Our comment: Devolution for the West Midlands – will it help sustainability?

We have all been here before – regional assemblies, city regions, elected mayors, all with a different set of powers and boundaries on offer, all running into the mire of local and central in-fighting. What does the future hold for the West Midlands and will it help sustainability?

What is being proposed?

SWM members, such as the Lunar Society are calling for more local powers for Birmingham and the West Midlands. But to date no clear plan is on offer either locally or nationally. The Birmingham Post, has summarised the options to date as a regional assembly, city region with directly elected Mayor, or regional minister and committee of regional MPs.

What does our Roadmap 2020 suggest?

Our 2020 roadmap and priorities for a more sustainable West Midlands focuses on where cross-boundary and cross-sector action will deliver the most ‘added value’ using existing powers and technology to deliver improved productivity, life expectancy, and carbon reduction.

Therefore we have deliberately focused on the outcomes rather than the required structures. We have reported progress annually since 2010 to help our members share good practice and to providing a certainty of direction to influence future private and public spending. As a result many of these priorities are now reflected within the plans of Local Enterprise Partnerships, local councils, and large businesses.

Along the way we have picked up some key issues and tests to ask of any new proposed devolution structures in the West Midlands.

Test 1: How will the new proposed structures address existing issues of sustainability performance to meet our 2020 roadmap targets of improved productivity, life expectancy, and reduced carbon emissions?

There is no governance structure or powers that automatically delivers sustainability. This may appear obvious, but from the passionate debates over Scotland’s future and UK devolution you can get the impression that if only we had the right local structures and powers we would be all living in a better future.

Many of the environmental improvements over the last decades have been driven by international legislation from the European Union and enacted into UK law and regulation, with the UK climate act being the notable exception. New local powers and structures may improve local implementation, but are unlikely to have the same impact as national environmental law and regulation.

Our international work for the former city region on low carbon good practice for cities and for Birmingham does indicate that the structures that appear to work best are those that foster the best networks to rapidly share skills, ideas, and resources and create enough certainty for investors.

The Welsh Assembly Government has a duty on sustainable development which it has to report on. This combined with a supportive political and officer culture is perceived to have kept sustainability on the agenda despite other competing priorities. Therefore the legal framework and the consensus and leadership behind it is vital.

In the West Midlands we produced the UK’s first low carbon economic strategy. Despite this the collective use of our existing local powers, assets, influence, partnerships and leadership around many of our sustainability priorities have been mixed to date. This has often been because of local political priorities, lack of technical capacity, or poor partnership working. New powers and structures could help, but will not automatically solve these issues or change the existing leadership and culture that will be running the new regime.

Test 2: Will the proposed boundary and coverage for devolved powers leave anyone out or behind, especially rural areas?

There is no geographical boundary that is perfect to deliver sustainability (apart from the Earth) but equitable coverage is important. There can be the tendency to believe that if only the boundaries for the devolved powers were correct this would solve many of our current local issues. The reality is that any boundary that is chosen would never work with all the social, economic and environmental issues being covered.

The argument about ‘identity’ is often used to justify different boundaries. However what is of more importance is that of coverage and performance. Many of us don’t worry we don’t ‘identify’ with our local NHS trust or water company, but we are more interested in the level or coverage of the service and who we can complain to in order to improve it.

In the West Midlands there are many tricky boundary issues. For example would reducing the size of Birmingham council help partnership working and a combined authority with surrounding councils? This combined authority approach appears to be successful in the North East, Greater Manchester, and South Yorkshire, but would it work here? If we don’t create enough of a scale of economic geography will we be able to compete globally with other regions? Also how should the cities relate to the rural areas? If devolved powers are offered to clubs of city councils will we see those in rural areas left behind?.

Test 3: Will the proposed structures strengthen the transparency and accountability of how the West Midlands is governed to create a better future?

Transparency and accountability on how a geographical area is governed is more likely to create the conditions to help sustainability. This is because it is hoped that if it is clear on how an area is governed and how performance is held to account then if the issues of sustainability are raised by the citizens with their elected representatives then action will be taken. With the current structures we have this already in the form of elected local MPs and councillors. We need to work with these structures to help maintain and grow the transparency, accountability, and feedback loops on how our geographical areas are governed to create a better future.

This may not always result in the immediate sustainability results we want. In a previous job I remember providing elected members training on sustainability, who then still went on to make some planning decisions that would have an adverse impact on the environment. The difference was this time they were aware of the economic, social and environmental implications which formed part of their debate and decision, and weighing it up against local voters priorities.

The alternative is a system, such as China, where last year I saw impressive plans being drawn up to tackle air pollution and climate change. However these plans will be implemented in a very different way than in the UK, as the recent demonstrations on local representation in Hong Kong illustrate. SWM members have also been recently asked to share good practice with Chinese cities on how to incorporate sustainability into local political decision making.

In the West Midlands, we have gone through a variety of experiments on transparency and accountability on how our area is governed. At the present time we are at a particular low point with the local council role and local accountability being hollowed out by public sector cuts or replaced by new national or regional initiatives run directly by central Government or by ‘partnership’ bodies. Only time will tell if the devolution options will address this balance and create the foundations for more transparent, accountable and ultimately sustainable decision making.

Of course we have plenty of other advice on offer. For example our review for the Government Sustainable Development Commission on regional sustainability in 2011 is still largely relevant today. But before we dive into the detail – lets see if the proposed devolution options pass our three tests.

Dr Simon Slater, Chief Executive of Sustainability West Midlands

30th September 2014.