The living standards challenge facing the Metro Mayor

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There was an event in Bristol recently to discuss a newly published report by the Resolution Foundation – “A Western Union: living standards and devolution in the West of England“. This report discusses the living standards challenge facing the soon to be elected West of England Metro Mayor. It’s a report that sets out the statistics demonstrating the gaps between pay and productivity, wages and house prices/rents and geographically between areas of South Bristol and Bath compared to the rest of the city region. It also highlights how low earners and single parents have faired the worst since the recession. It sets out very clearly what we already know, and have know for some time, that the West of England is a relatively prosperous city region. We faired pretty well during the recession and our recovery since has been rapid, but we face particular challenges some borne out of that success and some more entrenched in the very nature of our city region.

Ask anyone what the issues are for the West of England and housing will likely be pretty close to the top of their list (alongside transport). The challenge here is huge compared to other city regions, house prices are at least 10 times higher than the typical salary, there’s a lower proportion of people living in social rented accommodation and an increasing number reliant on private renting. Rents in the West of England are now 38% higher than in other city regions, making up 41% of the typical gross monthly salary, that’s an insane amount.

The other major challenge identified in the West of England is the distribution of economic success. On average household incomes are higher in our city region than they are in most others, as are employment rates, but these average figures hide a number of significant divides and inequalities demonstrating that not everyone has shared in this relative success. The rise in productivity is not being translated into increasing pay and it is the lower paid workers who have faired less well in recent years. The post-crisis pay squeeze has been felt most by low to middle earners in the West of England.

Anyway, back to the event itself. There was a panel including Conor D’Arcy from the Resolution Foundation; the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees; Jaya Chakrabarti of Nameless Media; and John Savage from the Chamber of Commerce. After an initial introduction to the report from Conor, the other participants then set out what they thought were the key challenges facing the new metro mayor and what the role entailed. There was relative agreement about the role itself, with some concerns expressed about the central imposition of this new metro mayor on our area, but also general acceptance that is was going to happen therefore we had to make the most of it.

The participants each covered a range of issues with Marvin setting out how he thought we should be talking about behaviours rather than structures and that the role was about collaboration, emotional intelligence and complementary sovereignty. The difficult task would be to find shared priorities given the diversity of the patch. Jaya talked about the need for civic leadership and how this could work at a city region level before going on to raise concerns about in-work poverty and how this is a key issue across our area. John reminded us about the inequalities across our divided city region and how these included the same areas as those of 10/20 years ago, leaving the same people behind decade after decade. He outlined how he thought the role of the metro mayor was an enabling one, which would undoubtedly be hindered by the leadership of some of the constituent authorities.

The discussion that followed was varied and initially picked up on the housing crisis and the problems young people were experiencing across the city region, with the need to build more affordable homes emphasised as well as the need to control rents and improve the security of private sector tenancies. There was also a debate about sovereignty, centralisation and power distribution, with most agreeing that the relationship between government and local councils was more like a parent/child relationship, with the government in control. The need for a structural and cultural rebalancing of sovereignty was stressed, with the point made that devolution seemed to be about devolution of austerity rather than power and that for city regions to succeed in addressing inequalities there needed to be more resource as well as responsibility passed down by government. It was suggested that cities also needed to be proactive, setting out how they want to solve their own problems, then they are likely to receive more support from government to enable those solutions.

One of the concerns raised was regarding the different levels of governance and areas covered and how these would work together. Clearly with North Somerset not included as part of the West of England Combined Authority or as part of the metro mayor area, this presents some challenges, given they are part of the Local Enterprise Partnership area. Other anomalies were also identified, with Bath and North East Somerset included in a different Health Partnership Area and a different Housing Market Area. Working across the area is complex and developing shared agendas a real challenge.

The Resolution Foundation report makes three main recommendations on priority areas for the new metro mayor:

  • Become Britain’s first full employment city – further progress could be made on boosting employment rates in deprived parts of the West of England and for single parents to edge close to that goal of full employment.
  • Boost pay for low and middle earners – the Metro Mayor should act as convenor to encourage productivity-raising responses to the National Living Wage as well as promoting uptake of the voluntary Living Wage.
  • Build more affordable homes – affordable housing should be front and centre of the combined efforts from local leaders, with a key role for the Metro Mayor to drive through the process of implementing the Joint Spatial Plan to deliver new homes.

These priorities, along with developing shared agendas and collaborating across the city region and with Whitehall and Westminster are what this new role is all about. Despite the perceived lack of powers and resource there is a glimmer of an opportunity that needs to be taken. The candidates are currently being announced and the election for the first Metro Mayor takes place in May this year. Given there are no other local elections this year it will certainly be interesting to see if this election will manage to grab the attention of the voters and what the turnout will be.

Devolution to and within cities

The devolution agenda in England appears to have an element of cross party consensus, at least on the surface in relation to the need for something to change, even if the detail is somewhat lacking. The discussion to date appears to be dominated by central government, local authorities and business, with the emphasis very much on what the government wants, with everyone else running around to catch up. It’s also a debate that seems to be focused on structures rather than resources and responsibilities, as is often the way with public sector change. The concept is debated without the detail, when we all know “the devil is in the detail”. The whole debate is also being conducted against a backdrop of austerity measures, where local government funding is being severely cut and public services decimated. So one has to ask the question whether or not devolution is just an opportunity for government to shift the burden of cuts and service delivery to local councils, or whether it is really responding to an agenda about democratic accountability and improving local services. I guess it’s a bit of both?

With the establishment of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) and talk of Combined Authorities the discussion, at least in Bristol, seems to centre around business and growth, with the business community working alongside the public sector to create their vision for the growth and prosperity of an area. It’s been about marketing the city region, saying how fantastic we are, quoting GDP and GVA figures to show what a strong economy we have and talking about all the brilliant local businesses we have in all the right sectors. All very important of course, but sadly lacking in terms of any reference to communities, poverty and inequalities. In our rush to say what a brilliant place the Bristol city region is, we forget about what’s important and all too often lack any connection with local people and local needs.

George Ferguson, in a presentation to the community and voluntary sector in Bristol described devolution as “local freedom” and made reference to the Charter for Local Freedom. The Charter, whilst based on the principles of prosperity, equality and democracy, comes across primarily as an economic vision, with the focus on strengthening local economies and getting people into jobs in order to save public money. However, it also has a strong vein running through it about local democracy, trusting people to make the right choices, empowering communities and neighbourhoods, with the decisions taken at the most appropriate level. This was a key theme to emerge from the debate at the VOSCUR meeting in Bristol where there was a real sense that devolution needed to be about devolution within cities not just to cities. One of the main voices missing in the debate is that of the community and voluntary sector and there was a call from members of the panel for a strong shared vision to emerge from the sector and the need for community leadership, to challenge the business focused vision that is firmly in place through the LEPs.

Throughout the debate it was clear that there was a real emphasis on the need for civil society to take back control of this agenda and stop it being about reaction to a centrally imposed system or approach. If the debate about devolution is really about local freedom, then the power to decide locally what are the best structures and the required resources is absolutely fundamental to its success. A one size fits all approach, imposed by the centre on local councils desperate to win out in competitive funding regimes, is not the answer. An approach founded on proper engagement of local people, beyond business and politicians, based on local need and local circumstances would undoubtedly work better, but is in itself a real challenge for central government. For government to not only devolve decision making and resources, but also decisions about structures, it has to have a sense that the local area can be trusted and that it will come up with something that works. Sadly, this doesn’t often seem to be the foundation of the relationship between our different levels of government at the moment, often for justifiable reasons.

The devolution agenda is an opportunity to do something different. It’s an opportunity for public, private and voluntary and community sectors to put together a local proposal that works for the city region. There is no central blueprint, what works in Manchester won’t necessarily work in Bristol. The trick is for Bristol, and other areas, to put forward those proposals, collaboratively, through proper engagement and discussion, and ensure that what Bristol gets is best for Bristol.  The key for the voluntary and community sector is to ensure they are a central part of the discussion, that they are at the table when the decisions are taken and that they have a shared vision and strong leadership to ensure their voice is heard. At the moment, it feels like we are a long way from this shared vision and time is running out.

From benefits to bricks – IPPR report

After so many different pronouncements on housing and welfare in particular over the last few months, it was great to see a centre-left think tank produce a comprehensive view on a range of policy areas – IPPR’s report on ‘The Condition of Britain: Strategies for Social Renewal‘. Whilst this is by no means comprehensive, it is a good starting point for some policy discussions around the key issues of power devolution, encouraging engagement and joining up approaches to tackling complex social problems. I was encouraged by much of what is in the report, its focus and its conclusions – even if some appear somewhat random. Whilst the report covers six main areas: families; young people; working life; housing; crime and exclusion; and older people, my focus is on the housing ideas discussed and the recommendations that are drawn out. It is clear that with the endorsement of Ed Miliband and others in the Labour Party, the recommendations in this report may well form a key part of Labour policy for the next election, so may need to be taken seriously.

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