May I be so Bold? A Plan for the New West Midlands Combined Authority Mayor

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This post was written by Chris Bouch for Urban Living Birmingham.

When one looks at Andy Street’s potted history on Wikipedia, it is difficult not to be impressed: Oxford; past Managing Director at John Lewis Partnership; past chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership; Commander of the British Empire for services to the economy; and, Vice Chairman of Performances Birmingham Limited, which is responsible for running the city’s Symphony and Town Halls.  All of which makes his support for Aston Villa football club less explicable, but, perhaps, easier to forgive.  Clearly he is a man who understands and can navigate around the complexities of business. But what about navigating the complexities of the West Midlands’ new political construct?  This is going to need an entirely new plan.

Perhaps the first step in the new plan might be to stand back and observe how things work at the moment; because things do work: transport functions (perhaps things could be better, but nonetheless…) and houses get built (maybe not as many as one would like, but still…).  The temptation might be to rush in and start taking bold decisions, but that would be a mistake, likely to have all sorts of unforeseen and undesirable consequences.  Birmingham City Council is a complicated beast on its own; bundling it together with the other authorities that make up the West Midlands Combined Authority just increases the complexity.  Each of the component councils will have their own policies, strategies and initiatives.  These will need to be understood before any attempt is made to align them into some sort of coherent strategy for the Region.  And then, of course, there’s the people who formulated, and own, the policies, strategies and initiatives.  They are working hard to deliver them day-to-day, and will need time to adjust to new directions.

Understanding how things work at the moment will provide a crucial foundation for future development of the Region.  In an earlier blog John Bryson spoke about path dependencies: the fact that previous strategic decisions and investments can often restrict future development opportunities.  For example, Birmingham City Council’s historic investment in its energy-from-waste plant at Tyseley is likely to shape solid waste treatment in the Region into the foreseeable future.  When the Mayor is deciding what is to be done in the future, it won’t be from the point-of-view of a blank sheet of paper.  And it’s not only existing, ‘hard’ technical systems that need to be considered; softer ‘people-based’ systems also need to be taken into account: effective communication channels; community groups; service-user behaviours and so on

Having stood back and understood how things work, the next step might be to formulate a Vison for the Combined Authority.  The Combined Authority’s website sets out some priorities, but it doesn’t seem to have an overarching Vision: a punchy, short statement (no more than a sentence) stating where the Region wants to go.  From the Vision comes the Mission – what the Region is going to do to achieve the Vision; and from the Mission come the requirements – the things that need to be in place to deliver on the Mission.  Management-speak aside, this sort of structured approach will allow the Mayor to keep a handle on development despite the extreme complexity involved.

And then finally, there is flexibility.  The temptation will be to try and optimise the performance of the new Authority, but this would be a mistake.  Optimisation requires identification of specific, and often narrow, goals; but the world the Authority will be working in, and therefore the goals it seeks, will be changing all the time.  Optimisation often leads to systems that are rigid and don’t respond well to change.  Better to go for flexible systems, such as small, local energy generation plants, rather than large plants that initially might be more efficient.

So, that just leaves the question of what to do about Aston Villa…

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