Meirion Jenkins: Birmingham Conservatives pledge to scrap the travel tax which charges motorists to drive into the city

25 Apr

Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.

The battle is well and truly joined for the UK’s second city and largest metropolitan authority in Europe. Birmingham starts with much stronger Conservative representation than any other core city and therefore the best possibility of the Conservatives taking control. We last ran Birmingham up to 2012 in conjunction with the Lib Dems. We need all the help we can get though; anyone willing to help can contact me directly on 07792 731556 or via Twitter and I’ll connect you with one of our many campaigning sessions.

Our campaign and manifesto, which launched this week, has three central themes: clean up the city; fix the roads; and protect green spaces. We will do this whilst keeping council tax low, because the point of being a Conservative is to reduce tax and let people keep and spend their own money, which they will always do far more efficiently than the state.

When campaigning in 2012, Labour promised not to increase council tax. After 10 years of a disastrous Labour administration, we have seen council tax increase by 39 per cent with another maximum increase (without a referendum) this year. I have been an opposition councillor throughout this time and observed a litany of financial and project management failures, many laughable were it not for the abject waste of public money they involve.

Our alternative budget this year would have frozen council tax as opposed to Labour’s maximum increase of 2.99 per cent. Even with this increase, Labour is still not able to present a balanced budget at the time of the election and we believe that, without a change in policy, they will need a further 31 per cent increase to balance the books. We will pledge to increase the number of higher band properties, thereby increasing the council tax collection without the need to increase rates associated with each band. We will bring top quality properties to the city centre, the type of private properties that residents will clamour to purchase. The quality of these properties would not be out of place in Belgravia or 5th Avenue.

Then there are the officer payoffs, with one secret compromise agreement after another and the revolving door of senior officer appointments. With secrecy built into Labour’s DNA, even committees charged with risk scrutiny, such as audit, are denied access to relevant information, notwithstanding that full council even passed a motion saying that there should be no areas off limits to audit committee, which the Labour administration has simply ignored. We even have, and I assure this is true, the Labour chief whip as the chair of audit committee; a hopelessly conflicted position. If elected, we will follow government guidance and bring all payoffs in excess of £100,000 to full council. This way, councillors will take responsibility and be accountable to their electorate.

The Conservative Group on Birmingham City Council is offering a manifesto with a broad range of measures that we know have widespread support amongst the citizenry of Birmingham. First and foremost, we will reverse the disastrous travel tax which charges motorists to drive into the city. This tax has even been opposed by a local Labour MP and of course many local businesses and workers who have no choice but to drive into the city for work. It is especially unpopular with night time workers, who can find themselves having to pay twice if their shift crosses over midnight! In the ultimate example of ‘wooden dollars’, even the Labour administration must charge itself when its non-compliant waste vehicles cross into the zone. The Conservatives have presented proposals to achieve the city’s clean air targets without this damaging tax on hardworking motorists. Our innovative ideas include the introduction of clean air filters at bus stops. Low traffic neighbourhoods and Labour’s crazy plan to close the A38 tunnels will also be scrapped. In order to boost local centres, we will provide free car parking in council owned car parks. We will build new car parks at hospitals so that people can visit their loved ones without having to worry about parking charges – besides, it’s not like they don’t pay enough already for the NHS. We will reverse Labour’s policy of restricting or entirely blocking parking provision with new developments.

Labour fails Birmingham on the basic functions people expect of a council. Waste collection is highly variable, often with whole streets missed for several weeks. There have been more than 500,000 missed bin collections since 2017, although the farcical way Labour measures this means that this figure does not include cases where whole roads, or even whole routes, have been missed but only where an individual resident has reported a missed collection for their one household. It’s no wonder my inbox is populated with complaints every week. If elected, we will seek to redesign the whole service. However, to provide a quick fix for the worst problems, we will instigate automatic reporting where whole roads have been missed and local neighbourhood clean-up crews as a flying squad to deal with waste collection failures.

Our second main theme, and another basic function of the council is fixing potholes. Birmingham gets paid a £1m a week by the government to maintain our roads but the roads of Birmingham are in a dreadful state. The Birmingham roads contract was working fairly well for its first two years when the Tories ran the council. But for the last ten years Labour has made a right mess of the contract, with endless disputes and a court case against the original contractor Amey. If elected, we will return sound management to this contract.

We will establish a business support desk. This will be a dedicated ‘hot line’ to the Leader’s office, co-ordinating assistance for businesses expanding or investing for the first time in Birmingham. In the past, investment has gone elsewhere when the city failed to properly support and respond to requests for assistance from potential investors.

Schools across Birmingham are mixed. There are some very good schools but the best have a distorting effect on property prices and other things as parents desperately try to acquire property within certain catchment areas. We will address this by encouraging applications to set up new free schools, particularly in areas that are currently poorly served. In order to receive a council house in Birmingham, residents will need to satisfy our 5-year residency rule, thereby mandating a local connection.

We will support the government’s initiative to provide face to face GP visits for those that need them. GP by Zoom undoubtedly works for many, and that’s fine, but nothing is ever going to be a substitute for a face-to-face consultation when needed.

Protection of green space is the third main theme of our manifesto. Labour has shown a disregard for green space; under their leadership 50 hectares of green infrastructure have been lost, the equivalent of 93 football pitches. We will adopt a brownfield-first building policy and stop their plans for destroying the city’s valuable park land. One of the most egregious examples and a narrow escape, was that of Dugdale Crescent in my own ward. Labour sought to build houses on a village green. Named after Sir William Dugdale, who fought at Edge Hill in 1642, it really is hard to think of a less appropriate place to build. A magnificent effort by the residents over three plus years saw the land designated as a village green in March this year when I supported the residents at a meeting of the Licensing Committee which unanimously granted the application. This protects against future development.

Once again, we need all the help we can get. Anyone willing to help can contact me directly on 07792 731556 and I’ll connect you with one of our many campaigning sessions.

 

Local elections: The towns and cities that will be the real tests of Labour recovery

14 Apr

As I noted on Monday, there is an expectation from most pundits that Labour will strengthen its dominance in London. I suspect the results will be too uneven for any such clear verdict to be delivered. But even if it is, we really need to look beyond the capital, to the towns and cities across England, to assess whether Labour performance represents a serious threat. We have 21 unitary authorities and 33 metropolitan boroughs up for grabs this year. (I will consider the district councils tomorrow, where the main challenge to the Conservatives tends not to come from Labour.)

Birmingham is an obvious place to start – given both its size and that it has all its seats up for election. Labour has 62 of the 101 seats on the Council – the Conservatives 28, the Lib Dems have eight, and the Green Party one. Labour is doing a bit better in the opinion polls at present than in 2018, when the seats in Birmingham were previously contested. Then we had the Erdington by-election last month when Labour won with an increased majority. But it was a low turnout and the swing to Labour of 4.5 per cent was less than half what they would need to win an overall majority at the next General Election. Labour has a formidable campaigning machine in the city. These factors would suggest that Labour should be back with a clear majority – perhaps making modest gains.

Set against that are the Council’s serious failings – which have been detailed on this site by Cllr Meirion Jenkins. This makes predictions tricky. Perhaps if Brummies are displeased with the Conservatives nationally and with Labour locally they may look to the minor parties. However, the Conservatives are  putting up a vigorous fight.

Labour launched its campaign in Bury with a visit from Sir Keir Starmer. That gave them a chance to get some further publicity over Christian Wakeford’s defection. It is also a council where all the seats are being contested. But the choice of Bury shows a lack of Labour ambition. It is already a Labour Council (28 Labour councillors to 15 for the Conservatives.) At this stage in proceedings, Labour simply holding on in places it already runs like Bury – or Birmingham – shouldn’t be seen as good enough; they should expect to be gaining territory. If Sir Keir had gone a few miles west to Bolton that would have shown a bit more confidence. That Council has 22 Conservatives, with 17 for Labour.

Derby is a unitary authority under Conservative minority control. As only a third of seats are up for election this time Labour could not expect a clear victory. But they should be aiming to win most of the seats being contested and to alter the balance of power. This is one of the few places where Reform are fielding a full set of candidates. That may be of slight help to Labour if some Conservative votes are split off.

Peterborough, similarly, has a Conservative administration while being under no overall control and only a third of seats being contested. Paul Bristow gained the Peterborough constituency for the Conservatives at the last General Election with a majority of 2,580. Labour would need to win it back with a clear majority to be in contention next time. What indication will we get next month from the tally of councillors in that proud city?

Dudley will be another important test. The Conservatives gained control last year winning 23 seats to just three for Labour. Another third of the seats are up for election this time. Will Labour get trounced again or show signs of revival?

Wakefield Council already has a big Labour majority. Not only has Imran Khan, the local MP, been expelled from the Conservatives after being convicted of sexual assault but the Conservative councillors have been in disarray. So it is likely Labour will do well here in advance of the expected Parliamentary by-election.

Even in this category of council elections, it is not always a straightforward Labour/Conservative battle. As noted on Tuesday, Sheffield is a contest that puts Labour under pressure from the Green Party and the Lib Dems. Then we have Sunderland where Labour is being challenged by the Lib Dems as well as the Conservatives.

It should also be noted that we have elections for the new unitary authority of Somerset, with all the seats being contested. That will be an important battle between Conservatives and the Lib Dems. In another unitary authority, Wokingham, only a third of seats are up. But that is another place where Conservatives will need to watch out for a Lib Dem revival.

There are other places – notably Liverpool and Manchester – where Labour are already dominant. But while the elections next month are skewed to existing Labour territory there are other areas that are more competitive and so offer a genuine challenge for them. The sense I get is that while they may consolidate here and there, they will not make dramatic gains. Yet that is what they need to be able to make a credible claim to be on course to victory at the next General Election.

Andy Street: The Commonwealth Games will leave a Levelling Up legacy for the West Midlands

22 Mar

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

The countdown is almost over. Just 129 days remain until the Commonwealth Games begin in Birmingham. Across the globe, 72 nations will send teams to compete in the UK’s second biggest ever sporting event. More than 5000 athletes are taking part in 283 events across 20 sports. Those talented individuals are finishing their personal preparations, with their sights set on gold.

As the final touches are applied to the venues, with excitement building for the Queen’s Baton Relay’s arrival, we in the West Midlands are working hard to ensure that the region’s businesses are also match fit. We want to take full advantage of the huge opportunities the Games are bringing.

I’m proud to have played my part in securing the Games early in my Mayoralty. The people of the West Midlands are embracing the opportunity of hosting such a massive event. I’m proud that successive Conservative Governments – first with Theresa May and Philip Hammond’s support and now with the Boris Johnson’s – has made it happen.

Our Government-backed strategic approach has been preparing the ground to ensure that, alongside a wonderful sporting spectacle, the Games also delivers an economic legacy that benefits local people in future decades.

Central to this is a £24million Business and Tourism Programme, built around four key objectives – creating a resilient and diverse economy, shaping the region’s reputation and profile , generating jobs, and positioning the West Midlands as an epicentre for Net Zero ambitions. Crucially, built into this strategy are ways to evaluate its progress, from the immediate benefits of engagement with investors to medium-term goals to shift international perceptions of our region.

Ultimately, we want to see not only investment and tourism that drives jobs and growth, but also export opportunities for local businesses, and to attract further major events. While it is early days – the Programme runs until 2023 – there are already encouraging indicators that it is delivering against the targets we set.

We have landed two more major events. During the Games, the first ever Commonwealth eSports Championships will be held at Birmingham’s International Convention Centre, giving out medals to the best in virtual sport. Then, in 2026, our region will host a world conference on Women in Sport. This is apt: the upcoming Games will be the first to offer more medal-winning opportunities for women than men.

Early signs also show that hard work to bring inward investment on the back of the Games is bearing fruit, with the strategy targeting markets in places like Australia, India, Malaysia and Singapore. This goes hand-in-hand with our push to shift perceptions of the West Midlands.

The West Midlands Growth Company, which, along with the Department of International Trade and VisitEngland, has reported an 817% increase in traffic to its inward investment website from India in the last six months. More than 640 media hits have been secured in primary markets of India, Australia, Canada, Malaysia and Singapore, spreading the word about our ambitions.

Regarding trade, DIT figures show 293 unique businesses have been engaged so far. Central to this has been a clever link-up with the Queen’s Baton Relay. As the Baton has journeyed across the Commonwealth towards England, we have delivered a targeted sales mission for each milestone, including one-to-one investor meetings and seminars

There are also the economic benefits that the Games’ exposure brings us, alongside the visitors. Birmingham is truly a global city, with people from over 180 countries. We have tried to shape this summer’s event as the ‘Games for Everyone’. The world is coming to us, with 1.5 billion people estimated to tune in globally, and huge numbers of visitors expected. So, the programme helps our businesses prepare to exploit this spotlight.  Our Getting Ready for the Games scheme supplies an e-Learning course to 7,000 businesses, providing insight and information to ensure the region delivers an outstanding visitor experience and showcases the West Midlands’ best.

Finally, the Global Growth Programme provides free support for companies wishing to enter UK markets via the West Midlands, while selecting 25 local businesses for targeted help in boosting exports. The exposure provided by the Games is proving to be a powerful conduit for trade. All of these economic benefits come in addition to more than a billion pounds of inward investment in preparing for the Games. Procurement has ensured that 70% of contracts have gone to businesses with West Midlands bases.

Training has also been boosted during preparations. For example, bootcamps organised though our Skills Academy to train people in broadcasting for the Games has given them skills for life. It’s my hope that many will look back and say that the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham provided them with a life-changing opportunity. All of this should translate into jobs, starting with 35,000 projected across the city this summer.

Along with the investment we have seen in our transport system, housing, skills and town centres, the Commonwealth Games has provided another powerful tool in ‘levelling up’ the West Midlands, backed by successive Conservative Prime Ministers.

We have anticipated this summer for a very long time, and we are ready for the world’s eyes to fall on us. The indications are that the Games will still be benefitting the people of the West Midlands economically long after the medals have been handed out.

Will Tanner: Everyone knows the moral case for levelling up. But it makes economic sense too.

2 Feb

Will Tanner is Director of Onward and a former Deputy Head of Policy in Number 10 Downing Street.

“Our plan now, this new Government I am leading, is to unite our country and level up.” So said Boris Johnson in his first speech as Prime Minister more than two years ago. Today the Government finally sets out that plan in the form of the Levelling Up White Paper. But why does it matter?

The political argument for levelling up is straightforward. The Conservatives assembled an electoral coalition in 2019 that is both more likely to live in poorer places and more working class than even the Labour Party. Those votes, in the Prime Minister’s words, were “lent”. They need to be repaid. If the Conservatives want to retain their majority, it is politically essential that levelling up delivers.

The moral case is simple. The last few decades have been good for some places and people, and very bad for others. The gap between the UK’s richest and poorest regions has grown. Returns to graduate labour have increased and returns to vocations have diminished. The social fabric of coastal and industrial towns, particularly, has deteriorated. Civic pride has been squandered.

But the economic case is less intuitive. Economic orthodoxy would say that the best thing governments can do for growth is to get out of the way. To neoclassical economists, levelling up is the economic equivalent of pushing water uphill: eye-wateringly expensive and ultimately futile.

This conventional wisdom is seductive to centre right thinkers given it prioritises market forces and downplays the role of the state. But it is also a narrow view of how economies work in practice, and short-sighted about the damage regional disparities can do to growth. Here are five reasons why levelling up is not just morally and politically sensible, but economically the right thing to do too.

1. More regionally balanced economies are richer overall

The UK is one of the most interregionally unequal countries in the industrialised world. Only Romania and Poland have larger productivity gaps between regions. In the UK, three times the share of people (35 per cent) live in areas where the average income is 10 per cent below the national average than in Germany (12 per cent). As Philip McCann has painstakingly evaluated, the UK scores among the worst economies on 24 measures of spatial equality, covering regional GDP, productivity and disposable income, and at all levels of geography.

Regional productivity disparities between the UK and 18 EU regions

 

Source: Industrial Strategy Council

This matters because more balanced economies tend to be stronger overall. Among the G20 there are no large countries more regionally imbalanced than the UK and also richer than the UK per head.

The reverse is also true; all large countries which are richer than the UK appear to be more balanced. This suggests that far from water trickling down hill from superstar regions like London, the opposite may be true. The UK’s overall productivity level may be being undermined by the decoupling of London from the rest of the economy.

2. The UK has been actively imbalancing itself for decades

An argument frequently made against levelling up is that it means cutting down tall poppies to grow green shoots elsewhere. This would obviously be a mistake. Levelling up will clearly fail if it pits places against one another and fails to learn from our success stories.

But we should also recognise that the current system suffers from an inadvertent Matthew Effect that directs growth-enhancing spending to already-successful places and away from places more likely to suffer market failure. To extend the analogy, the poppies get all the fertiliser.

This is evident almost everywhere the government takes a role in the economy. In recent decades, London has received nearly three times as much transport spending, five times as much affordable housing funding, and five times as much cultural spending as the average region.

The effect of this is two-fold. First, to accelerate the widening gap between the capital and the rest, and, second, to increase pressure on housing and infrastructure in the places that are most opposed to further development – London and the South East.

3. The UK’s drivers of innovation will exacerbate divides further if left unchecked

Productivity arises from innovation, defined broadly, both at a national and regional level. The development of new ideas, processes and technologies leads to spillovers that drive up the output per hour of workers and firms and living standards rise as a result. But the UK’s innovation economy is heavily skewed towards the Greater South East, meaning these spillovers are also geographically concentrated.

This is most apparent in R&D funding. Half (47 per cent) of the core government research budget is spent in just three cities: Oxford, Cambridge and London, and the capital receives twice as much R&D funding per capita than the UK average. According to some studies, this gap amounts to a £4 billion a year gap in R&D spending for the UK’s least prosperous regions.

Spending on R&D by NUTS1 region within the UK, 2016 (split by market-led (business) and non-market-led (government, university and charity))

Source: Richard Jones and Tom Forth

The effect of this on economic performance is considerable. Last year, Onward showed that 72 per cent of R&D intensive jobs created in the last decade were created within the regions containing London, Oxford and Cambridge, despite those places representing just 20 per cent of the population.

But the prize is even bigger: a recent BEIS-sponsored report estimated that spending the entirety of the uplift of R&D spending outside London, Cambridge and Oxford would boost GDP by 0.8 per cent by 2040, compared to spending the money equally around the country.

4. Modern economies make levelling up more important, not less

These challenges are exacerbated by the way the global knowledge economy drives inequality and undermines high levels of growth – in relation to the competitiveness of workers, the power of firms, and the connectivity of places.

Returns are increasing for high-skilled knowledge economy workers. Robert Reich wrote in the 1980s of an emerging divide between ‘symbolic analysts’, routine production workers and in-person service workers. David Goodhart divided them more snappily as ‘head, hand, heart.’ Our skills system has not kept pace with these rapid changes to the structure of the labour market, and workers in low productivity places are increasingly unable to access the highest paying jobs.

The structure of modern firms presents challenges, with tech companies adopting platform models that operate differently from previous industrial titans. David Autor has highlighted the rise of ‘superstar firms’ who benefit from network effects and the highly scalable returns to intangible capital identified by Jonathan Haskel and Stain Westlake. Superstar firms present a challenge for workers by reducing wage competition, and can worsen regional inequalities by concentrating economic activity without shouldering the tax burden to support investment elsewhere.

Knowledge economies also reward places with high levels of connectivity. AnnaLee Saxenian’s study of why Silicon Valley beat Boston’s Route 128 to become a global tech hub points to the dense and nimble network of relationships between workers, firms, and universities. In the UK, these networks are weak – characterised by Andy Haldane as a ‘Hub (London) with No Spokes’. We have world beating companies and universities, but we don’t connect them with other clusters or places in the way that is rewarded by the new global economic structure.

5. The UK’s cities underperform relative to international competitors

This lack of networks is particularly true of Britain’s second-tier cities, which punch well below their weight. Places like Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow are significantly less productive than peers like Brussels, Marseille, and Madrid, and don’t see the agglomeration effects that you would expect based on their size and available labour market.

As work from the Centre for Cities has highlighted, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225 billion larger. While transport connectivity has often been cited as the key barrier to productivity, Onward’s research has pointed to factors like skills and R&D intensity as more significant contributors to this gap.

Conclusion

For all these reasons, the Government is right to want to change the economic geography of the UK. It is true that the UK’s regional differences are longstanding. It is true that they will be hard to shift.

But that does not make the challenge any less urgent, morally, politically or economically. Levelling Up is not about reducing everyone to the lowest common denominator. It is about bringing everyone up to their potential.

As Margaret Thatcher said once, “People think that at the top there isn’t much room. They tend to think of it as an Everest. My message is that there is tons of room at the top.” We have done it before, as shown below. We must do it again.

UK regional productivity differences between 1901 and 2017

Source: Industrial Strategy Council

Meirion Jenkins: This year the Conservatives will be fighting for victory in Birmingham

28 Jan

Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.

In less than four months, Birmingham will see all-out elections to elect the city’s council for the next four years. The Conservative Group are mounting a full-blooded campaign to win control of the city. We will bring forth a vision for a quite different type of Birmingham, where the views of residents count for something and where the administration recognises that its purpose is to serve residents and not its own bloated infrastructure.

I can hardly keep up with the range of new senior posts that the current Labour administration are creating, piling cost upon cost for hard pressed residents. One might think that at least one consequence of these extra management positions would be a better service to residents. Not so, I’m afraid. In the council’s own survey, 92 per cent of respondents said that the council provides a poor service; complaints against the council have increased by 50 per cent over the last three years. Most topics that residents raise with me concern what we might describe as the basics of council life – waste collection, road and footpath maintenance, potholes etc. Not glamorous issues. But Labour’s decade long failure to get these basics right is an enduring frustration to residents. For example, the waste collection budget has increased by 50 per cent over the last ten years but the service (and thanks to the long-suffering residents who keep reporting missed collections) we know has got worse.

Covid of course now provides an excellent excuse for Labour’s ongoing failure on waste management, even though this has been an issue since I became a councillor about a decade ago. From January 2017 to November 2021 there have been over 500,000 missed bin collections in Birmingham and now, once again, we see large piles of rubbish building up around the city. ‘Staggering’ criticism as some people face four-week waits for bin collections in Birmingham – Birmingham Live (birminghammail.co.uk). Labour’s recycling rates are also very poor at 22.5 per cent – half the national average. Only Tower Hamlets and Newham have worse recycling rates. This leads to more rubbish being burned and makes a mockery of Labour’s clean air agenda.

Matters are aggravated by the very poor interactions that Birmingham Labour offers when people do complain. Automated meaningless responses so often fail to address the original cause of the complaint. Many of the emails I receive from residents are not about the originating complaint, but Labour’s inability to provide a substantive response. Residents tell me that they feel that nobody in the Council cares. Perhaps Labour’s inability to manage contact points is part of the problem; there are 265 attached websites, 200 contact numbers, 151 email addresses and 131 postal addresses! The Labour leadership is far too concerned with the high profile, glamorous city centre projects rather than ensuring that every community benefits from investment. Moreover, whilst we could support certain of the city centre projects, when we do embark on large projects, we must deliver within budget. For example, the Paradise Circus redevelopment was budgeted at £50 million but cost £100m. Above all though, the council must get the basics right first.

So, can we do it; can we win control of the UK’s second city? Well, if the two by-elections that took place in May 2021 are anything to go by, then quite possibly. In Oscott Ward, we achieved a 17.9 per cent swing and, in Quinton Ward, we achieved a 4.7 per cent swing. Both these wards are traditional working class parts of Birmingham, rather similar to the red wall seats that we took across the north at the General Election. If these results were translated city-wide, then an Oscott type result would produce approximately 20+ Conservative seats and Quinton another 10. A city wide Oscott type swing would, at the very least, be expected to eliminate Labour’s majority.

Some of the Labour seats we need to win, with the 2018 margin of Labour victory shown in brackets, are Longbridge (15), Pype Hayes (17), Sutton Vesey second councillor (105), Kings Norton (125) Weoley & Selly Oak (202) and Quinton second councillor (126). Single member wards, of which there are 37 have about 8,000 voters and dual member wards, of which there are 32, have about 16,000 voters. Therefore, it’s easy to see just how small these margins of victory are. Some might wonder about the negative movement we have experienced recently in national polling and the Shropshire by-election. However, in 2018, despite a five per cent swing against us nationally, we achieved a six per cent increase in our vote share. This demonstrates that Birmingham politics, with a Labour incumbent, is not a direct reflection of national trends. With a strong Birmingham based campaign (and we will soon be issuing our Manifesto which has a great deal to offer), we can better our 2018 result.

The last time we had a Conservative-run administration in Birmingham was in 2012; it was a coalition with the Lib Dems. There are 101 councillors, currently being Conservatives 27, Green Party one, Labour 64 and Liberal Democrats eight, with one vacancy.

Without a doubt, Labour’s unfair and undemocratic travel tax (aka clean air zone) is very unpopular with many residents – particularly those in poorer areas around the ring road who are suffering extra pollution due to traffic being shifted into their wards. Labour’s dogma and obsession with anti-car policies means they will retain this policy through to the election in the face of strong local opposition. Even Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP for Perry Barr, has slammed the policy. On Politics Midlands he said of the travel tax:

“This is just a completely bonkers idea by officials that sit behind desks and pass these through, and my colleagues and councillors should have a much better idea of the people they represent and what the issues are.”

He also said that, in his opinion, the effect of the scheme would be to increase emissions. Our commitment to reverse this tax is likely to be very popular with voters – especially in those areas close to the ring road that may not be traditionally Conservative.

Andy Street: Transport funding provides an unprecedented opportunity to level up the country

30 Nov

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands

Talk of ‘levelling up’ occupies much of the bandwidth of current political discourse, with so much airtime debating what it is, how it can be best achieved and its resonance with voters.

That chatter often overlooks the clear progress that has already been made. As Mayor of the West Midlands, I know that this Government mission is already having an impact here, in terms of inward investment and the movement of Whitehall departments to our region.

However, in recent weeks the focus has understandably fallen on what is one of the biggest potential drivers of levelling up – transport investment. Improving transport injects serious firepower into an area, boosting local economies and creating jobs, while it also provides tangible evidence of improvement, connecting communities to opportunities and opening up places to further investment.

It’s also an area where the rest of the nation has always lagged behind the South East in terms of spending. It was no coincidence that I used a London tube-style map to illustrate the network that we are building here, as it helped capture the level of ambition – and funding – needed to make it a reality.

I want to use this column to explain how recent transport decisions provide unprecedented firepower to deliver levelling up in the West Midlands, as well as a vote of confidence in the region.

My transport vision for the West Midlands is already taking shape, thanks to a seven-fold increase in spending since I took office, with projects such as the new Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro extension, the opening of five new railway stations and the roll out of West Midlands Cycle Hire earlier this year.

Indeed, it was fitting that when I recently joined the Prime Minister and transport secretary Grant Shapps on a train from Wolverhampton to Coventry, the journey took us from one brand-new city station to another. It provided the perfect moving platform for their announcements last week.

However, the £1.05 billion awarded to the West Midlands through the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement (CRSTS) is by far the largest amount we have ever secured, representing an unprecedented investment in our network and, in my view, clear evidence of levelling up in action.

This new funding will not only help us get some planned projects over the finishing line, it will set us well on the road to a real revolution in transport for the West Midlands, delivering the next round of metro extensions, bus and cycle routes, and stations that will help our region grow and prosper. Now residents want to see action.

Only this week we cut the first sod of ground at the site of a new railway station in Willenhall in the Black Country, one of a number set to be reopened that have been shut for decades. We also have plans for key interchanges, such as Dudley Interchange and Sutton Coldfield Town Centre Gateway, which would forge better links between bus, rail and cycling routes.

Any plans to use transport to drive levelling up must prioritise the workhorse of our public transport system – the bus. Before Covid, bus was by far the most used form of transport here, with 267 million journeys a year compared to 50 million for rail and about seven million on the region’s metro tram system.

In fact, we were one of the few places in the country where bus use was rising. In the 12 months up to December 2019, the number of people catching the bus in the West Midlands rocketed by almost eight million.

Now, with the funding we have bid for from the Government’s Bus Service Improvement Plan, we aim to develop 110km of new bus priority routes. This would include bus lanes and junction upgrades to improve the reliability of services and a simplified lower cost fare system across operators.

Encouraging more physically active travel – like walking or cycling – is a key pillar of our thinking going forward, with 16 new safe cycle routes among the schemes on the agenda here.

Along with all this investment, there has also been a Government commitment to a degree of local control over how it is spent, ensuring that the expertise harnessed by regional devolution does not go to waste. This is another often overlooked facet of levelling up, and one which I hope to see grow in importance.

Then we have the Integrated Rail Plan, which confirmed HS2 and much more, representing a huge vote of confidence in the Midlands and a major step towards my 2040 transport plan.

Not only has the Government confirmed that HS2 will connect Birmingham and Solihull to London and Manchester, but it has also confirmed a new high speed line to link the East and West Midlands.

This will halve journey times to Nottingham and provide passengers with much improved capacity and connectivity East to West. It will also place our region at the very heart of this high speed rail network.

The other big prize was the Government’s support in principle for Midlands Rail Hub, which involves expanding Moor Street station in Birmingham linked to the HS2 station at Curzon Street. This could mean up to 24 more trains per hour on the Midlands passenger network, with more services and faster trains connecting places such as Hereford, Worcester, Coventry, Birmingham, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Bristol and Cardiff.

As a result, we now have the very real prospect of significantly extending local lines, creating additional capacity, re-instating the direct link between Coventry and Leicester and perhaps most exciting, the chance of a third cross-city line in Birmingham.

Levelling up is more than just a buzz phrase. It is a critical mission to create a more balanced and robust economy, ensuring investment and opportunity reaches communities across the nation. This investment into transport for the West Midlands gives us an unprecedented opportunity to deliver both my transport vision and levelling up.

Interview: Osborne – “Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. In terms of local taxation, double it.”

29 Nov

George Osborne urges Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and their colleagues to pursue devolution of powers to metro mayors with indefatigable determination:

“Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. Whatever you’re doing in terms of local taxation, double it.”

Osborne recounts how as Chancellor of the Exchequer he launched the Northern Powerhouse, abandoned during Theresa May’s prime ministership but now revived by Johnson as the centrepiece of the present Government’s levelling up agenda.

He looks forward to the forthcoming White Paper about levelling up, on which Gove and Neil O’Brien are at work:

“I’m optimistic about the White Paper because of who’s drafting it, and I would only tell them, not that they need my advice, to trample over anyone who gets in the way.”

In Osborne’s view, the benefits of elected mayors should be spread to the English counties, regardless of any opposition from Conservative councillors:

“The Conservative Party is quite easily led if it’s given a strong direction.”

At the end of the interview, he dismisses as “nonsense” the idea that Johnson needs a new team of advisers, and insists that success lies within the Prime Minister’s grasp.

Osborne describes how, having spent his childhood in London – “I’d grown up I guess with that world view that nothing of any importance happened outside the M25” – he came round, after becoming MP for a northern seat, to the idea of decisive action to revive the cities of the North of England.

He urges the Government to be ambitious:

“I would say…to the current crop of Conservative ministers and to the Prime Minister…you never know how long you’ve got in office, and the wheel turns, and then suddenly you’re out.

“And I can tell you as someone who’s been out of office and out of politics for five years, you look back on the big things you feel you got right, and they’re often the things against which there was the most opposition, the hardest internal arguments in your party, but they’re also the most rewarding things.”

ConHome: “Let’s start with a broad-brush question. How do you think the Government’s doing?”

Osborne: “I think the Government has every opportunity to be a great success, and it has hit what all Governments hit, which is that kind of mid-term moment when people think, you know, is the focus there, is the direction there, are they going to deliver.

“It’s not unique to the Boris Johnson Government. Something quite similar happened to the Cameron Government in 2012, 2013.

“And, you know, we got our act together and won an election. And so it’s perfectly within the capability of Boris Johnson and his team to do the same. But they do need to act.”

ConHome: “How do you assess their chances of winning the next election?”

Osborne: “Well the odds are greatly in favour of the Conservatives winning, because the Labour Party has not yet done enough in my view to make itself electable.

“Though Keir Starmer is a very presentable Leader of the Opposition, he has not distanced himself from the Jeremy Corbyn era enough, apologised to the public for presenting Corbyn to the country as a serious candidate for Prime Minister.

“He has not done internal reform to reduce the influence of the trade unions.

“When I look back at my own career, I spent half my time in Government and half my time in Opposition. Opposition is in many ways harder than Government, because you don’t have the kind of natural agenda that a Government has.

“You certainly don’t have the full weight of the British state carrying you forward. The Leader of the Opposition – the Shadow Chancellor, which I was for five years – if they don’t do something that day, nothing’s going to happen.

“And if you look at the enormous efforts which Gordon Brown and Tony Blair went through in the 1990s – I was at the time a junior staff person in Downing Street and I saw at first hand their efforts to make the Labour Party electable.

“If you think of the huge efforts that David Cameron and myself and the people we worked with went through 15 years ago to make the Conservative Party electable, you just don’t see the hunger, the effort, the appetite in the Labour Party at the moment to do what is required to win back the trust of the British people.

“But the Conservative Party cannot just sit there and rely on their opponents failing to get their act together.

“And if the Labour Party were to get its act together, which is perfectly possible, there are still a couple of years to go until the election, yes, then the Conservative Party could be in real trouble.

“It doesn’t need to be, because it has all the instruments at its disposal to make itself eminently electable and to get itself re-elected.”

ConHome: “So let’s get on to the main subject of the interview, which is the Northern Powerhouse, devolution, elected mayors and all that.

“The Treasury is often viewed as an anti-localism, anti-devolution department. In Opposition, you yourself were a bit of a sceptic about localism.

“When did you become a convert to localism and mayors, and why?”

Osborne: “Yes, my own thinking on this did change over time. I remember early on thinking the Conservative Party had made a mistake in not initially opposing the creation of the Mayor of London.

“And then once we got into office, I think the definition of localism we had was a little bit limited. It was all about giving parish councils a bit more power over planning.

“There were some ideas, actually from the Liberal Democrats, that there had to be a referendum, because at that time there were lots of Liberal Democrat councillors in those cities.

“And so the whole agenda basically went nowhere for the first two or three years of the Government I was part of, and I guess around 2012, 2013, essentially the kind of emergency job on the economy was beginning to bear fruit and we were moving out of the financial crisis period, I became very focussed on what we could do with our opportunity of being in Government to tackle the really, really big economic problems the country faced, rather than the very immediate ones of the deficit and the recovery from the financial crisis.

“And I guess because I was a northern MP, you know, I’d grown up in London, educated in London, I’d grown up I guess with that world view that nothing of any importance happened outside the M25, and one of the luckiest and best things that happened to me in my political career was that I got selected for a seat in the North of England.

“It completely changed my perspective on the country, and it changed my perspective on how the rest of the country sees London.

“And for a long time I was one of only a couple of MPs for the Conservative Party who were even remotely close to Manchester. There was basically me and Graham Brady.

“And I’d already begun to get more involved as an Opposition MP in what we could do in Manchester as a party. I supported for example the BBC’s move to Salford.

“All this kind of thinking was evolving in my head, and we got to the middle period of the Government, 2013, and I thought why not take on the biggest domestic challenge of all, which is that the North of England has lagged behind the South – and the greatest political challenge, which was that people thought the Conservative Party had nothing to say about that.

“So it was both an economic and a political challenge, and I threw myself into it, and the Treasury is sceptical of devolution, for the simple reason that it always has to pay up when devolution fails, because people will not let local public services fail, let cities fail, and in the end the Treasury has to step it.

“But the Treasury is also an amazing department, full of incredibly talented and committed people, and if they’re given direction, they have the best chance of anyone in Government of delivering.

“And so with a selection of very talented civil servants, one in particular, John Kingman; my special adviser at the time, Neil O’Brien; with one of my Treasury ministers at the time, Jim O’Neill; we really focussed on would it be possible to reverse a century-old trend in British economic geography.

“High Speed Rail was already there, in fact an idea originally born of the Conservative Opposition, not the Labour Government, so High Speed Rail, High Speed Rail across the Pennines, and devolution and the creation of metro mayors, not just city mayors which had been the original idea in 2010.

“And so a much bigger economic geography than just Manchester city centre, they’ve got all of of Greater Manchester including places like Bolton, Bury and so on, and within Merseyside, South Yorkshire and so on, real devolution, allied with a big commitment to what I would call the social capital of the cities, the teaching hospitals, the universities, the science facilities, the cultural facilities, that would make these cities really attractive places to live and to commute to work in, so that it would also help the surrounding towns.

“And that became known as the Northern Powerhouse because the speech I gave launching it was in the Power Hall of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, and right from the start in the front row I had Labour councillors, the Leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, who’s just retiring, the then Leader of Liverpool, and so on.

“So right from the start I thought it was never going to work if it’s not a bipartisan effort, and they’re never going to trust the Conservative Government, these big Labour urban fiefdoms, if they don’t see that there’s a Chancellor who’s prepared to share the credit with them.

“And I always thought the political gain, which was very much a secondary consideration, would flow from that. People would blame the Government when things go wrong, they would give the Government credit if things went right.

“If I have a regret it’s that I’d have either started earlier or had longer in office, to really cement it, because we made enormous progress in those subsequent three or four years, we got metro mayors created in all these places, which people had been trying for decades to set up.

“We got the plans in place for the railways, we created organisations like Transport for the North, so there was enormous progress.

“We then hit unfortunately the buffers of the Theresa May Government. She was not interested in it and basically ditched it.

“And then what excites me genuinely is that the Boris Johnson Government – which calls it levelling up, which is a good slogan – had doubled down on something I thought was very important.

“So all the political stars are aligned. Of course the really hard thing in government is then actually getting the job done.”

ConHome: “Was there ever any element of wanting to push the responsibility for public spending consolidation out and down to local authorities, many of them Labour?”

Osborne: “Well yes, at the time the country was spending too much, whether at national or at local level, so there were reductions in local authority budgets.

“But we gave them more freedom, we removed a lot of the ring fences that dictated how they spent money, something I think we should go much further with.

“If I had my time again, I would have doubled down on that.

“We explicitly said, for example, if they allowed more development in their area then they would keep the proceeds, the extra council tax receipts which would come from having more homes, the extra business rates which would come from having more businesses.

“Until then they didn’t see any benefit from that, so there was zero incentive to consent to planning or to encourage economic growth.

“One of my proudest achievements was that by the time we left office Manchester was the fastest growing city in Europe. And that was certainly not all down to me and I pay a lot of credit to people like the Labour Leader Richard Leese and people who worked for him and around him.

“I should particularly credit by the way Howard Bernstein, who was the Chief Executive of the Council, who was also brilliant.

“And that partnership really delivered Manchester. And we were starting to deliver in Liverpool, in Sheffield, in Leeds, in Newcastle and so on, and I think laid the groundwork for the Conservative revival in Tees Valley as well.

ConHome: “You outlined what you did in terms of allowing councils to keep more of business rates and so on. How far do you think the tax-raising powers should go, and what should the Government do?”

Osborne: “I think you could go quite a lot further. I think you could give local authorities, I wouldn’t do it at an individual council level, I think it has to be at a metro level or a big county level, but I don’t see why you couldn’t give them their own proper business-rate raising powers.

“So it’s a choice an area would make, you could either cut your local taxes to encourage business, or you could raise your taxes and spend on infrastructure.

“I think it’s worth looking at local income taxes as a supplement. I mean after all we have that arrangement in Scotland, I wouldn’t necessarily say you have to go that far in English devolution, but I was one of the architects as Chancellor of giving Scotland more tax-raising powers, and I think as a result, by the way, the SNP is being held much more to account for its own domestic performance, and they can’t keep saying we want more money from Westminster, because everyone goes hold on, you’ve got the power to raise taxes if you want to.

“So the public are not stupid. I think it’s really interesting that when the metro mayors have come up for re-election, the good ones have been re-elected – Andy Street in Birmingham, I was also very involved in creating a West Midlands Mayor.

“I’ll give you a local example where I don’t particularly agree with the approach the Government is taking, in London, where I was for several years editor of The Evening Standard.

“Sadiq Khan is saying Transport for London – we’re having a set-to about a Tube strike – he is the Mayor, he’s the Chairman of Transport for London, and he should have responsibility for running the transport system in London.

“And the freedom to run that system as he sees fit, to raise fares if he is prepared to. And what’s happened instead is the Government has stepped in and is trying to micromanage how he runs Transport for London.

“I would let him take responsibility, because then I think the public would say, ‘Are you doing it well?’

“At the moment you’re giving him a free pass of saying ‘Well, you know, the Government’s not giving me enough money.’

“I suspect it’s not a ministerial failing, it’s just the Whitehall system seeks to take control when it has the opportunity – it’s often the simpler solution to a problem, when, you know, Covid means the Tube’s gone bust.

“But the harder solution, but the better one, is to put the Mayor in charge.

“I think it’s a great shame that Transport for the North has been downgraded – I would upgrade it with more powers, make it more like Transport for London.

“I would give the metro mayors more responsibility. For example, we devolved the NHS in Manchester, which was a really bold thing to do.

“It’s the only place in England where that’s the case. It integrates social care. There’s no reason why the Conservatives should be afraid of this.

“Fundamentally, it should be in the Conservative DNA, if you go back to Edmund Burke etcetera, that they trust local communities.

“I remember at the time, when we started all this, there were some prominent members of the Cabinet who said, ‘We’re just handing power to the Labour Party in Birmingham and Teesside and so on – we’ll never ever have Conservatives elected there.’

“And I would reply, ‘We don’t have Conservatives there at the moment – it’s not as if we’re starting from a position of giving away power.’

“And the election of Conservative metro mayors in the West Midlands and in Teesside essentially proved that point. And I would also say there’s nothing really to be lost.

“The best news at the moment from my point of view is that Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien have been given the opportunity to demonstrate this, because I think they’re two of the smartest and most creative Conservative thinkers we’ve got at the moment.

“And I would just say – well they don’t need my advice, they’re both good friends of mine – just let them get on with it.

“Every time you’re confronted with something which is, you know, ‘Oooh, should we trim a little, this is a little bit too radical, the Treasury’s got a problem with this,’ I would go for the reverse.

“Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. Whatever you’re doing in terms of local tax-raising powers, double it. Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolving the NHS, double or triple it.

“That is why we have ministers, and we have political leadership in government: to push the system where it doesn’t want to go. For the Conservatives, this is really the once in a generation opportunity to show the whole country it can deliver.

“And if you just limit yourself to a couple of town-centre funds, which by the way the Cameron Government had, the Blair Government had, they’re not new, that’s not what’s needed.

“What’s needed is proper economic theory about creating big economic clusters in the North, bringing the cities closer together, connecting them to the towns that surround them, connecting them with real transport links that work, and attracting business, which cannot be done by the public sector alone, which is another classic mistake.

“You’ve got to make business feel that these are the places to go to, to create jobs and invest, the wonders of the free market will then work, and in a way that no Government White Paper will ever predict, real activity will happen.

“I’m optimistic about the White Paper because of who’s drafting it, and I would only tell them, not that they need my advice, to trample over anyone who gets in the way.”

ConHome: “This question of doubling everything you’re doing, does that extend to more elected mayors outside cities, in counties with smaller populations?”

Osborne: “Yes, I think it would be great to have elected mayors. I was an MP in Cheshire for 16 years, and I remember the time when we were in Opposition, I was a junior MP, and there was a plan to create unitary authorities in Cheshire.

“Pretty much all the MPs in Cheshire, led by the redoubtable Gwyneth Dunwoody, the Labour MP, and Sir Nicholas Winterton, led the fight against it, and thankfully we were ignored by the Government and unitary authorities were created, and it’s a much more efficient and effective way to run Cheshire.

“No one likes local government reorganisation, and local MPs and councillors have got to resist because it’s your local power base, but on a country-wide scale you could easily have mayors for Cumbria or Cheshire or wherever it happens to be.

“And I think the point about a mayor is it provides a point of accountability, an individual who can’t really pass the buck and is held to blame or indeed applauded for what they do.”

ConHome: “A former Conservative Leader of a big county said, ‘When I was the Leader, I had to oppose having an elected mayor in our area, because of all my Cabinet colleagues – they would all have protested and given me a lot of political trouble if I had come out in favour.

“Now I’ve gone, I’m all in favour of an elected mayor. So that leads to a political question, which is how do you deal with a mass of Conservative Cabinet members, county councillors and district councillors who won’t want any change, at a time when the Government is moving towards an election and you really need their good will.

“You should arguably have done this much earlier. Can you do this politically in the next few years?”

Osborne: “Yes, absolutely. The Conservative Party is quite easily led if it’s given a strong direction. We did succeed in creating these metro mayors in large parts of the country where there were no Conservative councillors.

“Let’s take Manchester. I remember Trafford Council, it was Tory-run, and they were like, why would we want to give power to a metro mayor in the middle of Manchester.

“The truth was the council leader at the time, the Conservative council leader was very courageous and led his group in support.

“And I always thought the best way was never to try to impose these metro mayors – to use the carrot, not the stick – so I would pile up all the advantages that come from having a metro mayor, the additional money, the support for local transport – and that did work. The hardest area was West Yorkshire and Leeds, it was politically contested, but even that now has come into line as they’re seeing the benefits.

“So you can show them the treasure at the end and they will follow the trail.

“In any organisation, it’s quite hard to lead from behind. You have to have a view, and ultimately if people don’t like you, they’ll get rid of you.

“There’s no point just occupying those offices. I always felt [as Chancellor of the Exchequer] there was a ticking clock, I never knew when the axe would fall, and I would try to be as bold as possible.

“I would say the same to the current crop of Conservative ministers and to the Prime Minister, which is you never know how long you’ve got in office, and the wheel turns, and then suddenly you’re out.

“And I can tell you as someone who’s been out of office and out of politics for five years, you look back on the big things you feel you got right, and they’re often the things against which there was the most opposition, the hardest internal arguments in your party, but they’re also the most rewarding things.”

ConHome: “So far, hasn’t levelling up really been a bit of a mess? You’re right to say that Michael Gove is a great executive politician – Neil O’Brien a huge brain, did a column for us – they will instil some order and political shape to it.

“But so far, hasn’t it been a bit incoherent? And has it had the strategic grasp the Northern Powerhouse had, in terms of a very clear plan to link up the cities, make them bigger, establish an economic counterweight to London?

“Hasn’t levelling up by contrast been a bit of a shambles?”

Osborne: “Well I am a glass half full person. I would say it was moribund for several years after I left office, as an agenda, and obviously there were enormous distractions, Brexit and then more recently Covid.

“But I think Boris Johnson deserves full marks for picking this up as the big domestic agenda. That’s what a Prime Minister does. A Prime Minister says ‘My Government’s going to be defined by a few things’, and he has decided levelling up is one of them. So I strongly applaud him for that.

“I also applaud him for now having the right people in place to deliver it. I wish he had stuck with, and I think he will end up recommitting to, elements like the High Speed line in Yorkshire, the Eastern Leg, and the Trans-Pennine route, because those are long-term infrastructure projects which you don’t want to throw away and start again on some other project that’ll never get off the ground.

“So I’m quite optimistic about it all. What it needs is proper intellectual underpinning. If you think it’s all just about planting some civic flowerbeds in northern towns then the Tories will be out on their ear.

“It’s got to have proper, serious economic thinking about it, which Jim O’Neill, a world-class economist, provided me with on this, and others like Neil O’Brian and Rupert Harrison.

“There are around the world great city clusters. They are where the action is. The towns around them benefit as well, but a bit more slowly.

“And you have to do the things that make those cities work, so you have to make them exciting places that attract professional people, you need the buzz of universities and cultural institutions, you need excellent transport links between the cities and commuter links into the cities, and you need to empower the city leadership.

“If you’d said to me 30 or 40 years ago that Manchester would be the fastest growing city in Europe I would have thought it was an impossible ambition, because the Manchester area was on its knees.

“You have to think big, you have to be ambitious, and you have to realise that Government puts the kind of instruments in place, but then it’s the private sector and the business community, and not just the big corporates but every little small business, every entrepreneur that decides actually I’m not going to move out of Manchester, I’m going set my new web design business in Manchester rather than move to London. That is how progress is made.

“I think the Johnson Government can do it. It’s got the majority, they’ve made this its central domestic agenda, and if it sticks with it it can work.

“One of the things I find annoying, having been a political secretary in Downing Street in the distant past, is all this ‘Boris Johnson needs a new team in Downing Street. He needs grey hairs around him. He needs as Deputy Prime Minister a Willie Whitelaw-type character.’

“All of that is such nonsense. Actually in my view the Downing Street team is pretty talented at the moment, and they are a good team.

“And there are some real issues the Government’s got – it’s got a difficult economic backdrop, falling real incomes, it’s got to repair the relationship with Europe, which is absolutely critical to Britain’s economy, its immigration policy, its security policy.

“These are the big tasks alongside levelling up. But the idea it’s all going to be solved with some reshuffle of the kitchen cabinet or indeed the Cabinet is in my view nonsense.”

ConHome: “You’re really saying the problem with Boris Johnson isn’t his team, the problem with Boris Johnson is Boris Johnson.”

Osborne: “No I’m not actually, because I think Boris Johnson has the kind of charisma and leadership to deliver a lot of what he’s set out to do.

“But governments in the mid-term, they have to kind of refocus, and the glittering prize is there if they just reach out and grab it.”

Andy Street: How devolving power to metro mayors delivers better transport for local people

7 Sep

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Devolution isn’t a topic that excites people. The subject of local government structures, combined authorities, city regions, county councils, districts or unitary authorities is of little interest to most.

What people are interested in, however, are things that make a difference to their daily lives. So when it comes to infrastructure, delivering better transport can provide tangible improvements for residents.

First and foremost, transport gives us the ability to get to where we need to be as quickly and easily as possible. But it also connects citizens to opportunities and jobs, opens up new corridors for investment, provides visible improvements to boost civic pride, and can make a real contribution to our green ambitions, too.

Devolution is thus playing a key part in a transport revolution here in the West Midlands and across the UK. I want to use this column to write about how transport investment is getting the economy on the move, and how this reflects the effectiveness of the mayoral model, as well as growing confidence in devolved decision making.

There can be no doubt that the Government recognises the transformative effect of transport investment. The Prime Minister, as a former Mayor of London, understands this better than most, and has been a huge champion of better transport. As Mayor of the West Midlands, I’ve welcomed him regularly to our region to highlight all kinds of transport investment, from huge HS2 projects to bike hire schemes.

Well, this month, the West Midlands is about to reach another significant waypoint on our journey to building a world class transport system, along with seven other mayor-lead Combined Authorities.

Transport is the one aspect of devolution shared by all of the UK’s ‘metro mayors’, and the Government has promoted combined authorities to develop their own visions for local networks. Now they are putting serious cash on the table for City-region Combined Authorities to make a real difference – £4.2 billon shared amongst eight mayors.

First, let’s be clear: this is on top of other funding for the regions, such as the Levelling Up Fund and town centre revival investment. It is also on top of cash already flowing in for specific projects, such as supporting green bus technology – as we are seeing here, with Coventry set to get the first all-electric bus fleet in the country. So this new pot of money is a big step.

Naturally, we will be pitching for our fair share – and maybe a little bit more. But this isn’t just about the West Midlands: it’s about this Government demonstrating its clear support for the mayoral model, with a very substantial new sum of money for eight of us. It is a vivid example of the how devolution can make a massive difference to delivery on critical things to our daily lives.

It is also a vote of confidence in the combined authority model. Here, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) is made up of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. In the past, these communities were often set against each other, competing for investment, despite being economically intertwined.

Inevitably, this led to accusations that the big cities gobbled up the ‘big ticket’ investments. Now, under the unified approach of a combined authority, places like Solihull and our Black Country boroughs are getting their fair share. This approach of ensuring no areas get left behind has been a key pillar of my time as mayor.

Of course, our bid for cash from this latest investment pot is still under wraps. However, it won’t surprise anyone that it aims to progress my transport vision, which was memorably illustrated by a colourful ‘tube map’ linking our seven boroughs. The choice of a tube-style lay-out sent a message about our ambition to create a world class network, backed by the kind of investment enjoyed by the capital.

Is that fanciful? I don’t believe so. By extending our Metro lines, rebuilding major railway stations and reopening others that have been closed for decades, this network is taking shape.

In fact, since I became Mayor, spending on transport has increased seven-fold. The year before I took office, we spent £38 million. Next year, we will be spending £403 million.

The progress is there for all to see. Wolverhampton’s new station is now open, Coventry’s is about to join it and there are many more to follow – including Perry Barr which will serve the Commonwealth Games. Metro extensions in Birmingham and Wolverhampton are set to open this year and our teams are powering ahead with brand new routes through Sandwell into Dudley and in Birmingham linking the whole network with HS2.

We will also be backing our bus and bike users with improvements, too. That means working with bus operator National Express to deliver the cheapest fares in England, as well as a fleet of next generation vehicles. It means pressing forward with our growing cycle hire scheme, which has seen great success since I launched it with the help of the Prime Minster, who knows a bit about bikes. Plus, there will be one or two surprises, as well as money to improve our most congested roads.

As we plot our way out of the pandemic, spending on infrastructure will be vital to stimulate the economy – but it is also essential we use that money strategically, delivering tangible results our citizens expect.

That’s why this new investment to eight mayor-led combined authorities underlines confidence in the local decision making brought by devolution. While people may not get excited about devolution itself, it is now providing improvements that they recognise and welcome.

The Department for Transport clearly recognise the essential point of devolution, resulting in a multi-year settlement for the regions, which once agreed in principle will be governed here locally by the WMCA, and by devolved authorities across the UK. I want to thank Grant Shapps and the DfT for taking this principled approach.

For us, it will mean hundreds of millions of pounds to help transform our infrastructure and build the network that will underpin our economic success for years to come. It will also bring jobs as we develop and build the network which, in itself, will better connect our residents to the opportunities we are creating. And, as the network expands and more stops on my tube map are completed, it will also make our public transport ever more attractive as a viable alternative to the car.

So, if you use a train, tram, bus, bike or car in one of the Mayoral Combined Authorities you can be confident of seeing improvements in the next few years – thanks to devolution in action, and thanks to billions of Government funding being ringfenced to city region Mayors.

Meirion Jenkins: Birmingham’s “clean air zone” is really about raising money

31 Aug

Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.

June 1st was the day that many hardworking residents of Birmingham had dreaded, when the Labour administration on Birmingham City Council introduced their new travel tax – aka the clean air zone. There is now an £8 a day charge for drivers to enter Birmingham’s inner-city area if their vehicle doesn’t meet Labour’s criteria.

The day of the launch was a complete fiasco. As a result of gross ineptitude on the part of the Labour administration (and having had two years to prepare) we saw an embarrassing change of policy. Having spent the weeks and days before 1st June, and even the morning of June 1st itself, advertising that charges would apply from 1st June, Labour discovered that they had not put the correct charging contracts in place (an administration failure that we had already called in the day before) and around mid-morning on June 1st they announced that a 14-day grace period would apply. Laughingly, they then claimed that they had planned to do this all along. Notwithstanding that they were advertising that charges would apply until mid-morning on June 1st, we have since challenged Labour’s claim and they haven’t been able to produce any evidence that the grace period had been planned.

One has to wonder how, with years of preparation for their flagship policy, a Labour administration could have failed to put in place the charging contract which is at the heart of the whole project until a few days before launch – a contract and process which we considered to be so flawed, that it was necessary to demand a call in.

Although Labour talks about clean air, there seems to be more of a focus on money. In June alone (remembering the 14 day grace period from June 1st), there were 44,000 fines and the council expects to collect £1.5m from charges and fines.

Since charging came into effect, there has been a series of press reports about how damaging Labour’s policy has been for businesses in the city. These have included a beauty business that saw an immediate downturn, a takeaway business that reported an 80 per cent drop in turnover and a taxi driver who said that the zone meant he was now working a 90 hour week for £100. The introduction of a tax on people who want to come into the city to do business will inevitably result in either a reduction of business or, at the very least, a shift in business to other locations to the disadvantage of Birmingham. For example, residents in Sutton Coldfield can just as easily choose to shop in an out-of-town retail park in Tamworth etc. Already businesses are factoring this tax into decisions to locate away from the city centre. Some nighttime workers are liable to pay £16 if their shift goes through midnight. A worker who is required to drive into the city every day would be liable for £8 x, say, 240 working days = £1,920 p.a. from net pay, the equivalent of £2,400 gross for a basic rate taxpayer and £3,200 gross for a higher rate taxpayer. For a worker on, say, £20K p.a., the charge would represent 12 per cent of their gross income!

Labour should never be allowed to introduce a policy like this without a referendum and, of course, the reason there was no referendum is that they knew they would lose. Their manifesto in 2018 made no mention of charging to enter the city.

Throughout the process, the Conservative Group has argued (and we did in our last manifesto) that superior outcomes in terms of air quality can be achieved without the need to charge motorists. If we win in May 2022, we will reverse this dreadful and misguided policy and this commitment may well be the reason that we do win next year.

As constituted, the charging arrangements impact on those households with the lowest incomes (who can’t afford to buy new cars) and also divert pollution away from the city centre to the inner ring road. A local Bishop has commented on the noticeable increase in traffic on the ring road and the transfer of pollution. Of course, charging older and dirtier cars is unlikely to be the limit of Labour’s ambitions. What will Birmingham’s profoundly anti-car, anti-motorist Labour administration do with their expensive camera network when all the old and dirty cars are scrapped. As with just about every other tax in history, it will expand in quantum and scope and will no doubt soon be directed at every hardworking motorist that tries to enter our city.

Further evidence of Labour’s campaign against motorists is the introduction of their segmentation plan, allowing cars to only enter a segment of the city at a time. This means that a driver needing to access two streets that might be only yards apart as the crow flies, would have to return to the ring road and actually drive many times further. This isn’t about protecting the environment, it’s about making life Hell for hardworking motorists.

In a motor trade city, with thousands of jobs dependent upon the motor trade, we have a council that is actively targeting the industry on which those jobs rely.

Andy Street: Birmingham’s clean air zones will come down unfairly hard on local people. The scheme needs an urgent rethink.

1 Jun

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

As West Midlands Mayor, I have made it my mission to drive improvements in the region’s public transport system, from trains and trams to buses and bikes.

The progress we have seen in recent years is helping to connect people to new opportunities, driving economic growth and is playing a major part in tackling the climate challenge – by persuading people to make fewer car journeys, and easing congestion on the roads.

However, while public transport is a core part of my job responsibility, control of those local roads continues to sit with our councils. Today marks the start of one of the most significant changes to the region’s road network, affecting Birmingham city centre.

Birmingham City Council today introduces its “clean air zone” charging scheme, which will charge motorists of “non-compliant” vehicles £8 a day to enter the city centre.

First of all, I think it is important to say that I support the principle behind the clean air zone idea. Birmingham is one of five cities required by the Government to set up a clean air zone, as part of plans to tackle illegal levels of pollution across the country.

There is no doubt that the city centre does suffer serious pollution at peak traffic times and that action needs to be taken. Pollution levels can be unacceptably high, putting people’s health and wellbeing at risk.

In 2019, a study carried out by Kings College London found that primary school children who grow up in Birmingham could lose half a year of their lives due to illegal levels of air pollution. The loss of life expectancy is worse in Birmingham than some other major cities in the UK including Manchester, researchers found.

Nobody wants to live in a congested and polluted city centre – the West Midlands might be the home of the car, but we also need to ensure people have a viable alternative to using it.

However, I do have serious concerns about the scheme in Birmingham. There is no doubt that the council’s charging scheme is a heavy stick which will come down hard – with a big increase in the cost of living for those affected.

The first question we must ask is: is it coming down unfairly hard? I fear it is. Let me outline some of my concerns.

The charges apply to older vehicles, which are more likely to cause pollution. However, there is a strong argument that, as a result, the scheme targets those least able to pay – people most likely to have older vehicles and least able to replace them.

I have real concerns that not enough has been done to mitigate the effects of the scheme on those who can least afford it.

Then there is the fact that it will operate 24 hours per day, seven days per week. There is a strong argument that, again, this is unfair. The fact is that pollution isn’t constant around the clock and hitting night workers with this extra charge when the roads are empty doesn’t appear to be helping the environment.

Then there is the question of timing. The clean air zone will hit a whole swathe of city centre small businesses who have already had an exceptionally tough year and are only just beginning to grasp what the future may hold post-Covid.

The entire spectrum of city centre businesses – from office workers to cleaners, from sandwich shops to taxi drivers, are in the process of getting back on their feet as the economy reopens.

Why not delay the scheme until we are fully out of lockdown and fully returning to work?

Finally, there is the question of what will be done with the income created by the clean air zone. This is a hugely significant step towards creating a cleaner transport system for the city, which has been driven by genuine health concerns. I believe a real chance has been missed to commit every penny of profit made from the scheme to additional transport improvements.

These are just some of the concerns that have been raised, coupled with questions about why more isn’t being done to clean the air in the city centre – such as through “greening” technology along the roadside.

If we want people to use their cars less, we have to provide a suitable alternative. I continue to be a passionate believer that the only way to tackle congestion and gridlock on our roads is to transform public transport.

That’s what my transport plan is all about. In my first term as mayor we increased investment in transport sevenfold, thanks to Government backing. Many of those projects are now well underway, and in the month or so since my re-election we have made more progress on the plan.

On rail, the ugly and unsatisfactory Perry Barr station has now been demolished and will be the next brand-new station in our region, joining the conveyor belt of completely new or replacement stations being built. It will be the station for the Commonwealth Games – underlining how the Games investment will deliver long term benefits to the region.

On our metro tram system, this week we start work in earnest on the latest new line – linking Birmingham city centre with HS2 and providing brilliant public transport through Digbeth, helping to drive the immense investment and regeneration happening in an area known for its creative quarter.

The investment being delivered by HS2 is game changing in economic terms, and we are determined to make the most of it. The construction of the new Curzon Street station, for instance, will provide almost 1,000 new jobs.

Work on the metro across the region continues at pace – just a couple of weeks ago the first new bridge was put in place as part of the massive Black Country metro expansion and the first of our brand-new trams arrived to serve the growing network.

And in the last few weeks we have seen the region’s bike share scheme continue to be rolled out, with Birmingham joining a swathe of other communities like Sutton Coldfield, Coventry, Solihull, Wolverhampton and Walsall – plus of course Stourbridge where the Prime Minister was one of the early users.

But transport is not just about public sector investment. It is also about working with the private sector to improve choice and bring in its huge resources. Later this month bus service provider National Express is going to introduce a raft of significant fare cuts across its services – aligning with the end of lockdown. It will now be substantially cheaper to use the bus than it has been for years.

And not just cheaper, better. National Express continue to invest in its fleet, including its modern platinum buses which are cleaner, greener and more comfortable for passengers. On top of that, the region is seeing the ongoing rollout of emission-free electric and hydrogen buses.

Finally, on rail the all-important Cross-City line will be transformed with new electric trains, increasing capacity and improving the travelling experience for everyone.

The introduction today of a clean air zone in Birmingham has been hotly debated. While I support the principle behind the concept, I also understand the serious misgivings of those who fear they will be unfairly impacted by this attempt to reduce the number of local car journeys.

Ultimately, punitive charges like this can only be a small part of the solution to the transport challenge we face. The key is providing viable, attractive alternatives to the private car that people positively choose as their preference. The carrot, not the stick.

My transport plan is delivering those alternatives, as well as helping to kick start our region’s economy as we come out of the pandemic.