Andy Street’s pioneering devolution proposals unveiled
West Midlands CA Mayor Andy Street will ask the government for powers to roll out ‘leveling zones’, as well as more sway over post-16 education, career service and affordable housing in the talks on its ‘pioneering’ decentralization deal.
Along with Greater Manchester CA, the West Midlands have been named ‘pioneers’ in the Leveling up white paper, meaning they have been asked to negotiate the devolution of new powers and funding with the government. However, in an interview with LGC, Mr Street (Con) said recent unrest in Westminster had hampered the pace of the talks.
He said that prior to Boris Johnson’s resignation as prime minister in early July, “informal talks” had taken place with former leveling secretary Michael Gove and former education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, the latter accepting “in principle” a new decentralization of powers.
There have also been “many discussions” with officials, Mr Street said, but formal talks have been postponed until early September, when a new prime minister will be in office.
However Mr Street, who earlier this week announced he was backing Liz Truss to be the next Prime Minister, is ‘not at all concerned’ that the leveling program could be derailed by political changes in Westminster.
“Both leadership candidates told me they were committed to the pioneering decentralization agreement process,” he said.
“Greg Clark, as Acting Secretary of State, has been very clear that the Leveling and Regeneration Bill will continue, and much of the work in the engine room has already been done. by officials. Yes, it takes a little longer than expected. But I am absolutely convinced that the principle of the pioneering decentralization agreement is solid.
Mr Street believes comments made by upgrade adviser Neil O’Brien in March that “nothing is on the table” in those talks still hold true today. “It’s still very much the line,” he said.
“So there are quite a few things we’re going to ask.”
While Mr Street’s team ‘work very closely to deliver power presentations’ with Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s office, there are also differences in their ambitions as ‘our economies are slightly different’.
At the top of Mr Street’s agenda are additional powers over post-16 education and career service. With Mr Burnham, Mr Street had what he described as ‘incredibly positive’ conversations with Mr Zahawi when he was education secretary about Post 16 skills which were ‘followed up by his officials “.
Mr Street is ‘very, very keen’ to have a ‘mind of regional control over the career service to achieve good standard practice as its delivery is very patchy at the moment’.
“We were able to reach many more agreements in principle with Nadhim. We are not ready to say in public exactly what it is.
Mr Zahawi is currently Chancellor and announced earlier this week that he would back bookmakers’ favorite Ms Truss to be the next Prime Minister.
Although metropolitan mayors have taken control of their adult education budgets in 2019-20, some – including Liverpool City Region CA Mayor Steve Rotheram – have expressed frustration with the Department of Education and in particular former education secretary Gavin Williamson for not wanting to give them more power. . Mr Street said ‘under Gavin Williamson it was a different matter’ and it was ‘a point about the character of the Secretary of State that made a huge difference’. “There is absolutely no doubt that Nadhim drove this dynamically,” he added.
Mr Street said he also wanted to ‘advance the debate on the first steps of fiscal decentralisation, focusing on keeping tax collected in the region…so that we have an influence on more sustainable income’.
The West Midlands has retained 100% of its corporate rate income since 2017 as one of several pilot areas for the initiative, but this is currently set to end after this financial year.
Mr Street said it was still “a pilot project”, so “the first step [of fiscal devolution] would agree to this on a permanent basis because it means you can plan against it”.
Mr Street also seeks to address “the whole issue of trade and investment”. “We have put in place a brilliant trade and tourism program as part of the Commonwealth Games which is clearly generating more inward investment for the West Midlands. And I want us to have a debate about what needs to be done in the long term to build on that,” he said.
In the past, Mr Street has called for mayors to have the power to set a local tourist tax. Birmingham City Council had tried to pressure the government into obtaining these powers to help pay for the organization of the Commonwealth Games. However, Mr Street told LGC he would not seek tourism tax powers as part of the pioneering talks.
Mr Street told LGC he wanted to roll out what he calls “leveling zones” as “the modern take on corporate zones”.
Enterprise Zones were first announced in 2011 by Chancellor George Osborne and in 2015 44 were created across the country in which businesses received incentives such as discounts on business rates for s establish or develop. The policy has more recently been superseded by the government’s free ports initiative.
Mr. Street’s “leveling up” zones are said to have the same intent as Enterprise Zones – to help areas seen as lacking in economic prosperity. The policy echoes that of Ms Truss who has spoken of wanting to spur growth through ‘free ports’ or ‘investment zones’ as she describes them, which she says are ‘at the heart’ of her vision of leveling.
The Mayor currently has delegated mandatory purchasing powers and is responsible for the West Midlands Spatial Framework and the Lands Commission. Mr. Street is now keen to focus on housing affordability.
He says his combined authority has submitted a proposal to the government “similar to the London-style GLA powers over affordable homes”.
In London, the mayor can stipulate what proportion of new developments should be affordable housing.
Police and crime powers
However, Mr Street has ruled out any possibility that the devolution talks will focus on expanding the mayor’s role to include powers of the police and crime commissioner, although he is ‘personally very keen’ on the idea. idea.
He said that although the Labor mayors of London and Greater Manchester had such powers, Labor politicians in the West Midlands were unwilling to pursue them.
Joining the “two halves of the Midlands”
Mr Street told LGC he was ‘extremely supportive’ of plans for a combined East Midlands mayoral authority covering Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire CCs and Derby and Nottingham City Councils.
“It’s the right model, having a directly elected mayor with the combined authority around him will actually give a much better ability to work on both halves of the Midlands coming together,” he said. “It’s been a bit unbalanced, really, over the last few years… We’ve made it work, but it will definitely be stronger to have combined authority in the East as well.”