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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.