On the agenda of the WMCA Board meeting on January 12 was the launch of ‘The Cohesion and Integration Portfolio’.  This comprises two strands: one concerns, as the title says, community cohesion, the other concerns inclusive economic development.
For the past year and more Birmingham Against the Cuts has criticised the failure of the WMCA to have any policy, let alone strategy, for inclusive growth.  The new policy recognises the deep inequalities in the West Midlands, which the current Strategic Economic Plan says nothing about. So the Cohesion and Integration Portfolio’s (CIP) acknowledgement that “Evidence shows stark differences between the ability of different groups to benefit from the economic performance of the region” and that tackling this is a priority for the WMCA to address is welcome.
The WMCA document contains no strategic plan for inclusive growth. That is to be developed by a new Inclusive Growth Unit and the commissioning of a “blueprint” for “sharing economic growth” in the West Midlands. The question is, will this mark a radical change of policy direction by the WMCA or simply result in a rhetorical promise of inclusion and some superficial policy add-ons that leave largely intact its existing notoriously non-inclusive agenda? As BATC has pointed out, the Strategic Economic Plan ignores the issue of inequality completely, and the Mayor’s manifesto makes no mention at all of inclusion.
There is a version of ‘inclusive growth’ that is promoted by global neoliberal institutions. The World Bank published a note on ‘What is inclusive growth’ in 2009, the IMF held a conference on ‘inclusive capitalism’ in 2014 and the OECD launched a campaign ‘All Aboard for Inclusive Growth’ in 2015. They regard the existing capitalist economic model as necessary but they recognise the social problems and crises, and the risk of resistance, that the neoliberal economy continuously and inevitably generates. The response is a rhetoric of inclusion and the addition of elements of reform to the neoliberal economic model while still pursuing, as in the case of the Conservative government, their austerity agenda.
A truly integrated inclusive economic policy by the WMCA would mean rewriting the SEP and putting Street’s manifesto in the recycling bin. It would also mean the WMCA abandoning its alignment with the government’s Industrial Strategy, criticised by many for its narrowly exclusive focus on the high-tech sector, which excludes the large majority of workplaces and employees in the West Midlands. But what confidence can we have that Tory Mayor Andy Street will break ranks with the Tory government that sponsors him?
An inclusive economic policy would also have to be environmentally sustainable. The WMCA has an environmental strategy, Think Global: Act Local 2014 – 2019 (2017).  There are lessons to be learned from the policies of Steady State Manchester, an organisation which is developing an alternative approach to economic development in the city and region. “Our core concern is to explore and promote policies and practices that help society and economy in Greater Manchester meet the key challenges of climate change and environmental destruction, as well as inequality and economic vulnerability.” 
Of course an inclusive economic policy would require a radically different government policy direction, for which Corbyn and McDonnell are developing the framework. But there are steps now towards a more inclusive economic policy, even under the Conservative government, which the WMCA could take right now if it had the political will. Let me give one simple example.
Eight of the councils have indicators of socio-economic deprivation that are lower than the average for England, while over half of the WMCA population is living in areas which are among the 20% most deprived areas in England namely: Walsall, Wolverhampton, Sandwell (Black Country) and Birmingham (Greater Birmingham), which constitute part of the core of the WMCA. In these areas nearly 30% of children are living in low income households… (p16) 
One obvious policy for the WMCA to adopt to help tackle this is the Living Wage. It should be the condition of all its contracts and partnerships with external bodies, including their supply chains, that they pay at least the Living Wage of £8.75 an hour, reject zero hours contracts, and recognise trade unions.. The WMCA should also use all its soft and hard powers to put maximum pressure on all the employers in the region to accept these conditions. And they should be just one set of measures in a comprehensive programme for social justice in the workplace. But Andy Street’s mayoral manifesto is silent on the whole issue of low pay which is rife in the West Midlands, and he deliberately excludes the Living Wage from his 229 pledges, even for the WMCA’s own contracts.
Contrast this with the Liverpool City Region, whose mayor is Steve Rotheram, a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. In August 2017 he announced that he was “Creating a Fairness and Social Justice Advisory Board to ensure securing inclusive growth becomes a connecting thread across all aspects of policy, including a commitment to support the adoption of a Real Living Wage by public and sector employers across the region.” Lynn Collins, NWTUC Regional Secretary, has been appointed chair. The board would provide independent advice to the combined authority and be, Rotheram said, “permanently holding our feet to the fire on a core commitment”. If Liverpool can do it why can’t the West Midlands?
The document states that “stakeholder groups should play a key role in the design and delivery of our work. A strategy for inclusion needs to be developed inclusively.” The Inclusive Growth Unit would provide “a route in for civil society to this dialogue”. But will this mean genuine democratic public participation, until now deliberately avoided by the WMCA, or just yet again the dominance of business representatives together with the involvement of a few selected interlocutors and the promotion of amenable community leaders?
“Cohesion and Integration”
The other strand of the new policy is “Cohesion and Integration” and significantly it is this, rather than inclusive economic growth, that is the portfolio’s title. The whole portfolio, including inclusive growth, “sits with the broader Public Service Reform portfolio”, and the officer responsible is Henry Kippin, director of Public Service Reform. This raises the question why inclusive economic growth isn’t principally embedded in the economic policy structures of the WMCA rather than being located in those concerned with PSR?
The document says that “Cohesion and Integration” is about “Bringing People Together – ensuring that the WMCA uses its convening role to celebrate our diversity and support community cohesion.” The first point to note is that the focus here is solely about ethnicity. The section on economic growth lists various aspects of inequality:
2.3 But there are a number of ways in which evidence suggests growth is not being shared equally:
- Race and ethnicity
- Wealth inequality
But of these the only issue addressed in the document is “Race and ethnicity” – there is no further mention of the others.
There is also a problem with how the document frames the issue:
2.5 The British Integration Survey (2016) explores the extent to which different ethnic groups mix socially with one another. It finds that:
Black, White and Asian Britons take up only around half – 48% – of the opportunities open to them to mix socially with a different ethnicity to themselves given the demographics of where they live, even in our most diverse regions, such as London and the Midlands.
Those in the Midlands were found to be only taking up 40% of the opportunities to mix with other ethnicities, the lowest level in Britain.
From this conception of the problem the following “work plan” is proposed:
- Develop a pipeline of activities under the ‘bringing people together’ workstream – a ‘regular drumbeat’ which build on successful initiatives such as the Mayor’s Community Weekend, the Mayor and Faith Conference, the Mayor’s Cohesion Prize and Diwali on the Square. [IMMEDIATE]
- Commission a short and rapid piece of engagement / research work (which could be done internally or externally) which brings together (a) the state of the art on approaches to supporting cohesion at a city-region or combined authority level; (b) unpicks wider debates on addressing community cohesion issues with an emphasis on proactive responses; and (c) recommends a long-term approach for the WMCA. [IMMEDIATE]
- Identify a high-level cohesion champion – subject to agreement – this could be an individual or something like a ‘mayors panel’ who would act as a sponsor for activities to promote cohesion, and who could support the Mayor in fronting up a dialogue with the public. [MEDIUM TERM]
This whole approach exemplifies the “community cohesion” paradigm that has been widely criticised and discredited because it tends to define the issue primarily as a cultural one of relations between essentialised ethnic groups and de-prioritises material inequalities and discriminatory practices. Its solution focuses on the need to foster “social capital”, i.e. social relations between groups, and this is repeated in the WMCA document: “encouraging stronger bridging social capital across our communities and places.” It is symptomatic that the words ‘racism’ and ‘racial discrimination’ do not appear in the document.
The roots of the “community cohesion” approach lie in the response to the riots and disturbances in 2001 in several northern towns and cities.  The focus was on community segregation: in short, ‘Muslims didn’t mix’. In 2002 the Local Government Association published Guidance on Community Cohesion. In 2006 the government set up a Commission on Integration and Cohesion which published a report in 2007. New Labour continued the theme though with a greater emphasis on material inequalities, including the 2010 Equalities Act which imposed a duty on local authorities to ensure that their policies and practices contributed to undermining socioeconomic inequality. This was immediately scrapped by Theresa May, the incoming Tory government’s Home Secretary, in 2010, along with Equality Impact Assessments. The political discourse about “community cohesion” moved further to the right with the introduction of the austerity agenda which created greater social inequalities, supposedly compensated for by the bonding social capital of the ‘Big Society’. This was coupled with the introduction of the toxic Prevent programme (created by the Labour government in 2003 but extended by the Conservatives in 2011) stigmatising Muslims as a ‘suspect community’.
This is the ideological and policy perspective within which the WMCA’s Cohesion and Integration Portfolio situates itself. The consequence is likely to be a series of initiatives under the Andy Street Mayoral brand-name which provide him with publicity but which will have little effect unless they are grounded in an explicitly anti-racist policy and a radical inclusive economic strategy to tackle the underlying structural problems.
2 February 2018
Come to the Birmingham Trades Union Council conference on THE WEST MIDLANDS ECONOMY: WHY WE NEED A STRATEGY FOR INCLUSIVE GROWTH on SATURDAY 10 MARCH 1.30 – 4.30PM at the Unite offices, 6 Heneage St B7 4AZ with
Jonathan Payne on The question of skills,
David Etherington on What we can learn from Manchester
and Richard Hatcher on Why we need an inclusive local economic strategy,
with plenty of time for discussion.
- The Cohesion and Integration Portfolio, WMCA Board 12 January 2018, pp18-25 of agenda pack
- ‘The West Midlands Combined Authority has turned its back on inclusive economic growth to tackle inequality’, 20 October 2017
3. WMCA environmental strategy Think Global: Act Local 2014 – 2019 (2017)
4. https://steadystatemanchester.net/treading-lightly-for-shared-prosperity-policies-for-greater-manchester/. See also ‘Could Labour implement a post-growth economy?’ at https://uncommontater.net/2017/11/28/could-labour-implement-a-post-growth-economy/
- Newbigging, K. and Parsonage, M. (2017) Mental Health in the West Midlands Combined Authority: A report for the West Midlands Mental Health Commission. Birmingham: University of Birmingham.
- Peter Ratcliff (2012) ‘Community cohesion’: Reflections on a flawed paradigm. Critical Social Policy 32:2 262-81.