Interview: Green Party’s James Burn calls for second industrial revolution in the West Midlands

James Burn, the Green Party candidate hoping to become mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority, has called for a second industrial revolution to take place across the region. The current Leader of the Opposition for Solihull Council has argued that unlocking the true potential of the West Midlands economy lies in harnessing the expertise of our strong pre-existing manufacturing base and applying it to the green sector, something he sees as a key growth area.

Speaking to The Slice, Burn points out that, “Historically what we’ve been good at is manufacturing and whilst the rest of the country has really tailed off, Birmingham remains a real strength area. We have the skills and we have the people who actually know how to make stuff. At the same time, we have a massive demand for low carbon manufacturing.”

“Over the past decade the green sector has grown by over 600% and a recent report has highlighted that there is massive potential for billions of pounds worth of low carbon exports. But whilst countries like Germany, America, India and China are leading the way in this industry, we as a nation just aren’t doing enough.”

Burn pointed out that he would be wary of a more conventional economic approach given the scale of devolution that is taking place nationally. He fears that combined authorities setting their own business rates might result in a ‘race to the bottom’, with different areas competing with each other over who can offer companies the sweetest investment deals.

If the mayor were to use their powers to uphold economic orthodoxy and seek investment from traditional industries then the ones who stand to gain are shareholders, not ordinary Midlanders. It is for this reason, he argues, that an alternative strategy is necessary.

“If you listen to what’s coming out of all the other combined authorities, they all seem to be saying the same things and talking as if they’re the only one without acknowledging that we’re all competing for the same inward investment in fading areas such as aviation and automotive industries.”

“Public resources should be used in a way that’s going to benefit people. If using public resources to fund business benefits local people then maybe it’s justified, but if all it does is benefit companies’ bottom lines, is that okay? This is why we need to identify new growth areas and where our skills lie and look at how we can bring these together. This is where the second industrial revolution comes from because we uniquely, as a combined authority, have the skills to make it happen.”

Burn is also quick to point out the big business ties of the other major candidates: Tory Andy Street has recently stepped down as boss of the John Lewis Partnership, whilst Labour’s Simon and the Lib Dem’s Nielsen have both held senior positions at FTSE 250 listed companies.

Burn notes that whilst they might view their experience as being an asset, his background as a social worker makes him better placed to understand the concerns of ordinary people and the importance of making the economy work for them. He sees the key to this as being having a strong grassroots economy built upon companies based within the local authority itself.

“We need to look at growing small businesses in the areas that are left behind rather than just appealing to bigger businesses and assuming that the wealth will trickle down and across the region. We need good jobs, not just any old jobs.”

He also highlights the retrofitting of insulation in old buildings and the reopening of old railway lines, such as the one that runs through Moseley and Kings Heath into the city centre, as other potential sources of jobs.

Aside from the restructuring of the local economy, Burn also sees healing divisions between politicians and local communities as a key part of his campaign. He recognises that the region’s consistently low turnout in elections as a reflection of a dissatisfaction with the way the West Midlands has previously been represented by politicians.

He also acknowledges that it is important for the mayor to build up trust amongst the general population, especially given that 58% of voters rejected the idea that Birmingham should even be represented by a mayor in the 2012 referendum, which had a turnout of just 28%.

However, Burn feels that the way that the authority is set up will engender division between politicians and voters. He notes, “In London, you have a full time sitting assembly made up of 25 members whose job it is to scrutinise the mayor and represent the interests of Londoners. If I contrast that to what’s going on here, we have one scrutiny committee that is currently scheduled to meet four times per year for two hours at a time. The people on this committee are hand picked by the people on the board for the combined authority.”

“People’s trust in politicians isn’t great, and I’d count myself in that as well. We had a massive Brexit vote in the West Midlands. People feel left behind and they’re saying that they want more control over their lives. So what are we doing, then? We’re giving them no control whatsoever.”

This is all very well, but how will a candidate from an outsider party win office in order to make the changes they deem necessary?

“The Green surge and the massive growth in membership means that we have active parties everywhere, whereas ten years ago we wouldn’t have. We’re vibrant and we’re growing. We’re going to go to every single hustings event we get invited to and we’ll be looking at getting into the media at any opportunity and being clear to the West Midlands what our message is and how we can meet people’s needs.”