders of the West Midlands have come a long way in a very short space of time in order to reach common agreement on a devolution deal and establish the West Midlands Combined Authority. But in terms of the strength and longevity of local institutions and the powers currently included in their deal, Greater Manchester remains the leading light of UK city devolution.

Yet there are signs that this could change in the months and years ahead. Should the West Midlands secure an ambitious second devolution deal which includes new fiscal powers, and should the Conservatives triumph in the region in 2017, then Greater Manchester may find it is no longer alone in the vanguard of UK city devolution.

Such increased competition would be good news for those keen to see devolution remain at the top of the political agenda – and if it leads to greater economic control being transferred to Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and other big city-regions, then it would be good news for the national economy too.

Ben Harrison is director of communications at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article was previously published.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook