Reflections on the West Midlands trailblazer devo deal one year on

By Ed Cox | 20 March 2024
  • Ed Cox

This week marks the first anniversary of the signing of the West Midlands trailblazer devolution deal.

A good time then to take a step back and reflect on what we have learned about being at the vanguard of English devolution.

There will of course be a range of perspectives, but here are five reflections from the ‘frontline’ on negotiation and implementation.

#1 Don’t miss the wood for the trees
With 192 different provisions in the deal - and we are tracking every single one - it would be easy to overlook the simple, financial benefit of the guaranteed 10-year, 100% business rates retention rather than the annual roll-forward arrangement we used to have. At a time of serious financial constraint, the certainty created by one of the least eye-catching trailblazer provisions should not be taken for granted and it has enabled the region to train its focus on the challenges facing transport funding. Reforming the whole business rates system must be a priority for government as this is the closest we get to the fiscal autonomy seen by city-regions in the rest of the developed world.

#2 Quick wins
As with any new process, especially one that is being done for the first time, progress can be slow. Thankfully, we are now beginning to see the fruits of some of the bespoke capital funding secured in the deal. One of the earliest trailblazing programme to be delivered was the roll-out of £4m funding for digital devices to tackle digital exclusion in the region. More recently, we have seen the rollout of the country’s first ‘pill cam’ home diagnostic trial – a new approach to screening for bowel cancer which uses 5G technology – which is part of our Smart City Region programme.  And it won’t be long before we wire up a host of new air quality sensors that will provide citizens with real-time air quality information across the most extensive network anywhere outside London. In the grand scheme of big departmental budgets, these initiatives may appear as ‘miscellaneous’. They are not: they tell a story about the tangible impact devolution will have on people’s lives across the West Midlands.

#3 Being patient about partnerships
When it was first announced, some were sceptical of the woolly commitments in the deal to several new partnership arrangements with government departments who are earlier on into their devolution journey. In the year since, we have forged good relationships with likes of DESNZ, DWP and DSIT that we didn’t have before, which are opening up ‘pilot’ programmes that we may not have otherwise secured. The recently launched Rent Simplification pilot with DWP being a case in point. And we now have a foot in the door on issues such as retrofit, affordable housing, employment support, trade, innovation, business support and data that we hope will flourish as the partnerships mature.

#4 The Single Settlement is a game changer
By far the most significant development that the trailblazer deal unlocked was the single, departmental-style funding settlement for the next Spending Review period. Again, progress has been slow, but at the recent budget we confirmed further details as to how it will work, building on November’s Memorandum of Understanding. With no Spending Review now to happen before a General Election, there is time to make more progress with government’s commitment to agreeing further details before the summer recess. And there is much to be done in the region to prepare ourselves for a more strategic, long-term approach to funding our work and developing the place-based strategies that will align funding to local priorities. There is no template for this work and collaboration and trust will be critical to success but if we can avoid the traditional bun-fight, the benefits to West Midlands citizens will be huge.

#5 The potential for public service reform
The politics of public service reform have always been difficult, but with the pressure on local authority finances, one wonders whether this will soon change. While there is no appetite for combined authorities to get into public service delivery, the opportunity to revisit ‘Total Place’ type models under the cover of a 5-year single settlement could prove an important opportunity for closer collaboration both to drive the necessary innovation to enhance the services our citizens need and find some of the efficiencies expected from government.

So one year on and with so much more to do, the business of blazing a trail remains one of the most hopeful opportunities for English local government. Let’s hope that the forthcoming mayoral and general elections galvanise deeper and more rapid progress rather than diluting such a promising programme for change by unleashing local political uncertainty or diverting attention to those places who have struggled to even get to the starting line.

Ed Cox is executive director for Strategy, Economy and Net Zero at West Midlands Combined Authority

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