Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Last week there was a major shift in power in the UK. On Monday, March 20, at the University of Warwick, I sat down with Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, to sign a new ‘Deeper Devolution Deal’ between Whitehall and the West Midlands – marking a step change in the transfer of power to the regions.
This Deal has been described by some as ‘seismic’, but at its heart is a very simple principle – trust. The Government is trusting the people of the West Midlands to take responsibility, make decisions nearest the point of action, and use local knowledge to get the most out of an investment. It is also recognition that the seven boroughs represented by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) deliver real results, given the tools to do so.
In this column, I will explain how this deal will go further than ever before in enabling local decision-making, how it addresses the ‘begging bowl’ culture that has held back Levelling Up, and why the West Midlands has earned the right to lead this new era of devolution. I’ll also explain how, through this bold step, we Conservatives have seized back the English devolution agenda.
So, what did we get? First of all, the Deal includes a housing agreement worth up to £500 million, offering greater flexibility, with unique powers to deliver affordable housing at pace. It allows us to retain business rates for the next 10 years – worth an estimated £45 million a year to the WMCA and our local authorities.
We will get up to six new Levelling Up Zones, backed by 25-year business rate retention, with an expected total value of at least £500 million, to target investment, and encourage jobs and regeneration.
It gives us powers to tackle digital exclusion, influence over high-speed broadband investment, and a £4 million fund for devices to get people online. There is also greater responsibility for delivering careers advice and a partnership with Department for Work and Pensions to target employment support.
In transport, the deal devolves the bus service operators’ grant and creates a new partnership with Great British Railways, giving greater local oversight and control of public transport services.
Our region will also get the UK’s first formally designated transport ‘sandbox’ to deliver cleaner and safer vehicles and innovative transport services to our streets faster while supporting new jobs and investment.
Then there is the growing need to ‘retrofit’ old homes. The West Midlands has the highest fuel poverty gap in the UK, due to the average age of the local housing stock. We have thousands upon thousands of homes that need to be updated in this way, from modernising heating methods to improving insulation and glazing.
The Deeper Devolution Deal gives the commitment to devolve retrofit funding from 2025, to allow the WMCA, and partners, to set priorities for investment.
The deal also includes a commitment to a new partnership with national arts and culture organisations to shape their investment in regional cultural priorities.
Ultimately, devolving these powers will be more effective, bringing previously siloed Government responsibilities together locally to allow more joined-up planning, ensuring that actions around skills, transport, and housing all reinforce one another, while also drawing in private investment.
However, the biggest change comes in the fiscal independence provided by the Deal. From the next spending review, for the first time ever a Mayoral Combined Authority will have a departmental-style funding arrangement, providing a single pot of funding negotiated with the Government.
This means we will no longer be caught up in the ‘begging bowl’ culture that sees regions bidding against each, and instead gives us guaranteed devolved funding to spend as we see fit.
After the last round of Levelling Up grants was announced, I voiced my concerns that this system was stifling our progress, and I am pleased to see it being decisively addressed now. Crucially, this new fiscal autonomy will allow us to push on with the ambitious projects that made the West Midlands the obvious place to pioneer the next era of English devolution.
Our track record speaks for itself. Since I became Mayor, we have delivered on building new homes, improving skills and job prospects, and overseeing a huge seven-fold uplift in transport investment. We know how to grow our economy, we understand our sectors, and we know how to get the best out of them.
For example, we have pioneered the science of Brownfield development, reclaiming old industrial sites for housing and commercial use. We will now be able to press ahead with even more of these transformative projects, providing affordable housing and rejuvenating eyesore sites, while protecting the green belt.
Through the Deeper Devolution Deal, the West Midlands will create six new Levelling Up Zones, while we have also been shortlisted for an Investment Zone. Again, we know how to make this opportunity work. Across the West Midlands, you can see examples of targeted, localised investment, from the vast project that is regenerating the site of the Longbridge car factory, to the Life Sciences campus taking shape in Edgbaston, backed in part by the WMCA.
Anyone who visited Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games will have been impressed by the city centre’s buildings and public squares. A little over a decade ago this area became an Enterprise Zone, allowing us to attract genuinely transformative investment. Now, we are excited at the prospect of using the new Levelling Up Zones, included in the Deal, to transform more places that have missed out.
All of this explains why the West Midlands has earned this opportunity – but the decision to break from the entrenched practices of the past still required vision and courage. I want to pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up who, backed by the Chancellor and Prime Minister, pushed through this deal, which rewrites so many of the long-standing and outdated rules between Whitehall and the regions.
This deal has seized back the agenda of devolving power to England’s regions in a way that can supercharge Levelling Up. Labour has no history at all of English Devolution but were clearly positioning themselves to steal ground that has been prepared by consecutive Conservative administrations. With the Deeper Devolution Deal, we Conservatives are once again showing the way forward.
The West Midlands has proven that devolved power can deliver real results. This deal represents the start of a new era, and we fully intend to embrace the huge opportunities that it will bring.
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