The vote to leave the European Union has immense implications for this country – and immense implications for regional government. The West Midlands’ vote for ‘Leave’ was massive, completely against the advice of local leaders. The decision reflected many frustrations, including mass immigration and the way it’s perceived to have driven down wages. But also key was the way a remote, arrogant, unelected Brussels elite was operating in a gravy-train bubble, dictating to the British people what can and cannot be done.
For many, Brexit has fundamentally been about the restoration of democracy. And the West Midlands has much to learn from this vote, because while the UK is now to rid itself of one unelected quango, the EU, our region has been thrust into another, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).
The WMCA is an organisation whose members are not directly elected, one that’s removed from the electorate and therefore unaccountable. It has only come about because failed prime minister David Cameron browbeat our spineless councillors by saying there’d only be government cash for the regions if they cooperated. They didn’t have the guts to stand up to his bullying, an appalling way to set up any new institution.
Thankfully, the WMCA will only have ‘control’ – in reality it’ll have very little influence – of economic growth, jobs, skills, transport and homes, and, given the pathetic scraps being handed down from London, their chances of making any great impression are slim. But their sell-out of the people of this area is deplorable.
Cameron is no more, and his regional policy should be binned with him, especially the prospect of an elected mayor. And it is not only me saying this. Forcing an unwanted mayor on the regions has been condemned in a hard-hitting report by the Committee of Public Accounts, the cross-party body which scrutinises public spending on behalf of the House of Commons.
The committee said ministers had given the impression that regions were being given more power, when in fact they were being ordered to agree to creating a directly-elected mayor against their will. If the Brexit vote says anything, it’s that the populace are fed up of being preached to, fed up with their aspirations and problems being ignored.
It wasn’t long ago that Birmingham voted against having an elected mayor, as did Coventry. Cameron simply binned that democratic expression and, with gross jiggery-pokery, decided that if city mayors were a no-go then regional mayors were the way round it. The EU vote shows that the people will not tolerate being treated in this way any longer. And similar baggage like the so-called ‘Midlands Engine’, all PR and spin, needs to be re-thought too.
The ‘Midlands Engine’ is the poor relation of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. It never even got a mention in the Chancellor’s March Budget, while the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ got mentioned six times.
The ‘Midlands Engine’, which stretches from Wales to the North Sea and from the northern Home Counties to the Peak District, is an irrational, unmanageable joke. I’m the first to argue that we need a new approach given the immensity of our difficulties in this region, like poor productivity and skills. But it needs doing in a manner which people can relate to.
Nobody talks of being a ‘Midlander’. They see themselves as a Brummie, from the Black Country or Coventry. The effort to improve our economy needs to be based around these geographic and historical fundamentals – ‘cross border’ issues such as transport can then be organised on the basis of friendly cooperation. We don’t need another layer of bureaucracy remote from the electorate.
Listen to what the people are saying, Theresa May. We’ll soon be free as a nation but London is still happy to dictate to provincial England. We need a new direction.