What is Siôn Simon’s vision for the West Midlands?

Birmingham's Bull Ring shopping centre. Image: Getty.

Last week, Siôn Simon was selected as Labour’s candidate for next year’s inaugural election for West Midlands Metro Mayor. The West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner covers the same electorate, and David Jamieson won just under 50per cent of votes in the first round this year, going on to win over 60per cent of votes in the second. It seems fairly safe to say that Siôn has, at the very least, a strong chance of being elected in May.

The mayor will have many powers and responsibilities, some of which are still being negotiated, covering areas including jobs, transport, and housing. If elected, Siôn could fundamentally reshape how the lives of people in the region.

So let's look at his vision for the region.

Economy and employment

National statistics state unemployment is falling, but the West Midlands is experiencing an increase. To combat this, Siôn promises 300,000 apprenticeships across the region to increase employability, skills, and productivity.

However, the region also suffers from over-qualification. There are ten universities in the West Midlands Combined Authority, but not enough graduate jobs for all those who study here. So many choose to leave – if they can.

Siôn says he will create a West Midlands Employment & Skills strategy that matches skills to the needs of businesses and supports sectors with greatest growth potential. Through working with social enterprises, he hopes this will bring down the high levels of unemployment. Considering the mayor will control any additional business rates raised through economic growth, it’s in his interests to do everything he can to boost the local economy.

Additionally, under Siôn, every public body would pay the West Midlands Living Wage and only buy from suppliers who pay it too. The Living Wage Foundation states that the current living wage, outside of London, is £8.25 an hour. The minimum wage, at the time of writing, is £7.20 an hour. For someone working full-time on minimum wage, Siôn's policies would mean a pay increase of over £2,000 a year.

Road and rail

On transport, Siôn plans to cut journey times and make the region better connected. Combined authorities with a directly elected mayor are to be given powers to franchise bus services in their areas, like in London. These franchising powers will give mayors the ability to set bus routes, and the cost of fares. The cost of franchising these services remains to be seen.

Once they are all under combined authority control, Siôn wants to move towards a cashless system, as seen in other cities. This is proven to greatly reduce the time buses spend at each stop.

The proposed metro mayor's domain covers the cities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry. Image: Google.

But, rather than emulate the London-style Oyster card, Siôn has stated he wants to focus on new technology, such as contactless payments through credit and debit cards, or smartphone apps.

A one-year freeze on all bus, rail, and metro fares, is also on the cards, as are subsided fares for job seekers. However, Siôn also wants invest in creating a 24/7-transport system. It’s hard to envisage how he could both generate money to spend on infrastructure, while also freezing fares.

At the moment, the West Midlands has very few night buses. For the majority of night and shift workers, the only alternative to driving is to pay for a taxi. What’s more, low average wages that haven’t matched a higher cost of living leave many workers unable to save for a car, and earning little more than they pay to get to and from their jobs, making work feel futile.

Introducing 24/7 bus services on key routes would be a huge financial help to those earning the least. It would create an incentive for further transport expansion, too.

All these improvements to the transport system are designed with the ultimate aim of bringing everyone in the region being within 30 minutes of quality arts, culture, sports, and leisure facilities, as well as green spaces, throughout the West Midlands.


And the rest

On the subject of the environment, Siôn argues that, as the home of automotive research and engineering, the West Midlands should lead the way in the manufacturing and usage of electric and hybrid cars. This, along with segregated cycle routes, and more efficient public transport, forms his overall plan for reduced congestion and air pollution.

Like transport, forecasts for a population increase in the West Midlands will put further pressure on a housing market that isn’t keeping up with demand. The government is planning a £250m fund for shared ownership schemes (where tenants buy a percentage of a home and pay rent on the remainder).

Siôn wants this brought under regional control, so he can use it for council and social housing, as well as for private homes. His goal is build 3,000 houses in the West Midlands Combined Authority every year.

 Siôn Simon. Image: UK national archives.

The biggest challenge here is the lack of available space; however, he may be able to achieve this if he can find a way to force developers to build on the vast amounts of brownfield sites throughout the urban areas in the region.

If Siôn can oversee this level of construction, it will allow him to clean up the private-rented sector, make homes genuinely affordable, and end homelessness in the region.

A combined policy platform that expands public transport to run 24/7, creates more jobs with better pay, and builds housing for all needs, would raise the quality of life for everyone living, working, and traveling in the West Midlands, and, most of all, those hardest-hit and hardest-working.

Given Labour’s strong electoral base in the West Midlands Combined Authority, delivering on this vision depends less on Siôn winning an election and more on whether or not he can be the strong regional leader he says we need.

Why not listen to the CityMetric team discuss Simon and Labour's other metro mayor candidates on their latest podcast?

Also, you can follow us on Twitter or Facebook, if you like.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.