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?