The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee held their event – ‘West Midlands Devolution’ – in Wolverhampton last month in partnership with the West Midlands Combined Authority to discuss what devolution means for the West Midlands. City-REDI’s Charlotte Hoole was there to join in the debate.
Devolution forums are cropping up all around the city, offering the opportunity for local stakeholders to contribute to the discussion around what devolution might mean for the West Midlands (see for example Tasos Kitsos’ most recent blog). At the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee event held last month, four panels of high-profile speakers provided insights relating to the broad themes of devolution and growth, regeneration, High Speed 2 and central-local relations. Here I share some of the key points from the day and offer some of my own reflections.
The general sentiment confirmed popular opinion that devolution on the whole is a good thing for the West Midlands, with much enthusiasm shown for local people having more control to shape the things that really matter. As such, devolution was repeatedly referred to as an ‘opportunity’ – an opportunity that the West Midlands must make the most of (and this of course means getting the best deal!). It was also acknowledged that devolution will play a big part in how the West Midlands continue the journey of transformation, and there was optimism that further devolution of fiscal powers and skills would follow.
That said however – and not surprisingly – there were also many concerns raised. These included apprehensions over insufficient resources, a lack of scrutiny, the potential for rising inequality, a lack of public awareness and engagement, and the challenge of gaining access to developable land for housing and new businesses. Another worry also concerned the agenda for devolution itself in that central promises could turn out to be more rhetoric than reality.
Something that everyone agreed on was the need for the West Midlands to be getting it right from the very beginning, with a ‘now or never’ type of attitude throughout the course of the debate. As one speaker suggested – ‘we need to do our homework’ – which in other words says that we need to know what we are asking for and why we are asking for it. Having a shared vision and understanding that is embedded within an effective local system of governance was therefore seen as key to driving regional success.
Overall, I would describe the tone of the day as being one of cautious optimism. I think most recognise that devolution makes sense – it is now well known that successful cities are those that have more control over their own destinies. But equally we mustn’t forget what it is we’re really hoping to achieve – and this can’t just be about political and economic wins but must also be about social democracy and improving the lives of everyone across the region.