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.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.