What is Siôn Simon’s vision for the West Midlands?

Birmingham's Bull Ring shopping centre. Image: Getty.

Last week, Siôn Simon was selected as Labour’s candidate for next year’s inaugural election for West Midlands Metro Mayor. The West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner covers the same electorate, and David Jamieson won just under 50per cent of votes in the first round this year, going on to win over 60per cent of votes in the second. It seems fairly safe to say that Siôn has, at the very least, a strong chance of being elected in May.

The mayor will have many powers and responsibilities, some of which are still being negotiated, covering areas including jobs, transport, and housing. If elected, Siôn could fundamentally reshape how the lives of people in the region.

So let's look at his vision for the region.

Economy and employment

National statistics state unemployment is falling, but the West Midlands is experiencing an increase. To combat this, Siôn promises 300,000 apprenticeships across the region to increase employability, skills, and productivity.

However, the region also suffers from over-qualification. There are ten universities in the West Midlands Combined Authority, but not enough graduate jobs for all those who study here. So many choose to leave – if they can.

Siôn says he will create a West Midlands Employment & Skills strategy that matches skills to the needs of businesses and supports sectors with greatest growth potential. Through working with social enterprises, he hopes this will bring down the high levels of unemployment. Considering the mayor will control any additional business rates raised through economic growth, it’s in his interests to do everything he can to boost the local economy.

Additionally, under Siôn, every public body would pay the West Midlands Living Wage and only buy from suppliers who pay it too. The Living Wage Foundation states that the current living wage, outside of London, is £8.25 an hour. The minimum wage, at the time of writing, is £7.20 an hour. For someone working full-time on minimum wage, Siôn's policies would mean a pay increase of over £2,000 a year.

Road and rail

On transport, Siôn plans to cut journey times and make the region better connected. Combined authorities with a directly elected mayor are to be given powers to franchise bus services in their areas, like in London. These franchising powers will give mayors the ability to set bus routes, and the cost of fares. The cost of franchising these services remains to be seen.

Once they are all under combined authority control, Siôn wants to move towards a cashless system, as seen in other cities. This is proven to greatly reduce the time buses spend at each stop.

The proposed metro mayor's domain covers the cities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry. Image: Google.

But, rather than emulate the London-style Oyster card, Siôn has stated he wants to focus on new technology, such as contactless payments through credit and debit cards, or smartphone apps.

A one-year freeze on all bus, rail, and metro fares, is also on the cards, as are subsided fares for job seekers. However, Siôn also wants invest in creating a 24/7-transport system. It’s hard to envisage how he could both generate money to spend on infrastructure, while also freezing fares.

At the moment, the West Midlands has very few night buses. For the majority of night and shift workers, the only alternative to driving is to pay for a taxi. What’s more, low average wages that haven’t matched a higher cost of living leave many workers unable to save for a car, and earning little more than they pay to get to and from their jobs, making work feel futile.

Introducing 24/7 bus services on key routes would be a huge financial help to those earning the least. It would create an incentive for further transport expansion, too.

All these improvements to the transport system are designed with the ultimate aim of bringing everyone in the region being within 30 minutes of quality arts, culture, sports, and leisure facilities, as well as green spaces, throughout the West Midlands.


And the rest

On the subject of the environment, Siôn argues that, as the home of automotive research and engineering, the West Midlands should lead the way in the manufacturing and usage of electric and hybrid cars. This, along with segregated cycle routes, and more efficient public transport, forms his overall plan for reduced congestion and air pollution.

Like transport, forecasts for a population increase in the West Midlands will put further pressure on a housing market that isn’t keeping up with demand. The government is planning a £250m fund for shared ownership schemes (where tenants buy a percentage of a home and pay rent on the remainder).

Siôn wants this brought under regional control, so he can use it for council and social housing, as well as for private homes. His goal is build 3,000 houses in the West Midlands Combined Authority every year.

 Siôn Simon. Image: UK national archives.

The biggest challenge here is the lack of available space; however, he may be able to achieve this if he can find a way to force developers to build on the vast amounts of brownfield sites throughout the urban areas in the region.

If Siôn can oversee this level of construction, it will allow him to clean up the private-rented sector, make homes genuinely affordable, and end homelessness in the region.

A combined policy platform that expands public transport to run 24/7, creates more jobs with better pay, and builds housing for all needs, would raise the quality of life for everyone living, working, and traveling in the West Midlands, and, most of all, those hardest-hit and hardest-working.

Given Labour’s strong electoral base in the West Midlands Combined Authority, delivering on this vision depends less on Siôn winning an election and more on whether or not he can be the strong regional leader he says we need.

Why not listen to the CityMetric team discuss Simon and Labour's other metro mayor candidates on their latest podcast?

Also, you can follow us on Twitter or Facebook, if you like.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

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