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Shifting the focus of attention: Why infrastructure development will be the one to watch in the West Midlands elections

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This May, parties will face their first electoral test since the Covid-19 pandemic, and voters will decide who has the most compelling vision of Britain’s ‘new normal’. This will be a vision that needs to deliver for villages, towns and cities across the country, while addressing underlying changes to living and working structures.

We are following five battles across the UK, each of which will have significant implications for development and infrastructure plans locally and nationally.

The battlegrounds we are focusing on are the West Midlands Mayoral, the Tees Valley Mayoral, Northumberland Council, West of England Mayoral, and Thurrock Council. These elections provide an excellent platform to examine the influence and cut-through of the government’s levelling-up agenda, writ large in the commitment to ‘build back better’ through extensive infrastructure development.

About the West Midlands mayoral election

The West Midlands electoral area includes the metropolitan boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. It is a diverse region home to over 2.5 million people. The area has the potential to spearhead the country’s green revolution, just as it did in the 18th Century with the Industrial Revolution. The candidates vying to win the upcoming mayoral election will need to be bold, ambitious, and optimistic.

Runners and riders

(First and second choice prediction poll conducted by Find Out Now (FON) from 1 to 7 April and first choice prediction poll run by Redfield & Wilton Strategies (Redfield) from 18 to 21 April)

In 2017, the election was a two-horse race between the Conservative’s Andy Street and Labour’s Siôn Simon. Street won with an extraordinarily slim majority of 3,766 votes in the second round. This election is predicted to be no different.

Andy Street (Conservative)

FON poll prediction – First choice vote share: 45% | Second choice vote share: 52%

Redfield – First choice vote share: 46%

Incumbent Mayor, Andy Street, is pitching himself for a second term based on his record over the last four years. He claims to have attracted £3.3bn worth of investment in the region since 2017 and has committed to securing £10bn in his next term. He also wants to deliver 100,000 jobs in two years. He hopes some jobs will come from leading infrastructure projects like HS2. He is a keen advocate for HS2, believing that it will make West Midlands the heart of the UK’s transport system, attracting businesses to the region.

Street unveiled a £15bn metro and rail masterplan for the West Midlands in 2020, including delivery of eight new Metro lines and 21 new rail stations by 2040. Planning permission has been secured to reopen five stations so far. They are expected to open by 2023 and cost £61m. While Street is a keen proponent of the plans, he is not providing all the funding himself and is undoubtedly benefiting from government support. The Department for Transport is providing £20m, Birmingham City Council £21m and the West Midlands Combined Authority £21m. Street claims that he secured £250m from the government to extend the rail network in 2017 and promises to “bombard Grant Shapps” with plans for eighteen more stations if he wins the election.

Street’s green credentials are noteworthy. He wants to make the region net-zero carbon within 20 years. He will agree on a programme of new segregated cycle routes, hire a new Executive Commissioner for cycling and walking, complete the roll-out of the West Midlands bike hire scheme and deliver more hydrogen powered and electric buses, including making Coventry’s bus fleet all-electric. He believes his infrastructure and development plans can be met without impinging on the green belt, something that remains to be seen.

Liam Byrne (Labour)

FON poll prediction – First choice vote share: 38% | Second choice vote share: 48%

Redfield – First choice vote share: 37%

Street’s primary challenger, Liam Byrne, is positioning the West Midlands region at the forefront of the green industrial revolution. He wants to convene a COP-WM to bring important stakeholders in the area together to make the West Midlands the first net-zero region and the green workshop of the world. This translates into a new training and skills programme which will provide 200,000 green manufacturing and trades jobs.

Byrne will create a new Mayoral structure called GrETHA (Green Energy, Housing, Transport Agency) and give it £500m of borrowing capacity to deliver those projects. The structure will issue West Midlands Green Bonds to further increase funding. Unlike Street, he does not rule out building on the green belt.

On HS2, Byrne wants to accelerate the project to provide more jobs. He previously led a campaign against the Washwood Heath Depot because he preferred the land to be used as a business park. He has criticised the planned design of Curzon Street station and proposed that a new science museum be built in it. He wants the £2.75bn contract to manufacture the HS2 train fleet to be given to a firm in the Black Country.

Byrne has pledged to create a 10-year transport plan including the setup of a West Midlands Project Speed to replace Street’s tube map and see how the transport infrastructure programme can be delivered faster. He will urge train companies to move to electric or hydrogen trains and aims to continue the ‘very light rail’ programme in Coventry to provide a fleet of 100 shuttles and reignite the East Birmingham and Solihull Tram proposal. He wants to make Coventry’s bus fleet all-electric and half of West Midland’s fleet electric or hydrogen based by 2025. The 2025 target is ambitious and provides more certainty than Street.

Byrne has promised to roll out a walking and cycling network across the region to double cycling use by 2025, so 50% of all journeys in town and cities are either or walked or cycled by 2030. He will also appoint an active travel champion.

Jenny Wilkinson (Liberal Democrat)

FON poll prediction – First choice vote share: 4% | Second choice vote share: N/A

Redfield – First choice vote share: 6%

What makes Jenny Wilkinson’s bid distinctive is the promise to establish local Citizens’ Assemblies to help find solutions to challenges, including the climate emergency and system racism in public institutions.

It is unclear whether voters will buy into Wilkinson’s call for direct democracy. Considering the stunningly low turnout of 27% at the 2017 election, residents do not appear to be engaged.

Steve Caudwell (Green)

FON poll prediction – First choice vote share: 8% | Second choice vote share: N/A

Redfield – First choice vote share: 5%

While Steve Caudwell is unlikely to cause any major upsets, if the frontrunners can convince Green voters that they have the best environmental solutions, that might secure them the edge as the second-choice candidate and win the second round.

Unlike the other candidates, Caudwell wants to bring buses back into public ownership and end the West Midlands Railway franchise.

Pete Durnell (Reform UK)

Redfield – First choice vote share: 4%

Pete Durnell is an anti-establishment libertarian who previously ran as a UKIP candidate in the 2017 mayoral elections.

He is the only candidate openly critical of HS2, calling it a “massive vanity project, and clearly not the best way to spend £100bn”. Instead, he wants to spend the money on an integrated transport network.

Voters might select Durnell as a protest vote, so who knows where their second choice will go.

Local issues

Unsurprisingly, the key concern for voters is health. This comes after Covid-19 has ravaged communities over the last year, causing 100,000 people to lose their jobs. According to Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ recent poll, the key issues for voters are:

  •  Health (50%)
  • Policing (42%)
  • Environment (37%)
  • Economic growth (33%)
  • Education (33%)

Of those key issues (note: education not included), Labour is more trusted than the Conservatives to deliver on all key campaign issues except for strengthening the economy. The green revolution and infrastructure development is key to economic recovery in the West Midlands, where the Conservative’s Andy Street is perceived as particularly strong. While Labour is trusted to handle the majority of local issues better, the Conservatives are polling ahead. Could Street’s record on infrastructure make the difference?

Wider picture

Whatever the outcome on May 6, the future of the West Midlands region is integral to the United Kingdom’s green revolution and economic recovery from Covid-19. The future Mayor needs to fight hammer and tong for the West Midlands to ensure it benefits from government funding and plays its role as the second most populous region in the country. Byrne has already criticised Street for not being bold enough and planted his flag as the candidate to do it. He said: “People in the West Midlands can name Andy Burnham and they can name Sadiq Khan, but they can’t name their own Mayor,” he said. “Lots of people in the Midlands feel we now risk being overlooked.” Will voters side with Byrne or will they back Street with his infrastructure and development focused record as Mayor and background as Managing Director of John Lewis?

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