The Midlands Engine pulls out of the station – but are the public on board?
04 October 2016
The West Midlands city region will be sealing its devolution deal with the election of a new Mayor in May 2017. But what do the people of the West Midlands think about the new mayor and what are their priorities?
As we know from our research with Ipsos Mori and the NLGN, the public are open to devolving power and resources in theory, but are less certain about what this actually means in practice. Nevertheless, a significant shift resource and accountability away from Whitehall is already in process, so just how will citizens respond to the reality of potentially having the power to unlock economic growth and improve public services?
The success of devolution depends on how far it connects with the public simply because it will impact their day to day experiences, opportunities and aspirations. So working with BritainThinks, PwC brought together 24 citizens from every part of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) area to spend a day thinking through what they believe devolution should deliver for them.
The Jury considered whether the current Combined Authority boundaries reflected their expectations, what kind of personal qualities were desirable in their Mayoral candidates, and what they felt should be the agenda for action during their term in office.
Five key findings stood out for me:
Local identity trumps regional association
The jurors felt a strong sense of pride in their local community. But although they associated themselves with the West Midlands, the jury struggled to articulate a strong regional identity. There was a sense that the WMCA could bring people together, but strong cultural, historical and economic differences remain to be overcome.
Building connections across the region can bring real benefits
Building a wider city region was felt to be a good opportunity in terms of the local economy and infrastructure, enabling the West Midlands to compete more effectively with other places like Manchester. It was also seen as a way to improve public services by joining up and sharing costs. But there were concerns about the current city region boundaries, with particular questions about why the more rural areas were not being included. The Jury had concerns that the new Combined Authority risked becoming an additional layer of bureaucracy as well as questions around the role of local MPs and why only some areas are getting a mayor.
A good mayor needs to communicate, get things done and ‘walk in our shoes’
Many people felt that the Mayor should be experienced, and not just in politics – demonstrating they were financially savvy and with a ‘good business mind.’ Charisma, honesty and compassion were highlighted as important qualities. But perhaps above all, a good mayor for WMCA would be one who gets things done and is a great communicator - someone who listens, can deal with the media and is transparent about the reasons for their decisions.
Topping the list of mayoral priorities are improving local skills, affordable housing and transport - all key to improving productivity and competitiveness
Skills and better jobs were recognised as being essential for the West Midlands, with many ideas around better employer engagement and improving connectivity between business and the schools system.
Infrastructure was also seen as a key priority. Two aspects particularly came to the fore. Affordable housing was a must, with great support for re-developing derelict land and decontaminating former industrial sites. And there were calls for a more joined up approach to transport, including a call for the Mayor to campaign for the West Midlands to attract foreign investment and making better use of Birmingham airport as part of this initiative.
However, it was noticeable to me that the Jury did not demand to know why the Mayor’s powers did not extend to health and social care. Given its importance locally, I wonder if this will come back on the agenda, in the same way as it has in Manchester.
Making mayors publicly accountable
A key theme running through the day was the importance of transparency and a need to hold the Mayor to account for delivery on their plans that would accrue from the newly devolved powers. Ideas discussed included a regular Mayor’s Question Time as well as communicating through video updates and social media apps that would facilitate Mayoral interaction.
Provided with the opportunity to discuss the issues and armed with new information, our 24 jurors showed that people have a real desire to have a say in shaping the future of their own area. Most striking to me is the role that local businesses, like PwC, must play in ensuring that every resident has the opportunity to benefit from devolution in the West Midlands and the election of a new mayor in 2017.
Find out more about PwC’s Devolution Citizens’ Juries at http://bit.ly/devojury