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Devolution Roundtable - A blog from the Infrastructure Committee

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By Sophie Drake

Lessons for devolution

The West Midlands Combined Authority, which formally comes to life tomorrow (Friday, 10th June 2016) will allow the region to shape its own future in a way previously impossible. The responsibility weighs heavy on those leading this huge change. Following its recent Devolution Roundtable, the Future Infrastructure Committee takes a look at the key ingredients which will make a smooth, successful and sustainable devolution through the eyes of those responsible for building the offices, homes and roads for the next generation…

What is devolution?

Devolution gives those at the forefront – in this case the 12 local councils and three local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) that will make up the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) – control over decisions and budget on transport, infrastructure, housing, business and skills, and perhaps even healthcare. As part of the agreement, Whitehall has committed to making an annual contribution of £40million for 30 years to support its activity.

Worth a potential £8 billion and 500,000 jobs a million jobs to the West Midlands economy, as outlined in its proposal – devolution has the potential to accelerate further growth and put the region on the map. Getting it right has never been more important and here, amongst the discussion at the recent roundtable, there were some elements which everyone involved should focus on, according to those at the meeting.

Birmingham needs a ‘Boris’

Like him or loath him Boris was a figurehead and a champion for London – and the Metro Mayor must have a similar presence in order to be able pull together the many political and public sectors strands, whilst being able to understand the business landscape fully.

With great power comes great responsibility – and Spiderman references aside – there is a serious message here. As the face for the combined authority, the mayor will get the benefits of celebrating its successes but will also be held accountable for its failures. It’s not a job for the feint hearted. The choice of the voters next May will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the success of the combined authority.

Housebuilding balance across the WMCA must be addressed

The barriers to housing differ from one area to the next. Land remediation is vital for the Black Country to enable them to increase housing supply, but for Solihull and Coventry the priority is to deal with connectivity issues for existing homes. Pair this with a lack of suitable land and a post-recession shortfall of small to medium house builders/developers and the complex picture of housing begins takes shape.

The need for collaboration in putting together the WMCA deal has meant this problem is already being looked at as one, rather than many pieces in a puzzle. Work already being done by the local authorities and the LEPs to encourage public and private sector partnerships to deliver housing is encouraging, as well as the exploration of public sector delivery of housing.

Now that the region understands what boxes it needs to tick and where the money needs to go to, for example land remediation or investment funds, the foundations are there for developers, investors, landowners and local authorities to build on (literally) to begin to plug the gap in housing.

No fixed pathway

Looking to Manchester, it is clear that the devolution process is not a fixed path. Greater Manchester has done very well to review and build on its deal having had two devolution agreements since its inception in 2014. As it has built trust it has been able to develop areas like healthcare, business rates and SME support and public service reforms. The region will not only carve its own path, but make sure that devolution works for the next generation to take on and take forward.

The Birmingham Future Infrastructure Committee would like to thank all of those who took part in the roundtable and our expert guests Jacob Bonehill, Birmingham City Council; Jo Nugent, Walsall Council; Jon Tutt, Cushman and Wakefield; Kevin Johnson, Urban Communications and Simon Marks, Arcadis and non-executive director of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.