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The Big Job

The Big Job

🕔16.Dec 2016

It would be far too easy to take a glance at the candidates to be the first West Midlands Mayor and say they are too similar and too closely aligned within the ‘liberal economic consensus’. Slowly but surely, the dividing lines are emerging – on substance, not just style. Kevin Johnson returns to this week’s theme of employment – and one big job in particular.

Stylistically, though, the performance of the candidates at Monday’s Resolution Foundation report launch was interesting, at least for mayoral nerds like me. After a very good summary of the think tank’s report from Conor D’Arcy, involving various graphs and tables, it was the turn of Conservative candidate Andy Street.

READ: The Job’s the jobs. 

You could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Street was still in one of his old jobs, that of chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP). A blur of statistics and slides, it was as Resolution Foundation chair and former Tory minister David Willetts described it, an “Olympic presentation.”

It was all there – our old friends industrial strategy and sectors, productivity, skills, innovation and connectivity topped off with Andy Street’s commitment to abolish youth unemployment. It is difficult not to be impressed by Mr Street’s command of the detail and his abundance of both optimism and energy. It will be difficult for his fellow candidates to challenge his work ethic as potential Mayor or his ability to champion the region.

For all the positivity – not least in relation to his record at GBSLEP – he also recognises the severe pockets of deprivation and worklessness which sit cheek by jowl with Birmingham’s shiny economic successes.

Next up was Labour candidate Siôn Simon. He has attracted criticism, even in his own party, for his campaign to date and what might be described as a ‘semi-shaven’ approach. Where Mr Street is Duracell bunny, Mr Simon is the epitome of laid back.

But almost from nowhere, the former New Labour minister showed glimpses of passion and connection to the region that would have been new to many sitting in the Library of Birmingham. Before addressing the substance of the Resolution Foundation’s report, Mr Simon wanted to share his love for the West Midlands and his belief in it as the historic heart of innovation. From steam engines and Shakespeare to Bhangra music and battery power, this is a great place he said.

With some more fine tuning and lots more outings, Siôn Simon might start to challenge Andy Street for a vote or two along Colmore Row and the leafier parts of Birmingham and Solihull with this kind of performance.

But it wasn’t just a case of the businessman and his slides versus seasoned politician stepping out from the lectern with a spot of oratory. The line Mr Simon wanted to draw was that the Metro Mayor needed to go beyond limited economic levers to use social policy and focus on people, not just economics. To achieve that, the game changer needed to be “real devolution.”

Siôn ‘Take Back Control’ Simon argued that the Mayor needed “real meaningful control over the supply side of the labour market, education, housing and transport…” We needed “real ownership of our place”, he said, and suggested “industrial supply side economics was good at putting up shiny new buildings in the city centre” but would not alone address the “catastrophic problem” highlighted by the Resolution Foundation report.

If Mr Street is Mr Energy, then Beverley Nielsen is Ms Ideas. If you believe this to be a straight Street v Simon contest (which it probably is, but with so many variables in this election and when politics is being tuned upside down, who knows), then the Liberal Democrat and Green candidates are there to keep the others honest, mix up the debate and throw in some different ideas. Ms Nielsen is certainly fulfilling that role.

The Lib Dem returned to many of her familiar themes: achieving a fair share for the region; becoming the “self-made place”; supporting SMEs; a smart industrial strategy featuring manufacturing; a greater commitment to technical education and building a second runway at Birmingham instead of a third at Heathrow Airport. She argued that too many initiatives were around and needed to brought together as part of a ‘WM Works’ programme.

James Burn, the Green Party candidate, was not invited to join the Resolution Foundation panel – a cause of some understandable frustration to his campaign team. Arguably, his economic policy is more distanced from the WMCA’s current strategic economic plan than any of his fellow candidates. He commented on the report’s findings:

The figures don’t really tell us anything new but it’s a good thing that more people are aware of how bleak the situation is. Many areas have been really left behind by the current economic policies and find themselves at the bottom of the wage league tables. The current plans (which basically deliver the same, but more of it) aren’t going to change the situation. What we need to do instead is directly invest in the areas that have been left behind, particularly in support for SMEs and high demand areas like low carbon.

In the debate which followed the mayoral presentations, aided by the presence of Simon Collinson, Dean of Birmingham Business School, Andy Street accepted that more interventions need to be more precise in how they assist people and firms. He also agreed a future ‘devo deal’ would need to include tax raising powers.

Siôn Simon promised to set out the powers he wanted as mayor on day one as he would not be able to make a “meaningful difference” with those currently available. He argued the tone of the Combined Authority to date was too old fashioned and not people centred. He pointed to the Fiscal Commission he had set up to look at the issue of regional tax powers.

Beverley Nielsen wanted a more meaningful and engaged state. She agreed to Unison’s ‘ask’ for free transport for under 19s in further education and suggested that the region would need new tax raising powers, probably involving congestion charging and/or work place levies as well as changes to Council Tax.

The employment challenges of the West Midlands have been clear to see for around forty years, through successive governments, as all candidates would seem to agree. To say it will be a big job to put right would probably be the understatement of this campaign.

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