West Midlands devolution – ending the fly-over state
Devolution has a long history. The election of metro mayor’s across the UK was just the latest milestone in the devolution journey. Successive governments have recognised that the UK is far too centralised and that to unlock the full potential of the UK’s nations and region’s Whitehall needs to ‘let go’. Yet action has been patchy, piecemeal and stop-start.
From the abandonment of John Prescott’s elected regional assembly proposals in 2004, through Regional Development Agencies and Assemblies, Local Economic Partnerships and city/town Mayoral systems, ‘devolution’ in England (as opposed to the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland versions) has struggled to gain an established foothold.
As such it is understandable that so many people are sceptical about the present model of devolution, that Whitehall simply will now allow devolution to thrive and flourish. These are all legitimate worries.
We have to make it work.
Whilst accepting that the model of devolution on offer is not the one that we would have chosen, it is the only show in town. And our regional economies, communities and pubic services need us to make devolution work. There are areas in our region that for too many years have suffered from low pay, unemployment and entrenched deprivation.
As such, serious, hard-headed pragmatism has seen political and economic leaders come together to establish the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). Alongside the economic challenges, this has also been driven by the painful reality that, too often, the Midlands (both East and West) has been viewed as a ‘fly-over’ state, with political attention focused on the devolved Nations, northern England, London and the South East. The loss of the broadcasting centre ‘Pebble Mill’ from Birmingham, the UK’s ‘Second City’, combined with the rise of ‘Media City’ in Greater Manchester is just but one example of this ‘flyover state’ perception.
The Midlands punches below its collective weight. We have to put that right.
In line with similar devolution deals, the WMCA has brought together politicians, universities and local economic partnerships. However, the WMCA has gone further with the Midlands TUC co-opted to the WMCA Board and places on all the commissions reserved for trade unions. With trade unions at the heart of the WMCA we have an opportunity to pursue a genuine social partnership approach and secure the inclusive growth that delivers an economy that works for all of our communities. We want to see progressive ‘employment standards charters’ adopted and the positive use of procurement utilised to drive forward policies such as the Living Wage, investment in training, promotion of the Dying to Work campaign and trade union recognition in workplaces.
The Midlands TUC Culture and Leisure Industries Committee have produced a ‘cultural manifesto’ signposting how we can use devolution to drive up our cultural offering in a progressive way. Devolution gives us the opportunity to grasp the nettle and forge a new direction for the region. For sure, devolution has a long way to go, but social partnership must be at its heart. To that end, the WMCA has got off to a good start. Let us work to make it a success and consign the ‘fly-over’ state to history and instead build a world-class economy with world class terms, world class conditions and world class public services.