Metro Mayors want more devolution 

Brett AmphlettBy Brett Amphlett, BMF Policy & Public Affairs Manager
4 September 2018  

At this time of the annual party political conferences, leaving aside Brexit, the single most pressing problem for government is the need to boost output, employment and educational achievement in poorer performing regions, compared to London and the South East - the so-called ‘productivity puzzle’.   

The Mayors  

Away from London, the BMF likes to keep track of regional policy. Central to this is devolution of powers and funds to cities, especially the eight with a directly-elected Metro Mayor:  

  • Ben Houchen - Tees Valley - Conservative
  • Dan Jarvis MP - Sheffield City Region - Labour
  • Andy Burnham - Greater Manchester - Labour
  • Steve Rotheram - Liverpool City Region - Labour
  • Andy Street - West Midlands - Conservative
  • James Palmer - Cambridgeshire and Peterborough - Conservative
  • Sadiq Khan - London - Labour
  • Tim Bowles - West of England - Conservative. 

These regions account for nearly 42% of all economic growth, covering 21 million residents.  

Brett Amphlett, BMF Policy and Public Affairs’ Manager, explains current thinking and highlights what might be next below:  

The debate  

The BMF sometimes advances its members’ interests via think tanks. This summer, we were delighted to discuss further devolution in England with some of those involved. The first occasion was thanks to Devo Connect, who organised a debate in the House of Commons to answer the question: where next for English devolution?  

Jim McMahon, Labour MP for Oldham West, is Party Spokesperson on Devolution and Cities. James Palmer was directly elected as Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough in May 2017. In a spirited debate, topics included:  

  • the North is a victim of a disinterested government in London that neither understands nor has strong roots in northern town and cities
  • over-reliance on Council Tax and business tax to pay for investment in public services
  • the devolution genie is out of the bottle and there can be no going back
  • policy must play to England’s strengths and reflect regional identity
  • Westminster makes devolved areas fight each other for funding and patronage
  • current policy is only decentralisation, not real devolution.  

Most of the participants agreed that some form of fiscal devolution was the next logical step.  

The BMF posed a conundrum for politicians. In September and October, the Party Conferences take place. In November, the Chancellor of the Exchequer reveals his Budget. In December, it is Christmas so the question was “what single thing did each speaker want for Xmas from London?”  

Intriguingly, only James Palmer answered. He wants control of Apprenticeship Levy funds that employers do not spend, and skills policy for 16-19 year olds.  

The agenda  

The second occasion was when Cllr Sir Richard Leese appeared at Warwick Business School in the Shard by London Bridge Station. At an invitation-only Centre for Cities event, the BMF joined Sir Richard, Leader of Manchester City Council, to discuss the urban revival of his city over the last 25 years. Cllr Leese has met the BMF several times after their first encounter in June 2009 at the Greenbuild Expo in the G-Mex.  

For a Labour politician, he was generous to praise two Conservatives who did a lot to help revive northern cities: Michael Heseltine in the 1980s and George Osborne in the 2010s.  

The BMF asked Sir Richard the same question “What do you want for Manchester as a Xmas present from Whitehall?” He responded "full devolution of the post-16 skills budget and flexibility to use surplus Apprenticeship Levy if not spent by employers."   

The scale  

These occasions echo views given to the BMF by Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, when he visited the BMF office in Coventry. Improving skills is a huge challenge, and Mr Street wants funding and flexibility to make apprenticeships succeed. As Andy develops a Local Industrial Strategy, he aims to bring government and employers together to improve skills in the West Midlands. His biggest priority for his second year as Mayor is to help people gain skills to get well-paid jobs. 

Official figures obtained by the BMF show the West Midlands has a shortage of skilled workers. The proportion of highly-skilled people in the region is about 15% below the England average. One in every eight people in the West Midlands have no qualifications.  

Mayor Street’s view chimes with the BMF’s. Parents must be encouraged that university is not always the right choice for their child. Without proper careers guidance, the risk is that young people are channelled into a career that may prove to be the wrong choice. Students leave university with no guarantee of a job and a £40,000 student loan to repay. They could instead join a business like those of our members, that offers meaningful jobs and rewarding careers for people of all ages.  

Next steps 

Devolution for housing and planning, education and skills, and transport and infrastructure, is happening. BMF members would be foolish not to make the most of what devolution offers the housing and home improvement markets the BMF serves.  

That is why John Newcomb and Brett Amphlett are at the Party Conferences to lobby mayors and local authority leaders to explain the role, value and importance of merchants and manufacturers - and the Federation itself - to deliver for local communities.   

For more information please contact Brett Amphlett at [email protected].    

This article appeared in the autumn 2018 edition of One Voice