Thank you, Mr Bone, and thank you, Mayor Andy Street, for your time this afternoon. It is much appreciatedQ117 .
I will start with a simple question: with the experience you now have of being Mayor of a huge part of the country, and of the powers you have been exercising, what do you see next for the powers of the West Midlands Mayor?
Thank you for the question. I think there are two ways of answering it. In some of the areas where we have been exercising powers already, we are looking for them to be deepened—so housing, transport and skills. Then, of course, in some policy areas, we have not had any powers and are looking for them, and we might talk about inward investment as an example of that.
The other way of answering the question is to talk about the fiscal deal. At the moment, we have really been applying to Government for funding and then allocating it using all our knowledge—the whole idea that decisions taken next to people are better—but we have not had our own fundraising power. There is a real moment as to whether this next trailblazer devolution deal is going to begin a process of fiscal devolution.
Q Thank you, that is really helpful. I am hoping that you might pull back the curtain, in so far as you are willing to, on the operations of a combined authority. Your membership is very big, so how does that work in practice? How do you work with those who have democratic mandates and with others who have been selected, because they are involved with your local enterprise partnerships? I believe you also have a trade union representative—I would always suggest that people join trade unions, because it seems a good idea to me. I wondered how that works in practice, how you try to build consensus and how you work with your combined authority?
Yes, you are right—interesting question. The remarkable thing about this area of the country —I think what I am about to say is true, and it is in contrast to every other combined authority—is that we are completely balanced politically: 14 Conservative MPs, 14 Labour MPs, four Labour councils, three Conservative councils and a Tory Mayor. That means that there has to be a model of working across party and consensually.
The way the decision making works is that our board takes the decisions. That is the seven local authorities, obviously balanced. The executive will be responsible for all the preparation of all the policy areas, all the proposals, but it will be that board that formally takes the decisions. One thing that I often talk about and am very proud of is that every single major financial decision that we have taken over the past five years has been taken unanimously by that board, across party. So, actually, an enormous amount of work has to be done to find what we might call regional interest and that consensual point, rather than—dare I say it on this call—the more conventional Westminster approach, the partisan approach.
Q Moving on, there has been some interest, in both oral and written evidence, in clause 140, on compulsory purchase orders. Do you think that the powers go far enough? If not, what more would you want to see, perhaps in a Government amendment? Would it be an opportunity to address the issue of hope value in the legacy of the Land Compensation Act 1961?
To be very honest, you are taking me beyond my level of knowledge with that last clause. I do not see it as a critical part of this Bill. I am quite comfortable with the CPO powers that we have at the moment. We use them infrequently, but when we have needed to use them, they have been powerful. We have also used them almost as a deterrent. I am not sitting here thinking that that is the thing that I must get out of this legislation. That is not a dodge of the question; it is my honest view. But I am not equipped to give you a detailed answer on that bit in your question.
Q That is absolutely fine. I appreciate your candour. I have just one very quick one to finish, Mr Bone. The written evidence for this Bill is starting to trickle through. There seems to be more with particular reference to the West Midlands. Obviously, we had the chief executive of the combined authority here on Tuesday. We seem to have had more interest in police and fire functions in the West Midlands than on any other issue. Some of that evidence is contradictory. Can you express your definitive position, as Mayor of the West Midlands, as to what the future is in this area, what level of interest you have, and how that might be shared, or not shared, with other Mayors that you work with?
I think the reason you have had a lot of interest in this is that we are in a different position to the other very large combined authorities. It is interesting why that has come about. You thanked me for my candour earlier on; I will give you my candour again on this. The situation here, unlike in Manchester, London and Leeds, is that the Mayor does not have the police and crime commissioner responsibilities. It was obviously imposed—I shall use that word—on those three areas through their deals. When our deal was struck, it was subject to local agreement. Despite a public consultation that came out overwhelmingly in favour of a merger of the two roles, the board decided that that was not what was going to happen. I regret the fact that that board decision was split on party lines. I said earlier that we always try to find consensus, but this is the one issue where we did not find it. That is, I think, why you have had input, because it remains a contentious issue. My personal view is, as it has always been, that there is enormous advantage to the model of one single accountable person. There is clear evidence that that has worked in other areas, and where we have not yet achieved that, we are slightly weaker for it.
Having said that, we have done two things here. Both the police and crime commissioner and myself, although from different parties, have committed that we will work as effectively as we can together. The second thing is that I have always committed that, so long as the rules were the same, we would not reopen this issue. Of course, the Bill changes the rules, and therefore it will, potentially, give an opportunity for this issue to be reopened. Hence the correspondence you have received.
Q With permission, Mr Bone, I shall ask the first question, and then Minister O’Brien has some further questions to ask.
Good afternoon, Andy. It is good to see you and thank you for giving up your time.
Q You have been quite a champion of brownfield sites and regeneration, particularly with a focus of trying to preserve many of the greenfield areas in the West Midlands. There are a number of planning reforms in the Bill. Do you see those as potentially helping you in your aim to deliver the housing that the West Midlands needs and, in particular, to level up the parts of the region on which you are really keen to focus?
I will give you a straight answer to the question in one moment if I may, Mr Andrew, but let me give a bit of general context. This, I think, is a very good example of where the combined authority has been able to demonstrate the fundamental principle that each can achieve things that individual local authorities working on their own probably would not have done. Of course, the critical point is that we achieve it by working with our local authorities, but we can clearly demonstrate that we have brought additional firepower.
The stats are very clear: we have hit our housing target in this region over the last four or five years, and we had, pre pandemic, doubled the number of homes being built every year in this region. One way that we were able to do that is, of course, working with central Government by deploying the brownfield land funding that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities had allocated to us in various tranches. We have made the existing system work, and very clearly we probably would not have had a negotiation—for example, Walsall or Wolverhampton separately—with DLUHC had we not existed.
Coming to your question, we are doing this against a good backdrop. We hope we will win further funding in due course to advance this even further, but on the reforms in the paper—it is a general question—essentially I would be supportive of them because they do bring simplicity to the operation. I do think that one of the challenges we constantly face is the time difficulty in drawing these items to a conclusion.
Q Thank you, Andy, for joining us. The Bill makes various provisions to speed up and to simplify the creation of new combined authorities and to make it easier, as we have just discussed, for Mayors to take on PCC powers. It also makes it easier to create combined authorities in two-tier areas through the combined county authorities clauses. Do you think the extension of mayoral combined authorities to more areas of the country is a good idea, and what would your advice be to places that are setting up new combined authorities?
The answer to the first question, in one word, is yes. Let me explain why, and this is something that Minister O’Brien and I have talked about for probably a decade, since we were both in previous roles. If you look at the economic history of this country and compare it with other, similar countries, we definitely have a weakness in the out of London areas. There is nothing original there; we know that. Of course, part of the answer is to try to address that in what you might call areas of sufficient scale. I think the thing that the combined authorities have done, as you could argue that the more successful and bigger LEPs did as the precursor to it, is begin to think about economic policy at an appropriate spatial level, or what the books would probably call a natural economic area—a travel-to-work area or whatever. That, I honestly think, has been one of our great successes. Transport policies do not stop at the end of Birmingham when it moves into Solihull, as Gill’s market does not stop at the end of Wolverhampton when it moves into Dudley. We have been able to think about these determinants of economic success across the appropriate geographical area. In our case, that is not yet fully complete, and if you look around the country, you see that other combined authorities are more clearly incomplete in that sense. I would argue that they should be encouraged to expand to fill their natural economic areas.
In terms of the advice, I think there is one simple word: you have to make sure that everybody is up for it. I do not believe this should be imposed. I do not think this should be about unwillingness. I do believe there needs to be a sort of buy-in to the core principle that the very first question is that everybody has got to be prepared to compromise and make this work for it to be a success.
Q Thank you. I have a very brief supplementary. One of the levelling-up missions that this Bill puts on a statutory basis is to increase the public domestic R&D spending outside the greater south-east by a third over the spending review period, and one of the institutions helping us to drive that is the new innovation accelerator in the West Midlands. How, other than through the legislation that we are passing, can we achieve that goal of driving high-quality public investment in R&D outside the golden triangle, and what role do you think the innovation accelerator can play?
Brilliant. I actually think this is probably one of the single most important parts of this Bill, and I am not sure it has had—what is the word?—the celebration it probably deserves. If you look at the long-term determinants of inequality, the intensity of R&D in an area is absolutely critical. You only have to look at the states of the Union and at an area such as Massachusetts and its leadership in R&D in medtech to see how Boston has become the most successful city in that sector by a country mile.
We have had a lopsided country in terms of public R&D—not just a little lopsided, but hugely lopsided. If you look at the West Midlands, we are very successful at drawing in private R&D, and we are very weak at drawing in public R&D. Our ratio here is four to one. It is definitely the worst in the whole country. It is ironic, isn’t it, because the private sector sees the opportunity and the public sector has not seen it in the same way? So for the Government to commit to tilting that and leveraging in even more private sector cash on the back of that is very important.
What has got to happen to do it? Frankly, we have got to change our approach to some extent. There is a whole piece here about cluster theory. Our public R&D has been incredibly focused in a very small number of research councils and research universities, which are basically around our automotive sector. We need to continue to play to that strength, but then to balance that by looking at the medtech sector, the fintech sector and clean growth. That is where we will be putting our focus in the innovator accelerator, so that it is a catalyst for us to improve our performance in new, adjacent sectors. So that diversification approach is a very important sprat to catch a mackerel—that’s what I call it.
Thank you, Mr Bone. I would like to ask about site viability and how the legislation can help, particularly with brown site regeneration developments, and about how the aspiration of local communities around economic generation—particularly on the back of talking about cluster economies—can lead to that opportunity to build out, versus the demand to get viability on the site and capital receipts, with people therefore opting for high-cost housing, which often does not meet the needs of the community.Q
It is a really interesting question. I think the trade-off you are implying comes most acutely in the dispersal of public land and indeed any land where the public sector has to offer a subsidy. So what we have just done recently is launch what we call our “public land charter”. It is looking at some of the principles that will apply to how that is disposed. I am pleased to say that the Cabinet Office was very involved with us, as were some of the big private sector landlords and our local authorities. What we have come down very firmly on is this whole notion of an economic assessment that addresses what we might call the “greater good”—just as you have described, long-term value to the regional economy, not just the short-term transactional value. So we are trying, in terms of the principles by which we will guide the use of the funding we have to make this happen, to address exactly the point that you are drawing out.
Q I really appreciate that answer; it is incredibly helpful. If I may, I will just ask a further question about that. How do you believe the infrastructure levy will help with bringing forward affordable housing and vital infrastructure on to sites? Do you have any concerns over the timing of the delivery of those funds?
I do not know the answer to this. I was honest enough to say earlier that I was not sure, but I am genuinely not on this one, because the huge advantage of the current variable system is that it can be waived where it is going to make a difference. I do worry, if I have understood the proposal correctly, about the absence of that ability. I know that that is not transparent and it does not pass some tests, but I think there is clear evidence that it can be used judiciously, for and against, when there is a marginal development. So my straight answer is that I do worry about that, but I can see, on the other side, the simplicity argument, which, as I said earlier, was valuable. I think that that is what has to be weighed.
Thank you, Mr Bone. I have asked this question of a number of the witnesses. There has been a controversy in recent years on the assessment of housing need for an area and who should decide what the housing need is for an area when it comes to the development of neighbourhood plans, local plans and so on. Where do you think is the most appropriate level for housing need to be assessed to put into local plans? Should it be national Government? Should it be principal planning authorities? Should it be—as in the West Midlands, which you are the Mayor of—mayoral areas? Or should it be at a lower tier?Q
Thank you for that question, because this process is pretty bust; it is lovely that the Housing Minister is in the room for this debate. The answer to the question of where is that I have no difficulty with it being assessed by the upper tier planning authority—so, in our case, the met authorities. But I do not think that that is really the problem. The problem is that something systemic is incredibly wrong. We followed up the detail of this using Coventry as the case study, where the system of assessment through the Office for National Statistics has churned a number that is clearly nonsense. It shows that the growth of housing needs in Coventry will be more than 30% over 10 years. In the rest of the West Midlands, the average is about 11%, so you think, “This isn’t right” and you follow the story through. We have had a number of incredibly helpful and very honest conversations with the ONS, which has acknowledged in a letter to me that the number is wrong and is getting more wrong, as the assumptions that it made are not playing out over time. But when the wrongness—if that is not poor English—of the number is revealed, there is nothing in the current system that forces the local authority to review its plan, so there is a huge misstep in the process between that calculation and the actions that are then taken.
I have not raised this issue with the current Housing Minister, but I had lengthy correspondence with the previous Housing Minister. I believe it is an area of huge potential improvement, but the system is clearly broken, and I would be very happy to furnish members of the Committee with all the detail on Coventry, which was such an obvious outlier. Let us be clear that the consequence is that the city council is pursuing a policy that it has to pursue because of the numbers—I do not doubt the council’s internal working—and it is digging up the green belt around Coventry on the basis of spurious calculations.
Q I am very grateful for that answer, which I recognise from my own constituency and the wider county that it sits in. On the basis that the system is broken, the Bill would seem like the obvious legislative vehicle to fix it. I am trying to tease back to my original question, which was about who should decide and using what data. What would be your best suggestion? I appreciate that there will be no magic bullet, but what would be your best solution for deciding a new system of determination?
I have no difficulty with the ONS, which is clearly the most objective, calculating the numbers—there is no question about that. I have no difficulty with the city council then being guided by that number, but the point in the middle is that there has to be a way that that can be challenged. There has to be a way to know whether it is on target and then it has to be reviewed, and the council has to have an obligation to review its plan if the numbers are wrong. It is not about who does the calculation; it is about the consequences of that calculation and feeding it through the next stages.
I still do not think that hits the point. The point is: whether it is fixed or a target, if the number can be challenged and proven to be wrong, what is going to happen? I can see where your logic is going—if it is only advisory, a council has more room for manoeuvre—but I think there is something even more fundamental, which is that there has to be a way of testing that number and then making sure that, if it is acknowledged by the ONS not to be accurate, it can be reviewed.