What big challenges will the first West Midlands mayor have to face?

It wouldn't be CityMetric without a photo of some absolutely stonking new rolling stock. Image: Birmingham News Room

On 4 May, almost 2m voters in the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) will be eligible to elect the first ever mayor for the region.

The WMCA brings together the cities of Birmingham, Coventry, and Wolverhampton, along with the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, and Walsall for a combined population just shy of 3m. These areas are deeply interconnected, and have been for some time. What the future mayor will have to do is identify their shared struggles and implement solutions that work across the whole region.

There are three major issues facing the WMCA: a shortage of housing, an inefficient public transport system, and a lack of jobs.

All three come from decades of low investment in the region, coupled with the decline of industries that powered cities like Birmingham to grow from a small town to the second biggest city in the country within a couple of centuries.

The mayor will have executive powers over housing and land, as well as responsibility for transport. It sounds simple enough, but these problems are so deeply rooted that it may well take more than one mayoral term to address them – particularly as the inaugural term is only set to last three years, with subsequent terms lasting four.

Exacerbating the current housing crisis, the WMCA’s population is growing fast. The area it covers will require around 165,000 new homes over the next 15 years to keep up with demand.

As with many the rest of the country, the region is blighted by brownfield sites. Many have been allowed to sit undeveloped for a decade or more, while owners speculate on the land.

The mayor will have devolved compulsory purchase powers, which means being able to acquire rights over an estate or buy the estate outright without the owner’s consent – in return for compensation.

Conversion of old industrial sites into flats is a start, but more will be needed. Image: ...some guy

This would be transformative, but forcing sales of undeveloped land to build upon won’t solve the housing crisis, even on a regional level. It will, however, give the first mayor the power to significantly increase the number of houses built and under-construction before they’re up for re-election in 2020.

How land is developed will remain in the hands of whichever of the seven councils it falls under locally.

The WMCA will be able to analyse county-wide brownfield sites and decide where new homes should be built, but it will be up to each council to choose, for example, whether to build a row of houses or a block of flats.

As with everywhere else in the country, politicians are at each other’s teeth over protecting green spaces. Last year, in the run up to the Birmingham City Council election, Conservatives posted election leaflets claiming Labour were planning to build on the small parks scattered throughout the city, thereby removing children’s play areas. They weren’t, but someone in the council did suggest it.

The real problem is that Birmingham city doesn’t have much green space to build on anyway. The areas people would want to develop are outside its limits. The WMCA does include Solihull, much of which is greenbelt, but it is limited as Solihull council is likely to object to its land being used to build housing on the outskirts of Birmingham and Coventry.


Transport across the region is also woefully ill equipped to deal current demand, although solutions may be faster and easier to implement than for housing. This won’t be easy: the WMCA is a very car-oriented place.

As has previously been written in CityMetric, “in large chunks of [Birmingham], the only way to get to work is by road”. The region has historically been one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world, and remains in the top five. A £300million factory opened last week in Coventry, which will produce electric taxis for London Taxi Company to be sold around the world.

There are several train lines running within and between cities, but the network is far from extensive and overcrowding is a serious issue at rush hour. The bus situation is somewhat bleaker: until last year, all passengers needed exact change for their fare. An oyster card-style travel card (the Swift card) was launched in 2012, but only seemed to work on most buses in 2016. For the first time, travellers could use one ticket (or, in this case, card) on all three forms of public transport: trains, buses, and trams (which we call the Metro).

Take-up was initially low, and, aside from the slow implementation of the scheme, part of the reason for this is that the train and bus routes don’t connect. They were designed in competition, so they tend to run along the same routes, rather than complimenting each other by buses stopping at train stations to join up services.

Oh, and sometimes bus journeys here cost more than in London.

At least they've got the really shiny new New Street station. Image: Sunil060902

To resolve this, the mayor will have access to the £4.4billion fund to deliver new transport links and improvements alongside the development of HS2. The combined authority now controls Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), overseeing road, rail, bus, and Metro services in the conurbation.

TfWM’s initial priorities are to repair the M5 and M6 and to create new cycle routes. It will also run franchised bus services, with the Metro coming under its ownership amidst a major expansion of its services. The move will also allow TfWM to invest an estimated extra £50 million profit over 11 years into growing the transport network.

Most candidates also support using TfWM funds to rebuild train stations on the old Camp Hill line, which would help with the current overcrowding on the Cross-City line. Likely spending also includes extending the Metro from Birmingham to Coventry via Birmingham airport.

And in the midst of all this, the mayoral candidates are currently arguing over whether or not to give Birmingham Airport a second runway.

Cycle routes across the city are currently nothing short of a mess. There are some long stretches where people can safely cycle, but it isn’t a network; it’s a scattering of lines on the roads that don’t connect with each other.

However, TfWM will be responsible for creating new cycle paths to join up the existing routes. If this allows cycling to work to become a quick, safe, and realistic alternative to driving, then it may well help to alleviate the growing pressure on the roads.

TfWM is also responsible for providing integration between public transport modes, including the provision of interchanges. Part of this means increasing bus travel, and supporting the modernisation of the bus network. The integrated ticketing smartcard ticketing technology should help facilitate this.

When passengers can simply swipe a card and the conductor doesn’t have to count their coins before setting off, buses spend far less time at each stop and journeys are significantly faster. This also reduces the emissions produced, which will become more relevant as the WMCA looks into ways to improve public health and reduce pollution.

The 'Metro' really does have wonderful 'trains'. Image: P L Chadwick

Other lingering transport issues include the M6 toll road. It’s underused and the Labour Candidate, Siôn Simon, has suggested nationalising it to reduce pressure on other roads.

And then there’s jobs.

There is high unemployment, particularly in the Black Country – but the WMCA faces a skills shortage in both the low and high-skilled ends of the market. The mayor and WMCA will have a basic budget of £36.5million per year for 30 years under the first devolution deal. Its investment value (the amount of extra funding it can attract) to the West Midlands is thought to be worth £8billion.

The mayor will have to identify ways to train people here for the jobs they are also expected to lure to the region. Pressure for the living wage to be paid, and a basic income pilot to be trialled seem to be growing too.

There are, of course, other problems facing the WMCA. Healthcare and mental healthcare need investment, but that’s true of everywhere in England and the WMCA currently have no powers over this.

Crime is an issue, but the mayor and WMCA will have to work with the existing Police and Crime Commissioner to deliver change.

And then there’s homelessness, which, while linked to housing, jobs, healthcare, and other issues, has increased at such an alarming rate it has a become talking point in itself. A reduction in the number of rough sleepers across the region will be a very important test of the mayor and the combined authority’s ability to address the biggest problems facing the West Midlands.

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Which nations control the materials required for renewables? Meet the new energy superpowers

Solar and wind power facilities in Bitterfeld, Germany. Image: Getty.

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

The 20th century was dominated by coal, oil and natural gas, but a shift to zero-emission energy generation and transport means a new set of elements will become key. Solar energy, for instance, still primarily uses silicon technology, for which the major raw material is the rock quartzite. Lithium represents the key limiting resource for most batteries – while rare earth metals, in particular “lanthanides” such as neodymium, are required for the magnets in wind turbine generators. Copper is the conductor of choice for wind power, being used in the generator windings, power cables, transformers and inverters.

In considering this future it is necessary to understand who wins and loses by a switch from carbon to silicon, copper, lithium, and rare earth metals.

The countries which dominate the production of fossil fuels will mostly be familiar:

The list of countries that would become the new “renewables superpowers” contains some familiar names, but also a few wild cards. The largest reserves of quartzite (for silicon production) are found in China, the US, and Russia – but also Brazil and Norway. The US and China are also major sources of copper, although their reserves are decreasing, which has pushed Chile, Peru, Congo and Indonesia to the fore.

Chile also has, by far, the largest reserves of lithium, ahead of China, Argentina and Australia. Factoring in lower-grade “resources” – which can’t yet be extracted – bumps Bolivia and the US onto the list. Finally, rare earth resources are greatest in China, Russia, Brazil – and Vietnam.

Of all the fossil fuel producing countries, it is the US, China, Russia and Canada that could most easily transition to green energy resources. In fact it is ironic that the US, perhaps the country most politically resistant to change, might be the least affected as far as raw materials are concerned. But it is important to note that a completely new set of countries will also find their natural resources are in high demand.

An OPEC for renewables?

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a group of 14 nations that together contain almost half the world’s oil production and most of its reserves. It is possible that a related group could be created for the major producers of renewable energy raw materials, shifting power away from the Middle East and towards central Africa and, especially, South America.

This is unlikely to happen peacefully. Control of oilfields was a driver behind many 20th-century conflicts and, going back further, European colonisation was driven by a desire for new sources of food, raw materials, minerals and – later – oil. The switch to renewable energy may cause something similar. As a new group of elements become valuable for turbines, solar panels or batteries, rich countries may ensure they have secure supplies through a new era of colonisation.

China has already started what may be termed “economic colonisation”, setting up major trade agreements to ensure raw material supply. In the past decade it has made a massive investment in African mining, while more recent agreements with countries such as Peru and Chile have spread Beijing’s economic influence in South America.

Or a new era of colonisation?

Given this background, two versions of the future can be envisaged. The first possibility is the evolution of a new OPEC-style organisation with the power to control vital resources including silicon, copper, lithium, and lanthanides. The second possibility involves 21st-century colonisation of developing countries, creating super-economies. In both futures there is the possibility that rival nations could cut off access to vital renewable energy resources, just as major oil and gas producers have done in the past.


On the positive side there is a significant difference between fossil fuels and the chemical elements needed for green energy. Oil and gas are consumable commodities. Once a natural gas power station is built, it must have a continuous supply of gas or it stops generating. Similarly, petrol-powered cars require a continued supply of crude oil to keep running.

In contrast, once a wind farm is built, electricity generation is only dependent on the wind (which won’t stop blowing any time soon) and there is no continuous need for neodymium for the magnets or copper for the generator windings. In other words solar, wind, and wave power require a one-off purchase in order to ensure long-term secure energy generation.

The shorter lifetime of cars and electronic devices means that there is an ongoing demand for lithium. Improved recycling processes would potentially overcome this continued need. Thus, once the infrastructure is in place access to coal, oil or gas can be denied, but you can’t shut off the sun or wind. It is on this basis that the US Department of Defense sees green energy as key to national security.

The ConversationA country that creates green energy infrastructure, before political and economic control shifts to a new group of “world powers”, will ensure it is less susceptible to future influence or to being held hostage by a lithium or copper giant. But late adopters will find their strategy comes at a high price. Finally, it will be important for countries with resources not to sell themselves cheaply to the first bidder in the hope of making quick money – because, as the major oil producers will find out over the next decades, nothing lasts forever.

Andrew Barron, Sêr Cymru Chair of Low Carbon Energy and Environment, Swansea University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.