In the world of politics, it can sometimes be rather too easy to become despondent or cynical. But every now and then, a truly landmark moment lifts spirits and restores our collective faith in the political process. The deeper devolution deal we’ve recently agreed with the government is one such moment.
Alongside an investment commitment of £1.5bn, we now have more spending control than ever before and more power over matters such as transport, skills and housing. While this new deal is not perfect, it is a major step forward. Some readers may have heard me speak out previously over the government’s “begging bowl culture”, where regional leaders bid into Whitehall and don’t have the freedom, power or resources to shape their futures themselves. This new deal marks the beginning of the end of the begging bowl.
For the first time, we’ve meaningfully dipped our toe into the warm waters of fiscal devolution, retaining a portion of tax revenue locally to allocate as we see fit. It has finally been acknowledged that local leaders are better able to make decisions about the places that they represent, and consequently that power must shift from Whitehall to the regions. For the first time ever, a combined authority will have similar autonomy to a government department when it comes to spending, and we will receive a single pot of funding rather than be reliant on piecemeal one-off bids for cash.
Fiscal devolution allows regional leaders to plan over a longer-term horizon and think for themselves about how different policy interventions can add up to be more impactful than the sum of their parts.
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Our work on housing has been recognised nationally in the deal. We’re on track to meet our housebuilding ambitions and our average portion of affordable housing provision leads the UK at 27 per cent, using local people’s wages rather than house prices to define “affordable”. This devolution deal will help us make further progress by regenerating brownfield sites and speeding up the construction of affordable homes. From the next spending review, our region will also take control of “retrofit” funding, helping us bring our existing housing stock up to modern energy standards and meet our net zero commitments.
On transport infrastructure, a commitment to the second round of the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements will support major projects such as expanding the West Midlands Metro network, building new railway stations, and creating more dedicated bus and cycle lanes.
The news that the West Midlands will host up to six Levelling Up Zones, with a range of tax and planning breaks to attract investors, is also very welcome. This will allow us to retain additional business rate revenue generated for 25 years, worth an estimated £45m a year to the West Midlands Combined Authority and local authorities.
Underlying all this progress is trust. We’ve steadily earned the government’s trust since the formation of the combined authority, and I hope they now feel comfortable granting us greater responsibility – alongside the requisite accountability – to deliver even more.
I want to pay tribute to my fellow political leaders from across the spectrum for seeking compromise. We did not allow perfect to be the enemy of good and we pressed ahead. On the journey that is devolution, this deal represents a considerable step forward, and the West Midlands is leading the way. While there is more to do, this was a defining moment for local people, for our region and, in my opinion, for the entire nation.
The West Midlands Combined Authority is a strategic partner of the New Statesman’s Regional Development Conference
This piece features in the latest Spotlight supplement on Regional Development, published May 4. Read here.
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