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.