Examination of Witnesses

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:27 am on 21st June 2022.

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Tracy Brabin and Ben Still gave evidence.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 10:10 am, 21st June 2022

We will now hear oral evidence from Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire. Should I say welcome home, Tracy, or welcome back? The panel has until 10.50 am. For the record, will you please introduce yourself formally?

Tracy Brabin:

Hello everybody. It is good to be back, even if it is virtually. I am Tracy Brabin, the Mayor of West Yorkshire, and I am joined by—

Ben Still:

Hello everybody. I am Ben Still and I am managing director of West Yorkshire Combined Authority.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q It is lovely to see you again, Tracy. It is a little different with all the screens, but we are really grateful for your time this morning. My first question is quite an open one. You, as Mayor of West Yorkshire, have similar powers to lots of other Mayors, but different powers from some others. What more would you add to your role—whether that is powers that other Mayors currently have or other things done by central Government—that would mean you could do what you are seeking to do in West Yorkshire?

Tracy Brabin:

Thank you so much, Alex. Let me open by saying how welcome the Bill is. Finally, we have got to a point where it feels like it is going to be a real thing. The mission statements are also very welcome. I chair the M10, which is the group of Mayors around the country, and we are very positive about this next step and the opportunities for us to work with Government to really understand what devolution is about. The idea of more Mayors across the country joining the M10 is incredibly welcome.

When it comes to more powers, I think there is a more fundamental question: where do we want to get to with this Bill, and what is the strategic relationship that we want to build with Mayors and with Government? If we are taking powers from Whitehall and giving them to regions and elected Mayors, what freedoms are we then giving to those Mayors to deliver? In the Bill, there seems to be a focus very much, and quite rightly, on the accountability of Government, but there does not seem to be that equivalence of the accountability of Mayors to deliver.

We have said all along, in every meeting we have been in with Ministers, “We can help you deliver on your missions.” For example, on climate change, we have met the Government and the M10 has met the Government to talk to them about more powers and how we could help hit the zero carbon target of 2050. In our region, our target is 2038, so we could be outliers for Government to help deliver. However, there is not that detail and that understanding of who is going to deliver these outcomes. I think the Committee will wrestle with that over the next few months. Whose responsibility to deliver the outcomes?

I have always said that the way to level up in West Yorkshire is to have that London-style transport system, which is one of the mission statements. Unfortunately, the integrated rail plan meant that we were not able to benefit from the billions of pounds of investment that would come with that strategic project. It is really important, as an attractive region to international investors and inward investment, that we have a skilled workforce. At the moment, we are a bit hamstrung on delivering the types of skills we need in an agile way in response to business, because we are being told by Westminster, “This is the project; this is what you have to deliver” without the understanding of the complexity of delivering skills training for those furthest away from going back to college.

On climate change, we have to get away from the beauty contests and the way we have to bid for funding for projects—for example, for electric vehicle charging points. We have to be given the autonomy to help the Government to deliver on their mission statements. There are a number of points there, Alex, but we will get into a little bit more detail as we go further into the session.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q I appreciate that, Tracy. Given the company that you have this morning, this is probably a pertinent question: can you talk to us—from your own personal experience and having talked to your colleagues in the M10—about what it is like to work with a combined authority and about the features of a good local collaboration?

Tracy Brabin:

I have been pretty blessed in that the combined authority has been in existence since 2014. Although we took a wee while to get to the actual landscape and the footprint of a combined authority, we got there. It has been incredibly efficient, because I landed in a position where a lot of work had already been done to set up the mayoral combined authority. Now, that is not the same across the country. When our colleague Dan became Mayor of South Yorkshire, that infrastructure was not set up. We are, I would hope, one of the most efficient and progressive MCAs; that is my target—to be the most progressive MCA in the country.

Certainly, there is lots that we are already doing that is reflected in the Bill. For example, there is the extra scrutiny. We were determined to ensure that we had proper scrutiny in place, so we went from one scrutiny committee to three. We also pay our scrutiny members for their time. However, the Bill could go further and have that commonality across the regions—really investing in our scrutiny members and allowing them to meet remotely. The current expectation that people have to meet in a room means that quorum is sometimes challenging. During covid, we managed to make it secure—and look at us now, doing governmental business remotely. I would really hope that this Bill could ensure that we could have that scrutiny locally, and delivered in a more modern way.

Fundamentally, the idea, for us as a combined authority—we are five regions with Labour council leaders—is that we have a combined mission of delivering for the people we represent and who elected us, but there is a challenge in that when we come to the Government with our vision, there is this beauty contest and these funding streams. There is also a churn of Ministers and a churn of ideas from Ministers. It would be really empowering to have a direct relationship with the Treasury and could get the funding pot, with the delivery assessed on the outcomes. We could then have extra scrutiny from not just our own colleagues here in West Yorkshire but, potentially, the Public Accounts Committee and Committees like yourselves. We could be part of the outcome story, rather than just waiting for the Government to open up the floodgates on things we have to bid for, in which case it is all about the scrutiny of the process rather than the outcomes.

Ben Still:

The partnership for an MCA to be successful must be deep, and there must be a strong sense of shared endeavour. As the Mayor has said, the five West Yorkshire leaders and the Mayor work very hard to develop that sense of shared endeavour. We can see that in the fact that the combined authority has specific sub-committees dealing with individual sectors, each of which is chaired by one of those local authority leaders.

We also have cross-party representation on the combined authority, so that—I think we will come back to this theme—ideas and policies that are developed through the CA can stand the test of time and be long term, as was discussed with the last witness. We completely agree that the long-term nature of these policies means that they have to be sustained over successive Parliaments and successive mayoralties.

Tracy Brabin:

It is unusual to have cross-party membership of the combined authority. In parallel, we have our local enterprise partnership board, which is one of the most diverse in the country. We have a strong relationship with that LEP board too. As I say, the structures are here in West Yorkshire to deliver. The history of delivery is there from previous funding streams, where we have delivered and spent every penny—

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Tracy, I am going to have to cut you off, because we need slightly shorter answers. I will ask the Minister—who does not believe in “churn of Ministers”—to ask you a question.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Tracy, thank you for taking the time to be with us this morning—it is much appreciated.Q

Clauses 60 and 61 will simplify and streamline the processes for setting up new combined authorities. West Yorkshire is lucky, because it already had a combined authority from 2014. From your own experience of getting the mayoral combined authority set up and from the wider experiences of the M10 group, could you say anything about the complexity and time taken to set up new combined authorities? I appreciate that people are full of enthusiasm and want to get on with it, but that, at the moment, they have to go through some quite laborious processes to get going. What was your experience of that? Do you welcome provisions that would simplify and speed up the process of getting going with CAs?

Tracy Brabin:

My role really started on election day—I was not here setting up the office and the CA. However, going forwards into combined county authorities and other models, I hope that whatever learning you get from that will come back and refresh our modelling, so that we can learn from these new MCAs and CCAs. Ben, would you like to add to that? You were here; you did it!

Ben Still:

Briefly, there is a set of processes that we and the other CAs had to follow. The provisions in the Bill to simplify those processes are welcome in the sense that the statutory tests still need to be met; that is the important thing, I suspect. For us, though, the combination of the will on both sides—both locally and within the relevant Government Departments—to go through the processes at pace and to work collectively is just as important as the steps we need to go through.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Thank you. When I was a child in Huddersfield, we originally had a metropolitan county council; we then went through a long period of having no elected city region-wide leadership. How do you compare the experience of having a directly elected Mayor to either of those previous regimes—either having no elected leadership, or having a county council or assembly-type model? Do you think the mayoral model is preferableQ ?

Tracy Brabin:

I would say wholeheartedly that the mayoral model is better. It is a single point of contact; it is a point of contact with Government. The Mayor is a champion, advocate and ambassador for the region, and somebody that can work collectively on strategic priorities. The role is not just local but national—and, I would suggest, international—to raise the profile of a region. It is great that Government are understanding and getting behind devolution. It really, genuinely is the way forward for our region.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

The Bill makes it simpler for Mayors to take on police commissioner powers. What are the advantages for Mayors of having police commissioner powers? Does it allow integration across different subjects in your activityQ ?

Tracy Brabin:

I cannot tell you. The gift that keeps on giving is the fact that I also have responsibilities for police and crime. It means we can take a public health approach to everything we are doing, getting people in the room or on Zoom from housing and transport, and—via the integrated care system—people from health talking about health inequalities that impact on crime. It is a really brilliant tool to address some of the greater challenges across West Yorkshire. There are obviously lots of different versions, and only Andy Burnham and myself have those powers, but they are really useful.

For example, they help us to deliver my commitment to the safety of women and girls across West Yorkshire. It feeds into everything, including transport. We have the safety app that allows bus users to feed back on whether women and girls feel safe travelling. On skills, we are able to support 750 more police officers and staff, and to work with the chief constable to try to find a pipeline of diverse young people wanting to go into the police. It is a really great strength.

I would say that giving police and crime commissioners and our teams in-year funding pots, with different expectations and timeframes, is incredibly difficult to handle. I hope that we can get multi-year pots of funding to do bigger projects that have a greater impact.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I have one last quick question. West Yorkshire has what some people describe as a strong Mayor model, whereby the Mayor needs to be on the side of the majority for various decisions to be taken. There is a diversity of decision-making structures in the existing MCAs. What would you say are some of the advantages of having a strong mayoral model or strong decision making for particular subjects?Q

Tracy Brabin:

It is helpful that we have real strength in our leaderships, because they are really experienced leaders. We are all focused on delivering for the people of West Yorkshire, and it has not come to a point where it has been down to my vote. We get a consensus before we go to a vote, and the opposition members on the CA are very helpful, because they provide the check and challenge to get us to a point of compromise so that we can bring everybody with us in delivering for the people of West Yorkshire.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Thank you, Tracy; it is nice to see you again. Your region is significantly diverse, with both rural and urban areas. Like every other part of the UK, you will have seen a worsening housing crisis in the last couple of years, particularly in the private rented sector, which appears to be evaporating into short-term lets, especially in your rural communities. What powers does the Bill give you to ensure the availability of affordable for the people you represent?

Tracy Brabin:

Affordable and sustainable homes are a priority for me, because it is personal—I grew up in social housing. My commitment to the people of West Yorkshire was to deliver 5,000 affordable and sustainable homes. Over the years, we have seen the number diminish, partly due to right to buy and partly due to the lack of funding. I am able to work with the councils and push them to get to further building target, which has been really helpful. The brownfield fund for housing has enabled us to really focus on the spots that blight our communities, and to work with developers.

For the first time, the West Yorkshire housing associations have all come together under one umbrella to deliver on my housing pledge and to help us get there, but it is still a challenge. Although the £22 million extra in the Bill for brownfield housing is welcome, it comes with the same strings attached and the same expectations from the Government, but with less time to deliver. There is an expectation that we have more freedom, but we need to get away from the strings that hold us back from delivering.

Let us not forget that we have areas in West Yorkshire where the housing stock is really low cost, and we are trying to square the circle of how we build more when we have the Government’s expectations about market failure. We have met Homes England since I became Mayor. I am very interested to see how that relationship develops and how we can work more closely on affordable housing, because the need in our region is growing exponentially. The lists of people waiting for a secure and affordable home are far too long. Ben, I do not know whether you want to talk more technically.

Ben Still:

Thank you, Mayor. There is a lot in the Bill that could potentially be helpful to local authorities in unlocking and developing land. The issue that we face in West Yorkshire is much more about the viability of housing sites than about pressure on land and so forth. This is a good example of where the Mayor working in partnership with the local authorities is not just about the legislative provisions, but about the strength of the partnership. The Bill does not change the fundamental relationship between local authorities and Mayors with regards to who is responsible for the delivery of housing.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q A quick follow-up: which powers relating to housing stock would you like in the Bill so that you can ensure sufficient affordable and available homes for people in every part of your region?

Tracy Brabin:

What may help more is the strategic planning, which I understand has not been agreed because the planning was going to be changed from Government, so we do not have clarity on our strategic planning powers. It would be incredibly helpful if we got some conclusion on that.

Ben Still:

I might add that the common theme in many of our answers is that what is needed is not necessarily additional powers, but the freedom to work with local authorities to deliver the right solutions in the right areas. That is what we will be looking for in the Bill as it progresses, namely the ability to take local decisions within a guiding framework.

Tracy Brabin:

May I add a supplementary point? The city region sustainable transport scheme—the big transport fund of nearly £900 million—has felt as if it is really heading in the right direction. It is really progressive that it is multi-year. It is money that we can really deliver; it is long term, and it is about local freedoms. However, in implementing it, we are getting check and challenge from Government about, for example, whether we can have silver bins in a particular project or a grass roof on a train station.

It is really important when the Committee is looking through the Bill to identify how Government can enable Mayors to make those decisions and trust them to deliver, because if we focus on outcomes rather than processes, then I think we can deliver for Government and be challenged as to whether we have delivered against the 12 missions once those schemes have been approved.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q Tracy, it is nice to see you again. This Bill is about levelling up, yet the different mayoralties have different powers and cover different geographical spaces, and therefore have different economic inequality between them. How do you think that real levelling up can come across all regions and indeed all nations through this legislation?

Tracy Brabin:

Thank you, Rachel. I would say that poverty is everywhere. It is not one region over another; it is everywhere. And poverty is expensive. Our mission in West Yorkshire—I know that other Mayors share this mission—is to close that disadvantage gap, to close the wage gap between the highest earners and the lowest, and to close the health inequalities that blight some of our communities. Some of our communities were extremely badly hit by covid, particularly in West Yorkshire, because of various circumstances, and it will take us a long time to recover.

However, Rachel, in direct response to your point, I would say that transport really preoccupies most of the Mayors—how can we make sure that we can get our talented people to opportunity? We have seen the HS2 Bill being laid before Parliament, and how frustrating it is for the people of West Yorkshire to see so much investment going into one side of the country, when we know that levelling up and tackling poverty are both absolutely about making sure that people can get to good jobs, and to colleges and to skills training, and so on.

As the M10, we work together to try to improve transport. Collectively, for example, Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and I work on buses, which is the transport system that the majority of people in West Yorkshire use. We are reducing bus fares, capping single trips to £2 and making it £4.50 for a daily pass. We are doing what we can to make sure there is more money in people’s pockets and that transport works. However, it is more than a structural problem, Rachel, in that transport has to work, and Government must invest. I know that it is one of the mission statements, and I know that Government want to do it, and we can help them to do it.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q Do you believe that having West Yorkshire as a combined authority provides sufficient leverage to bring about the economic regeneration that you seek, or do you believe that the unit is perhaps too small and there should be a Yorkshire-wide, more combined authority? Some will be much smaller—for instance, North Yorkshire.

Tracy Brabin:

That is right. When there is a mayoralty in North Yorkshire, I think it will be really powerful for us all to work together collectively for team Yorkshire. It is something that I am really looking forward to. On whether that delivers more, perhaps Ben wants to come in.

Ben Still:

Only to say that the legislation that underpins the creation of CAs was based around the model of the functional economic area. Yorkshire and the bigger geographies have more complex overlapping functional economic areas. In our devolution deal we looked at broader options, including looking at the Yorkshire level, but ultimately the discussions with Government came back to focusing on the functional economic areas around the metropolitan area of West Yorkshire. That is the geography that the legislation works most effectively on.

Tracy Brabin:

But we do work with and fund a number of schemes with York.

Ben Still:

Which is why I suspect the county combined authority model is not based on that legislation.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q If I may ask one more question, what additional fiscal powers would enable you to have better leverage in being able to deliver your programme?

Tracy Brabin:

It is not necessarily about further fiscal powers. It is about being free to deliver what our community needs with the powers that we have currently without continually having to go back to government for sign-offs and cheques and challenges when government can give us the money to deliver.

There are other powers that I would need. For example, we were talking just before this call about the precept and how Mayors have the opportunity to impose a precept, but it does feel that it has to be around something that impacts on people’s lives and around policy. For example, Andy Burnham uses his precept to have free bus travel—I think it is for the under-25s or under-19s. A precept adds cost for local people and the mayoralty. What we should be doing in the MCA is saving Whitehall money, because we are delivering on the things that it would normally deliver from Whitehall and Westminster.

Going forward, there are lots of discussions about fiscal powers, and there is work that we are doing in the M10 to look at that. Do you want to come in, Ben?

Ben Still:

Only to say that the move towards an outcome framework, as the Mayor has previously mentioned, with a multi-year funding settlement—perhaps through a spending review process directly with Treasury, rather than through individual grants agreements with individual Departments—would be a significant step forward for us and a better reflection of proper devolution.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

Morning, Tracy; it is good to see you. I want to touch on the point around accountability. You mentioned the role of accountability with Government, but do you think the Bill will improve your accountability or the role of a Mayor directly with the electorate?Q

Tracy Brabin:

The accountability is the election, so I suppose it depends on whether people believe that I have delivered on my 10 manifesto commitments. More seriously, I think I would be open to more accountability from Government. If you give us the freedom to work directly with the Treasury and then focus on outcomes, we will be accountable to Government. In this Bill, it does not feel like there is that focus on outcomes and assessment of delivery against expectations.

Ben Still:

When we became a mayoral combined authority from a combined authority, one of the things that we did in preparation was to increase the number of scrutiny committees that exist in the CA, so we have three—up from one—scrutiny committees that look at the work of the combined authority and have both pre-decision and post-decision scrutiny capabilities. The Bill mentions paying scrutiny members to get better attendance and so on, which we welcome, but we already do that in West Yorkshire. The issue for us is the high levels required for scrutiny committees to be quorate, so we would welcome more flexibility in that regard.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

Q You touched previously on the differences in your and Greater Manchester’s mayoralty structure, in that you are both also responsible for setting a police and crime strategy and therefore do not have a police and crime commissioner. Under that model, you and Greater Manchester each have a Deputy Mayor for Policing, who is appointed by you, rather than directly elected by the electorate. Does that make the process as accountable to the electorate as possible, when it comes to setting the police and crime strategy?

Tracy Brabin:

In West Yorkshire, my Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime is Alison Lowe. She is accountable to me, and fundamentally I am accountable to the public for police and crime outcomes. My role is to hold the chief constable to account on behalf of the public, and Alison and I have been doing that together. We are fortunate in West Yorkshire to have an outstanding police force, which is working closely with us to deliver on our manifesto commitments, including recording misogyny as a hate crime and getting greater diversity in the police force to reflect the communities we serve.

It works really well here that Alison and I work closely together to deliver, and there is no tension between our expectations for our communities. I mentioned the Venn diagram; we are able to overlay our desires to make people’s lives better and easier in West Yorkshire through my other responsibilities, and through police and crime.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

Q Would you advocate rolling out that model—with that type of dual structure—further, through the Bill?

Tracy Brabin:

It certainly works for us, so I would suggest so. It is convenient and straightforward, and we work together as a team. It is working here.

I would add, though, that there is some differential between the terms and conditions of Mayors and those of deputy Mayors. For example, Alison will be getting a pension and maternity rights, but Mayors get none of those, because they are paid differently. The terms and conditions that we fight for for our constituents are not in this Bill. The M10 has been discussing that issue with the Government, because without pensions and rights the role may not be attractive to young people or people who want to start a family. I would hope that the Bill might address that.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

Q Good morning Tracy; it is good to see you.

I want to return to planning. We share an ambition, in that we obviously want the right houses in the right places for our population. Much of the Bill is about community-led planning—that is, ensuring that communities have a say in where houses should be built, so that we can improve support for development within communities. How would that marry up with a strategic approach that was perhaps done by Mayors? I often describe planning as something that people feel happens to them, rather than them being engaged in it. If Mayors around the country had lots of strategic planning rights and powers, is there a danger that we might negate the chance of improving community involvement in the planning system in order to build the houses we need?

Tracy Brabin:

It feels to me that there are already those checks and balances for local communities. When there is an option for a warehouse or the building of homes and so on, the public and communities have an opportunity to reject that planning. Obviously, local plans are a responsibility for local councils, but for me what would be interesting with the strategic planning is to support local councils when they have a vision. For example, in Stockport in Manchester, the council has a vision to bring together greater investment and a bolder planning opportunity, working with communities. Maybe it would be cross-border and difficult to navigate, so the Mayors could be helpful there.

Of course, it is important for the public to have a voice in what their communities look like, but we would hate to get into a situation where communities that are happy with their village could block much-needed housing from their community. It is important that we keep the conversation going, though. I know our local councils do everything they can to work with communities to get the right outcomes, but we do need more social and affordable housing in our region. There is a role for the Mayor to play in that, and the strategic plan would help.

Ben Still:

To add to what the Mayor has said, the strategic planning covers a variety of topics of which housing is one. There is probably a role for Mayors from mayoralties and combined authorities to join up when looking at things like strategic infrastructure such as transport, broadband and so on, where it makes sense to plan across individual local authority or unitary authority areas. As the Mayor said, the local authority is the planning body and it has that process with communities. The Bill has a number of aspects that might strengthen that.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Any other questions? No. That brings us to the end of the session. Tracy—Madam Mayor—thank you for your enthusiastic evidence. Ben, thank you for coming along for your evidence, too. It is most appreciated.

Tracy Brabin:

Thank you, and good luck everybody.