Birmingham politicians cautiously react to the Spring Budget 2023 amid ‘Deeper Devolution Deal’

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A Deeper Devolution Deal for the West Midlands in the Spring Budget has been welcomed with caution by Birmingham and West Midlands politicians

Politicians across the West Midlands have reacted with cautious optimism at the Chancellor’s Spring Budget set to drive growth in the region, as they hope a devolution deal can replace government bureaucracy.

Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, today announced a variety of schemes to help boost growth, regeneration, and jobs in the West Midlands. The most significant scheme is the ‘deeper devolution deal’ – once called the trailblazer devolution deal – for the West Midlands combined authority – the region’s legal body which spearheads national legislation.

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The deal includes the replacement of dozens of siloed government cash pots into a single pot of funding. Also included in the devolution deal are:

  • A landmark housing deal worth up to £500 million to drive brownfield regeneration and fund affordable housing.
  • Retention of business rates for the next 10 years – worth an estimated £45 million a year to the combined authority and councils.
  • Measures to tackle digital exclusion – those who have unequal access or skills to the internet – including a £4 million fund for devices and data to get more people online.
  • Devolution of retrofitting energy inefficient homes from 2025.
  • A commitment to a new partnership with national arts and culture organisations to shape their investment in regional cultural priorities.

Transport, the most contentious issue in the West Midlands, has been given a welcome boost, after leaked documents showed delays to HS2 will increase costs and put jobs at risk.

The government has encouraged the combined authority to devolve the bus service operators grant and a new partnership with Great British Railways to offer better control of local buses, trains, and metro.

The metro itself has been awarded £60 million towards completion of the next phase of the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill extension, after local media revealed the cost of the scheme spiralled to £550 million – enough to split the scheme into two phases.

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In return for greater devolution, Andy Street, the mayor of the West Midlands, will face quarterly panels of local MPs – similar to the House of Commons public accounts selects committee.

West Midlands Mayor Andy StreetWest Midlands Mayor Andy Street
West Midlands Mayor Andy Street

The Financial Times reports the new committees could meet either locally or in Westminster. In the West Midlands the mayor controls just 0.4% of day-to-day public spending, while 84% is still controlled from Whitehall, according to analysis by UK Onward.

Mayor Street said the deal would help end the “begging bowl culture” of local regions competing for government money. “I’m pleased to see that this new devolution deal goes some way to addressing that – giving us guaranteed devolved funding to spend how we choose, akin to what government departments have currently, and doing away with Whitehall micromanagement,” he said.

On the other hand, Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of think-tank Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) said local people should hold Andy Street to account – not Westminster.

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“While we should welcome moves to localise growth and empower local leaders, other aspects of the budget appear to confirm the Government’s unfortunate tendency to command and control.

“More competitive bid funding in the Levelling Up Fund, investment zones to be decided on by central government, even the £63 million on swimming pools will be within the Government’s gift.

“Overall this feels like a budget of a government that recognises the importance of local leadership but just can’t bear to let go.” Ian Ward, leader of Birmingham city council, said he was encouraged to see the start of a “long overdue transfer of power” from Westminster to Birmingham.

Birmingham skylineBirmingham skyline
Birmingham skyline

A levelling up zone in East Birmingham, he said, will “unlock growth and tackle inequalities that continue to hold too many people back.” Councillor Ward, however, cautioned the government to do more for councils who face bleak savings to be made and additional cost of living pressures.

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“We need a long-term settlement for local government to resource local public services added to the powers that will enable us to address everything from anti-social behaviour to the climate emergency at pace and scale,” he said.

Brigid Jones, the deputy leader of Birmingham city council, stressed a large proportion of the powers under the devolution deal will not be about for two or more years. “[The deal] will need further focus to ensure that the powers and funding do flow to our region and our communities.

“Implementation will be critical too to ensure that there is genuine devolution to West Midlands and double devolution to local authorities, removing bureaucracy and unlocking freedoms and creating effective and accountable delivery.

“Councils need increased powers to make our communities safer, cleaner and greener, so it is encouraging that the deal also commits government to further negotiations on these powers.”

Patrick Harley, leader of Dudley council, said the money would give the Black Country “a real springboard to secure the rest of the cash we need to make the second phase a reality”.

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