The West Midlands Combined Authority declined to approve mayor Andy Street’s budget. What happened?

Tory mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street last year. Image: Getty.

A Birmingham Labour councillor on the budgetary rows in the Midlands.

At its last meeting on 12 January, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) board voted that it was “not minded to approve the mayor’s budget, including a Council Tax Precept of £10.80”.

This was a first for the board, which is made up of regional council leaders – a vote that had split down party lines. And while the revised Budget proposals demonstrate that a compromise has been reached in the intervening weeks, that the vote was lost has not been without consequences for the WMCA, the relationships that underpin it or the region’s investment plan.

In our response to the Budget, the WMCA Overview & Scrutiny Committee said:

The current situation where the CA Board refused to agree the proposed mayoral budget does not resonate with the level of partnership and collaboration required for the Combined Authority to achieve its strategic objectives.

It’s easy to scoff at this – “It’s politics!” – but trust matters, even in political organisation. Collective investment from partners across the region – in cash or in kind – unlocks value, and locks in commitment. When trust dies, partners are less likely to collectively invest in that way.

That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be political battles on how resources are raised and used, particularly while Council Tax endures as a way of funding places. But the basic principle is that we work together to create a bigger pie to divide up. My fear is that the events of the last few weeks run the risk of the pie shrinking. 


Let’s look at how the budget proposals have changed in the last month. The easiest starting point is the Mayoral Precept, a slight addition to council tax intended to fund the mayor’s office. That was projected to raise £7.5m. Now, there will not be one in 2018-19.

Part of the slack has been picked up by the Transport for West Midlands Levy – which the seven constituent authorities of the WMCA invest into collectively. Having underspent in 2017-18, all seven were due to share a rebate of £265,000, but they will now invest this straight back into the mayor’s office. The rest of the mayor’s office will be funded by drawing on the part of the £2m Mayoral Capacity Fund that had been destined to bolster the operations of the wider WMCA, and by removing a further £47,000 from the operational budget. 

This will see the mayor’s office funded to £832,000 – 7 per cent lower than last month’s proposal of £888,000, firmly in compromise territory. This arrangement cannot be repeated – the Mayoral Capacity Fund is otherwise destined to help the West Midlands deliver its industrial strategy, and there is no guarantee of a levy underspend/increase to create the headroom. 

The precept was also due to fund ‘Network Resilience’, to £572,000: this will now be covered by an increase in the transport levy of the same amount. Birmingham, the most populous of the Constituent Authorities, will pay £225.000 of that increase. 

With the mayor’s office and resilience covered, that leaves the most substantial segment left to cover: £6m that was destined for the investment programme, which is now deferred until next year. 

To summarise, instead of raising new local money from citizens via the Mayoral Precept, the money has either been replaced – broadly speaking – with the money that citizens have already invested via Council Tax, Business Rates and general taxation; or the spending has been deferred until 2018-19. In a year when many councillors in the Constituent Authorities are facing local elections, you can understand the tactical rationale for voting down the precept – but it hits the bottom line of already stretched council budgets. 

We can also conclude from the above that the WMCA’s ability to deliver its Strategic Economic Plan will be hampered by a lack of capacity within itself and a short-term reduction in its investment income – although the board has been assured that this doesn’t put the wider capital programme at risk in the round.

However, there is a risk that the Treasury – which factored in a “local contribution” (that is: the precept) when striking the first devolution deal, may claw back some of the ‘gain share’ revenue after the first gateway review – a funding stream currently coded as ‘amber’ in the Investment Programme, with the associated capital projects:

So whatever their reasons for voting down the precept, it is vital that the leaders of the constituent authorities and the mayor work together to secure the funding. With a potential ‘no deal’ Brexit looming, the challenges for the West Midlands are for us all to face.

Claire Spencer is Labour councillor for Moseley & Kings Heath on Birmingham City Council.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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