Our Comment – One year on – the WMCA and sustainability.

As part of our support programme for the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) – our Director of Policy and Partnerships, Dr. Simon Slater, has been acting as interim Head of Environment at the WMCA. He reflects on the last year.

It has been another busy year for the WMCA with the election of its first leader, the Mayor Andy Street in May, followed by new Chief Executive Deborah Cadman in September, the cascade of new Directors and staff, a second devolution deal in October around housing, and the awarding of the Commonwealth Games and City of Culture to its member authorities. But what about progress on sustainability?

There are three key areas of context to appreciate first.

The first is the rapid influence of the organisation.  Within two years the WMCA has grown from nothing to being regarded by Government and investors as a key place to do business with, a situation it took Greater Manchester 25 years to achieve. This rapid progress is down to a number of factors including the growth in manufacturing, the hard work of local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) bidding for the funding and creation of the WMCA and Mayor. The elected Mayor has a business background, links with the current Government, and must constantly work on building a consensus by chairing a Board, where his party is in the minority.

The second thing to understand is the complexity of the organisation and therefore what it can influence. After sifting through a range of strategies, budgets and committee reports we  produced a 1 page summary table. This identifies the areas of leadership and governance, strategy and policy, programmes and budgets, and key development sites that the WMCA has direct levers of influence on. These range from public transport, housing and infrastructure on key sites, to mental health, skills and business support. External partners are not alone in trying to understand this – at a recent WMCA staff conference there was a great desire from existing and new staff to understand the extent of what their rapidly growing organisation could now do.

The third thing to appreciate is the mismatch in ambition and resources. The majority of the WMCA budget is for building things such as new transport infrastructure, and reclaiming brownfield land for housing, not for funding staff or support to help enable these schemes to happen. Therefore there is reliance on already overstretched local authorities to loan officers to help with the development of delivery programmes. This in turn has led to some ‘growing pains’ as the local authority and other members of the WMCA continue to identify where working together will add value and how to access the right resources to do this.

In light of this context, how do I think the WMCA has performed over the last year? I was asked this recently as part of my contribution to the draft WMCA annual review. My submission was that:

  • Overall good progress on clean growth with the latest monitoring for the period, using a 2010 baseline, showing an 21% increase in economic productivity while achieving a 14.5% decrease in carbon emissions.
  • UK’s first annual benchmark of Combined Authorities on overall sustainability performance around areas such as leadership, strategy and delivery by SWM – ranked the WMCA 2nd. The WMCA has committed to become ‘best in class’ within two years.
  • The creation of a new Environment Portfolio holder and agreed set of priorities, developed at a summit with the Mayor and the Climate Change Committee, supported by an Environment Delivery Board of local partners coordinated and monitored by SWM.
  • Working with SWM Green Business Clubs Network and other partners, have improved the coordination of existing business support and funding, promoting over £550m of accessible low carbon funding for local businesses and communities.
  • West Midlands Science and Innovation Audit launched by Mayor – identified international strengths in low carbon transport, buildings, and energy. This was reflected later in the year within the UK Government Clean Growth and Industrial strategies and a successful bid to host the £80m UK battery research centre in Warwick.
  • The second devolution deal contained a commitment to recognise the existing regional Energy Capital partnership, support an WMCA wide energy strategy, and Regional Energy Commission to explore potential energy innovation zones (EIZs) to pilot new regulation and investment to stimulate new energy companies, products and services.
  • Roundtable with industry and local partners on air quality to begin to develop a longer-term roadmap to go beyond short-term compliance on a single pollutant, and tackle a wider range of pollutants to meet the SEP 2030 targets and stimulate local economic opportunities.
  • Research commissioned by Sustainable Housing Action Partnership (SHAP) and the West Midlands Housing Officers Group to identify good sustainability practice for new build standards for housing, planning policies, and methods of construction.

However there is still much to do, and therefore I suggested the WMCA priorities for 2018/19 and beyond should be:

  • The Environment Delivery Board will publish an action plan and report progress on moving the WMCA to become ‘best in class’ within two years. This will address capacity gaps identified within WMCA and partners to deliver plan.
  • Improved internal and external communication on WMCA activities around sustainability to help identify and promote good practice, enable constructive challenge and help local partners to engage and work together more effectively.
  • Ensure local strengths in clean growth sectors of transport, buildings and energy, as well as the importance of the natural environment, form a key part of the new Local Industrial Strategy, with the ambition to become the UK’s first Combined Authority Clean Growth Industrial Strategy.
  • Work with natural environment partners, businesses, and Government to develop a long term natural capital investment strategy across the WMCA area to help coordinate and attract investment to improve the state and use of our natural assets.
  • Produce and publish a longer-term roadmap supported by business and local partners to tackle overall air quality issues within the next 10 years, while supporting short-term priorities faced by local authority partners.
  • Implement recommendations from Energy Capital and the Regional Energy Commission on EIZs.
  • Promote the key sustainability opportunities within WMCA key investment sites to lever in local partners expertise, and innovation opportunities to maximise the benefits.
  • Review and if required update current sustainability criteria within WMCA funding and monitoring system and building standards.

The first progress meeting of the WMCA Environment Delivery Board this May to review progress will help accelerate activity.

In the meantime continued resilience, good humour, communication, willingness for strategic partnership working, and the ability to build long term local capacity around sustainability are all needed. This is what the Board, staff, and volunteers at SWM are all about. Thanks to all our SWM members, partners, and supporters. Without your help the WMCA would not have got this far on sustainability, but more help is needed if we are to make a lasting difference to our communities and businesses.

Dr Simon Slater, SWM – Associate Director of Policy and Partnerships, and WMCA Interim Head of Environment.

Please note this is written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of the WMCA.