Dr Martin Reeves
I must be mad. Why on earth would I agree to take on the Chief Executive role for the fledgling West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), while at the same time continuing to be Chief Executive of Coventry City Council?
It’s obviously the additional dosh…nope; not a penny more. It’s the prestige, kudos and CV enhancement…nope; as we all know being Chief Executive of a local authority is already the best job in the world. It’s simple actually – the creation of combined authorities and the devolution revolution is contested space where hyperbole often clashes with the brutal reality of what needs to happen on the ground and, above all, this fast moving landscape provides a genuine opportunity to address at scale some, if not all, of the challenges that have anchored us down for decades.
So I am not mad – in fact, I reflected for some time on whether this was the right move to make for me personally and professionally; for my own city and employer and for the WMCA. I decided to do it with my eyes wide open which, from my experience, is the best way to start any white-knuckle ride or adrenaline activity. You miss too much otherwise! Trust me when I say that the establishment of the WMCA and the nurturing of what are always potentially powerful, yet fragile, collaborations is the most wicked and exhilarating of rollercoaster rides.
This club that we are forming in the West Midlands signals a long overdue aspirational leap for this part of the country. And it’s growing it seems, almost by the day, with Shropshire being the latest council deciding they wish to sign up.
So a population growing to more than five million – with a gross value add of over £80 billion, and a devolution deal on the stocks which creates the headroom for an £8billion infrastructure programme – suggest to me a potential game changer. But of course, as we experience the shrieks of delight on the ride with many screaming to go faster, we are leading through some serious dips in parallel – almost vertical in some cases!
My eyes always remain focused on the identified and evidenced £3.9 billion gap between income and expenditure on public services. This is our guilty knowledge across the WMCA area. Why? Because that does not just represent a drastic economic and productivity challenge. More significantly, it symbolises unfulfilled and dependent lives for far too many of our individuals and families across our region.
Back to my hyperbole meets reality point: of course the headlines are captured by the eye watering numbers on infrastructure, job creation and gross value add, and I have been guilty as charged by talking about them in this blog. But what is really firing me up and sustains me when the going gets tough is the potential for devolution – and indeed the structural reform presented through combined authorities – to deliver a renewed relationship with all of our stakeholders across the bigger place.
To do this from a start position of top-down, high speed activity often delivered in a frenetic, reactive and febrile environment is a massive leadership challenge. We in the WMCA and across our region need to re-imagine what this could be like and open up through deeper and wider engagement a series of discussions which means a combined authority and devolution is not just for Christmas, but for life.
It has been, in part, cathartic to share some of this stuff with friends and colleagues, not least because – as I was making the final changes and trying to be clever with my last line – I have watched a dozen e-mails come into my inbox roughly split between WMCA business and key issues to deal with here in Coventry.
See, the thing about rollercoaster rides is that once you have decided to get on – you can’t get off till it stops!
Dr Martin Reeves is the Chief Executive of Coventry City Council & West Midlands Combined Authority and Solace Policy Spokesperson on Digital Leadership.