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.
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.