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.

 
 
 
 

Google knows you took the bus: on the creepy accuracy of Google Maps Timeline

You are here. And here. And here. And... Image: Google Maps.

Knowledge is power, they used to say. Nowadays, they say “data is power”, and they’re not wrong. Unlike many of the modern, high-value tradable goods in our society like oil or gold, data is a limitless resource that we’re constantly creating more of day after day.

What the actors who own this data choose to do with it can often be a point of vast contention: should I be happy for Google to reliably know where I am, where I’ve been, and most frighteningly, where I’m going? It’s not up for dispute that the scope of these tools can be immense – but how much of that scope should we take for granted?

Google Maps is a tool full of wonderful surprises. It can plan a journey for you, tell you what deals to get at the supermarket, and give you updates at the bus stop. Some of the things Maps can do, it does without us even asking; Google knows when we pop to the shops, or when we stand by a bus stop.

This concept is called “geofencing”: cross-referencing geolocation data with the services at that location, and issuing notifications to a device on that basis. Google knows I’m in the supermarket because my location matches up with the area the supermarket is known to occupy, and through a complex series of phone masts and wifi access points, it knows I’m between the vegetable aisles. Okay, maybe things aren’t quite that specific, but the detail is stellar – and often, slightly concerning.

A simple flick through the timeline feature of Google Maps reveals that Google can plot day by day where you were, when you went home, and, maddeningly, how you took that journey – or at least, it can make an educated guess. By applying geofencing programming, Google can calculate when we are near a bus stop, and cross-reference that data with bus routes and other bus stops to determine with a reasonable degree of certainty when its users are taking the bus. Google doesn’t go as far as to try and guess which bus, but it could make an educated guess.

The same is true of train stations; pause in one, follow the expected route of the railway line, and travel through additional train stations, and Google will have no trouble in informing you after the fact that you have travelled by train. A reminder that you don’t need to have planned a journey on Maps for Google to surmise this: it is all calculated based on shifting geolocation data, and nothing more.

Walking, cycling and driving are harder for Google to calculate, because there are no geofenced points of entry for these modes of transport. It is therefore likely that, once bus, train and metro have been eliminated from the mix, Google simply inspects the time taken between harvested geolocation data to calculate the transport mode used. But without geofencing, it’s harder to determine the exact route taken by a user: because they’re not following a prescribed route, and because geolocation data is much easier to take while stationary, routes on timeline taken independent of public transport can end up looking… messy.

Google fails to surmise that some of this journey was taken by train and presumes I took an unorthodox drive through Kent in the early hours. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

The system isn’t perfect. For one, it can’t account for anomalies. I took a rail replacement bus service recently, and Timeline was dumbstruck by how I’d managed to get home. But the ever-increasing availability of data surrounding transport timetables means that the assumptions Google can make about our transport choices are only bound to get more accurate. That’s important, because its information that few organisations beyond Google are likely to have real access to.

If we take London as an example, we know that Transport for London (TfL) can use data on traffic flows, ticket barriers, and incomes for bus routes to determine how people use a service. In fact, TfL has even used its own wifi services to calculate route maps on the Tube. However, without undergoing intricate surveys, they will struggle to plot exactly how journeys are taken beyond the Tube Map, especially with regards to buses, disparately owned NR services, and so on.


Google has exactly the information to remedy this – and it’s integrated into Timeline, simply because people consented to having their location data collected. If your local borough council asked to do the same, and the only provision it could grant was that you might get a better bus service, many people would probably opt-out. Part of the reason why we accommodate the location-harvesting of Google is because we consider Maps such a vital service, and its domain – at least in terms of its rights to record our geolocation – is hardly contested. Even those of us who use Citimapper regularly tend to have Maps downloaded on our phone.

Google Maps is in a unique position to mark the differences between journeys that are entirely spontaneous and journeys that are pre-planned, because it is measuring both. That information could be highly useful in designing timetables and shaping user-friendly services.

Moreover, as geolocation data grows more precise, it will be able to help us pin down the flows of pedestrians and cyclists in our cities. While it’s possible to gather this data in the public domain without geolocation, it’s economically prohibitive to do so in less densely populated areas. This data would help prioritise cycle-friendly and pedestrian friendly developments on the understanding of where demand is greatest.

This sort of data inevitably carries such a high risk factor, however – not only as far as personal privacy is concerned, but also surrounding efficacy. We presume that if we know every individual's travel patterns, we can design perfect travel services – but patterns change all the time. An algorithm can never incorporate the latest change before it is registered by the system. While data like that collected by Google Timeline could be put to better use by transport authorities, it shouldn't be abused, nor serve as a panacea for good design.

Worst of all, it’s hardly clear that this data is up for public consumption. The furore over data protection means it would be considered deeply unethical for Google to hand this location data over to anyone, let alone a local government body like TfL. It may be moot point; Google itself claims that Timeline is for our own amusement and little more.

But maybe we’d get better services if it wasn’t; after all, geolocation isn’t slowing down anytime soon.