Who will be the first mayor of the West Midlands?

The obligatory picture of Birmingham's bullring shopping centre. Image: Getty.

The first thing to say about the West Midlands: don’t call it Greater Birmingham. It’s perhaps best, indeed, that we don’t even call it a city.

The area – first defined as a metropolitan county in 1974, abolished in 1986, and resurrected last year as the sexily named West Midlands Combined Authority – includes three cities (Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry), plus four other boroughs (Sandwell, Walsall, Dudley, Solihull).

There’s not really a good name for what it is. It’s not really a conurbation because there’s a rather large gap between Coventry and the rest. Some involved in West Midlands politics prefer the term “region”, but to confuse matters there is a much broader West Midlands Region, which includes five of the surrounding counties.

Whatever it is, though, it’s about to get a metro mayor, so who’s it going to be?

The odds

Before we look at the candidates, let’s get one thing straight: this should be a walkover for Labour. The party holds 21 of the region’s parliamentary seats, compared to just seven for the Tories. It also has healthy majorities on the three city councils and Sandwell, and pluralities on Dudley and Walsall. (It’s admittedly nowhere in Solihull, where it’s Tories as far as the eye can see.)

The obligatory map: the seven boroughs, and their predecessor councils. Image: Wikipedia.

What’s more, in the last West Midlands-wide election to take place on the supplementary vote system – last year’s vote for the police and crime commissioner – the second round run-off saw Labour’s David Jamieson beat Tory Lee Jones, 63 per cent to 37. So, Labour has got this, right?

Well, possibly not actually. Bookies Ladbrokes currently have the Conservative Andy Street as the 4/9 favourite, with Labour’s Sion Simon at 15/8. And, to be cynical about this, of the three big city regions about to elect metro mayors, this is the only one the Conservatives can actually win.

The governing party is thus likely to throw everything at the West Midlands so they can say they’re even beating Labour in the cities: it was no coincidence that Street was given a prime speaking spot at the party’s conference in Birmingham last October.

In the blue corner

Andy Street is best known for his association with John Lewis. After graduating from Oxford (PPE, obviously), he joined the department store’s graduate training scheme in 1985, and worked his way up the ranks before becoming managing director in 2007. All this means that he can point to impressive business experience, but because it’s cuddly, cooperative, sentimental Christmas ad-producing John Lewis, it’s going to be hard to paint him as a heartless capitalist.

Street in 2010. Image: Getty.

Street’s pitch is likely to be a technocratic one: “I’m the best man for the job,” basically. His campaign is pointing to the amount of investment he’s brought to the region, through his role as chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership. There’s talk of performance related pay, and a focus on getting youth unemployment down, too.

What the Street campaign seems to lack at the moment is a single, big policy that the new mayor could push through in his first hundred days: the sort of signature achievement that will a bored electorate see why it’s worth having a mayor in the first place. That said, the election is still over two months off and the manifesto hasn’t been published yet, so this may materialise later.


In the red corner

Sion Simon hasn’t published his manifesto yet either, but already has at least one policy that could play that role: his pledge to nationalise the M6 toll road, which he’s described as “a six lane motorway with hardly any cars on it”. At the moment, he argues, cross-country freight traffic is clogging up the West Midlands’ roads because the toll is too expensive. Nationalise the road and scrap the toll, and all those lorries should go round the conurbation rather than through it, thus relieving the region’s roads.

This isn’t a completely potty idea – the road is up for sale – but the Tory-controlled Department for Transport doesn’t seem keen. That said, even if the bid for nationalisation fails, this will be a neat way of showing that the new mayor is fighting for the West Midlands interests against a distant Whitehall elite.

All of which fits nicely with the Simon campaign’s oddly familiar slogan, “Taking back control of the West Midlands”. It’s also talking a lot about Englishness, and including the England flag on its campaign materials. How all this will play in a diverse region, where much of Labour’s vote comes from the BME community, remains to be seen.

 

Sion Simon's 2006 look was surprisingly similar to the author's 2006 look. 

Simon is another Oxford PPE grad (of course he is), with a fairly diverse CV: advisor to Tony Blair, associate editor of the Spectator, two years working for Guinness. He was MP for Birmingham Erdington from 2001 to 2010, before standing down to run the campaign for Birmingham to have an elected mayor. That didn’t come off, though, so in 2014 he was elected a member of the European Parliament.

It’s an impressive CV – but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks that Simon is a Labour big beast like Andy Burnham in Manchester, or that he has the popularity of Steve Rotheram in Liverpool. (The party’s obvious candidate in the West Midlands, I fear, was Tom Watson, who’s busy being deputy leader.) Sion Simon could very well win this thing – but the fact he’s seen as the underdog says something about both him and the state of his party.

The others

The Liberal Democrat candidate is Beverley Nielsen, the only woman in the race. (This is happening in Manchester, too: what gives, guys?). She’s spent much of her career in business, including a stint as director of the CBI West Midlands, and today is executive director of the Institute of Design and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) at Birmingham City University.

Unsurprisingly, Nielsen’s priorities are mostly in the realm of economic development: she wants better transport to help people reach jobs, better links between employers and education, and some kind of local investment bank to encourage growth. She’s not likely to win, but the supplementary vote system means that, should she come in the top two, it is at least possible.

Three other candidates have declared so far. UKIP’s Pete Durnell is opposed to HS2, not to mention the entire office of mayor, but has magnanimously decided to stand anyway. Green James Burn is promising a new industrial revolution, through investment in low carbon industries. 

Then there’s the communist Graham Stevenson. Not sure what his policies are, but I hope one of them is greater investment in web design skills because look at this:

The election will be held on 4 May. I can’t wait.

If you’re involved in any of these campaigns, or any others that I may have missed, please do drop me a line.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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