When I first sat down to write this column, I was expecting to be heading into a re-election campaign after three years as the West Midlands’ first ‘metro’ mayor.
Manifestos were being finalised, policy outlined, volunteers organised and leaflets designed.
Then the full severity of the coronavirus hit, and all of our energies as a nation turned to defeating the outbreak. With the election rightly postponed for a year, the Mayor’s office has been called upon to provide leadership and foster unity as the region’s authorities faced the crisis together.
It had been my intention to write about the future of devolution and how the further transfer of powers will stimulate growth across the regions. However, with the human and economic impact of the virus still to fully unfold, this seems like an inappropriate subject when we are all focussed on the situation at hand.
One thing that the crisis has done is provide a real challenge for our nation’s governmental structures, requiring quick evidence-based decision making and demanding real speed of delivery. It has provided a stress test of the links that bind all of our government agencies, from Whitehall to the regions, from the armed forces to the scientists who we have turned to for advice.
We have also seen an unparalleled level of direct communication between Government and industry. We have seen the business sector receive an unprecedented level of support from Government. We have seen ministers reach out to industrialists to build the ventilators needed to treat those worst affected.
It has, in many ways, shown us at our best. Whether that’s through the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who have signed up to help the NHS or the people who stood on their doorsteps offering a symbolic round of applause for carers of all types, the UK has united in a way seldom seen in peacetime. And when people have needed it most, I believe the structures of national Government have proven to be robust and quick moving. However, the regions are playing their part too and the crucial links fostered by the devolution of powers from London have been critical in encouraging a united response.
For example, the West Midlands Regional Economic Contingency Group brings together business organisations, community leaders and politicians in a forum that feeds directly to the Government.
As mayor, this group has provided me with clear messages from business on the virus’s economic impact on different sectors, which I have fed directly into ministers, while also providing feedback for policy makers on the measures they have already announced. I have no doubt that it was feedback such as this from across the UK that helped highlight the hurdles faced by the self-employed, prompting the Chancellor’s much-needed response.
Throughout the unfolding crisis, there has been a constant need to monitor the performance and delivery of transport systems. Again, the structures put in place by devolution have allowed nuanced and locally-driven management of services. I have been working with Transport for the West Midlands to ensure that a newly-restricted timetable – introduced as passenger numbers fell after the lockdown, still provides the capacity and frequency to get key workers to their jobs.
And at local government level the West Midlands has quickly pulled together. Our councils in Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton are working through the implications of the crisis for adult social care. Our schools are keeping their doors open to look after the children of key workers.
Across the regions we are also seeing localised responses to help society adapt to life under lockdown, aided by the powers of devolution. Many local councils have pre-empted instructions from central government to reach out to the homeless. In Birmingham, rough sleepers have voluntarily moved off the streets and into hostels and hotels as part of a citywide drive to protect them from coronavirus. The hotel chain Holiday Inn has provided up to 200 beds to support the initiative, with some already in use.
As the population is told to stay indoors, the West Midlands Combined Authority has launched two websites to help local people during this public health emergency.
Residents in Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton can now click on an interactive map at the WMCA Community Support Hub for information about charity, faith and voluntary services in their area.
The coronavirus outbreak means we must all live and work in a very different way, and the WMCA is working with partners in public health, local and central government, charities and businesses to maintain essential services and to keep our residents safe.
This means they can access a range of local services, which include food banks, help for elderly people, support for the homeless, befriending groups, mental health support and youth groups.
In addition, the WMCA has launched a separate website to help local individuals and businesses develop new skills and increase their resilience while they are working from home. At the WMCA’s COVID-19 support site, local people can access free practical courses and materials on topics ranging from online and mobile banking for individuals to marketing for businesses. Other resources include training in digital skills development, childcare and education, and leadership and employability skills.
I have confidence that the strong West Midlands economy we have built will survive if cash is delivered to where it is needed, and I believe the local people have the resilience and fortitude to not only withstand it but to bounce back afterwards too.
From World War Two to the mass lay-offs of de-industrialisation, the people of this region have shown they will always overcome challenges. So far, the reaction of the UK has proven that when we work together we can overcome whatever challenges are thrown at us. At times like this, people expect the wheels of Government to move quickly and decisively and to keep them properly informed and advised. Party politics are put aside, regional rivalries forgotten.
Coronavirus has shown that the structures of central Government in the UK are capable of doing just this – supported and aided by a regional network that was shaped and empowered by devolution.