Could the West Midlands elect Britain’s first female metro mayor?

This is not a woman, this is the Library of Birmingham. Image: Getty.

There are now eight English metropolitan areas with combined authorities and metro mayors, covering a combined population of 20m. Not one of them has ever elected a woman.

If you take all directly-elected mayors into account, then there are three women out of 24. By way of comparison, there are two Andys, Daves, and Peters apiece.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are unhappy about this – and women in the West Midlands Labour party think they’ve spotted an opportunity.

The party should be holding its selection race next summer. But, given that this is possibly the closest race in the country with the biggest electorate outside of London, and given that it’s a region where a popular sitting Tory mayor could be defeated, there is an argument that the party should select its candidate as soon as possible, in order to give them more time to build up a profile. (This is what the Tories have done in London.)

For the West Midlands to have a hope of becoming the first to elect a female metro mayor, though, Labour would have to include at least one woman on the shortlist. This didn’t happen in in 2016, when Siôn Simon was selected against little to no internal opposition.

Cllr Nicky Brennan was first elected to Birmingham City Council this year, and Cllr Liz Clements the year before. Since then they, along with other women in the West Midlands Labour Party, have been speaking out on this issue. I asked them why they feel that none of the metro mayors and so few directly elected mayors are women.

“It’s pretty grim being a women in politics sometimes,” Brennan says. “Just take the word ambitious. For a man this is a good thing, it's positive, it's what we expect. But for a woman it’s negative; she's going to trample all over everyone; she's a careerist; how dare she get ideas above her station?”

As a result, “The top jobs are seen as ‘men's work’ and it makes women feel like they can't apply because society makes them feel that they aren't good enough. Some of the most able and experienced women I know still doubt themselves and this is something we must try to change.”


In the Labour party, Clements says, “we still have a way to go to overturn the political culture which privileges straight white men.” On BAME representation among elected mayors, Labour is doing better, she notes, citing London’s Sadiq Khan and Bristol mayor Marvin Rees. “This should be our incentive to improve the representation of women among elected mayors.”

Preet Kaur Gill, the MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, points out that 45 per cent of Labour MPs are now female. “This is a brilliant achievement and one that other parties could, and should, learn from.” But it took all-women shortlists to get there. “It is unacceptable for 51 per cent of the population to not be accurately represented in parliament.”

But all-women shortlists are currently illegal for mayoral races, as the 2010 Equalities Act specifies AWS are only available for Parliamentary, devolved, and local government races. So what can the Labour Party do to address the gender imbalance?

Gill points to the Labour Women’s Network. “It’s an extremely empowering internal organisation, which I am very proud to be a part of. It does a great job in supporting and identifying talent in women, but this needs to expand nationally.”

“The 2010 Equalities Act needs to be changed,” Clements says, as this would allow for mayoral races to be included in its remit. “While the Women’s PLP lead the charge on this, we should select our Metro Mayor candidate in the West Midlands via an all-women shortlist and wait to see what happens.”

For now, this would be illegal, but the reprimands are unclear and doing so would ensure the topic is talked about more widely.

Brennan, meanwhile, talks about the underrepresentation of working class women specifically. “It’s also good for women to have role models too. I look at Angela Rayner and think, ‘she was a teenage mum too, if she can do it so can I’.”

Mayoral elections are unlike parliamentary or council ones: if you can’t stand for mayor in one region, it’s very unlikely there’s another nearby you could try instead. So should we be worried that all-women shortlists block more qualified male candidates from becoming mayor somewhere?

“No,” Clements says emphatically. “I worry that for decades patriarchal political culture has blocked women from progressing to leadership positions.”

Mayoral politics doesn’t have to be dominated by men, Gill argues. “If we look at the United States it’s a very different picture. There are women mayors leading governments in many urban areas. European capitals like Rome, Madrid, Paris, Warsaw, and Stockholm also have women mayors. Clearly the UK is lagging behind despite having no shortage of talent.”

So – would any of these specific women consider a run? “I'm just getting to grips with being a newly elected councillor,” Brennan says, “so I would rule myself out.” Gill didn’t comment.

Clements, however, says, “There are more senior women who have more experience than me; I am encouraging them to run and will campaign for them.

“But should no other woman put herself forward I would do so because I don’t want to see a repeat of last time.”

Part of the issue for Labour in the West Midlands last time was that very few candidates, male or female, put themselves forward. Only two men passed the shortlisting interview, with the winner, Siôn Simon, going on to lose what was considered a Labour safe seat. So are there enough interested local women to fill a shortlist?

“Yes,” Clements says, “absolutely, there are lots of talented women across our region who are ready to step up and who will inspire grassroots activists to come out and campaign to take back the elected mayoralty.”

“Of course there are,’ Brennan says. “I think we as party members need to be having conversations with women we think would be great and supporting them to stand.”

Gill adds, “Whether you’re in business or politics, you will know someone who could do the role.”

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.