In May, the people of the West Midlands will vote for their first democratically elected "Metro Mayor". This is all part of a devolution deal struck with the Government which will see powers transfer to the "Midlands Engine". This is significant as Theresa May has sought to share the Government's love and attention, which had previously been almost entirely focused on Greater Manchester and the "Northern Powerhouse".
The new mayor's patch will cover eight councils including Birmingham City, Coventry and the four councils of the Black Country. With a population of over 4m, it will, with the exception of London, be the largest population in the country to have an elected mayor. Greater Manchester will only have around 2.7m citizens. Take that Northern Powerhouse!
The devolution deal agreed to date is mostly focused on boosting the economy to create sustainable employment and how infrastructure projects (like HS2) can support this. The plans for how public services will take advantage of this historic opportunity are less clear.
Last week, Mutual Ventures ran an event in Wolverhampton at the fantastic Beacon Centre for the Blind. The attendees were a mix of public and third sector (including some inspiring public service mutuals). The topic of discussion was what devolution could mean for public services and how those delivering public services can better work together.
There is a lot going on nationally with the drive for more integration between health and social care, the increasing occurrence of shifting children's services to a more focused "trust" model and the government's continued support for staff taking on direct ownership of services.
So, in the context of devolution, how does this all play out in the West Midlands?
For a start there are significant financial challenges. There is currently a £3.4bn annual spending gap for public services in the West-Midlands. Cutting to the chase, this means that things simply can't continue as they are. Public services will have to find better ways of working together and they will have to refocus on prevention and managing demand.
Health and social care is an obvious place to start. Across the country, reform is being driven by the development of Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs). In this regard, the situation in the West Midlands is fairly complicated. There are three different STP areas in the devolution area, including one which includes authorities not involved in the devolution deal. All these plans are being developed independently with their main challenge being to engage with local stakeholders, never mind neighbours. This will make any sort of joined up approach across the West-Midlands very tricky.
The potential of integrating health and social care is not just economies of scale and trying to solve some of the big financial issues facing hospitals. It is about connecting down - using the locally based charities and social enterprises who have fantastic networks and relationships with service users, particularly those with chronic problems. These are the organisations who really understand prevention and the art of keeping people comfortable and happy. How these charities and social enterprises can ensure their voices are heard in the STP discussions was a key debating point at the event. Aside from linking up nationally through organisations such as Social Enterprise UK, there are proactive approaches which can be taken locally. Forming partnerships and consortia which bring together a range of specialities and geographical coverage is a good way to start. The four Councils for Voluntary Service in the Black Country have already set up Black Country Together CIC which has the aim of fostering greater collaboration between voluntary organisations. This is positive - but more is needed.
For smaller organisations looking to work together to make an impact on devolution, it is about picking battles.
Mental health looks to be an area where good progress is being made. This is a particular issue in the West-Midlands with nearly a quarter of all adults suffering from some form of mental illness. Through a combination of lost working days and treatment, this costs the region £12.5b a year. To tackle this problem, the West Midlands Mental Health Commission was set up - and in January this year it produced an ambitious action plan.
At our event we heard from the Commission's newly appointed Director of Implementation, Sean Russell, who has been seconded from the police. As well as trying to draw together the clunky infrastructure of the public sector, he knows he needs the help of the smaller organisations who are best connected to local communities.
Mental Health has the potential to be a trailblazer in the West-Midlands to show how the public and third sectors can work together to deliver real benefit to citizens. Whoever the new mayor will be, they could do worse than making this one of their early priorities.Suggest a correction