Image: Margaret Okole

“The Mayor can and should work for us all” – Interviewing Siobhan Harper-Nunes

As part of its coverage of the 2024 Local Elections, The Boar approached all candidates standing for West Midlands Mayor with a series of questions on student concerns. Four candidates agreed, with one, the Green Party’s Siobhan Harper-Nunes, responding within The Boar’s allotted timeframe.

Harper-Nunes is a charity executive who has worked with a range of public and community organisations, having founded her own, Shakti Women, in 2007. Pitching herself as the opposite of a career politician, she has nonetheless been an extensive political campaigner for twenty years. She first stood for political office in the 2022 Birmingham City Council elections, on behalf of the Green Party, before running as their candidate for the 2022 Birmingham Erdington by-election.

Harper-Nunes herself appeared to admit in one hustings that she cannot win

Now, Harper-Nunes is standing for West Midlands Mayor, an office held by the Conservative Andy Street since the role’s creation in 2017. Having consistently polled in the single digits, there has been scepticism as to the viability of her campaign – Harper-Nunes herself appeared to admit in one hustings that she cannot win, suggesting her role is instead to “shift the dial” of political debate towards green policies. Subsequently, however, she has adopted a more bullish attitude, and has pitched herself as a voice for communities unheard by the incumbent Mayor.

The first question posed to her is on the cost-of-living crisis, seen as a priority issue for many students. Quizzed on what support she could provide students as Mayor, Harper-Nunes is quick to emphasise that she would have no powers to help everyday costs directly. Her focus instead, she declares, would be to combat regional poverty. She raises a range of proposals to achieve this, including the creation of a community wealth-building grant fund, and the creation of a support fund for SMEs, Social Enterprises, and Co-ops. Her office, she says, would work with colleges – to train the skills necessary for green jobs – and with apprenticeship and internship programmes – ensuring these are aimed at the areas that most need them. All this would be facilitated by a “comprehensive assessment of deprivation” across the West Midlands. Most eye-catching, perhaps, she suggests that as Mayor, she would lobby for a Universal Basic Income pilot scheme to test whether the programme would stimulate the regional economy.

Her office would aim to reach a net gain of 500 new social homes a year

The subject next moves on to housing, and the issues around this that frequently confront students. Harper-Nunes is unequivocal in blaming the Right to Buy for its “disastrous effect” on the housing market, in losing social homes. She links this to an “out-of-control” increase in the cost of renting, with demand outstripping supply. As Mayor, she declares, her office would aim to reach a net gain of 500 new social homes a year, through setting council targets, lobbying for government investment, and using Devolution funding. With these policies aiming to “take the heat out of the housing market”, she further pledges to support Community Land Trusts and the regional Community-led Housing hub as a long-term means of delivering affordable housing. She also promises that she would work with councils and the government to improve the regulations and standards for privately rented accommodation.

When the questions move on to the environment, Harper-Nunes, as might be expected, is in her element. Action must be taken, she says, to curb carbon emissions immediately. Her office would set up a major programme to retrofit homes with proper insulation, preventing unnecessary heat loss and with the bonus of creating jobs and cutting energy bills. The same steps would be taken with all public buildings in the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), and with new housing developments. There would be investment in public transport, she explains, to provide alternatives to car transport, with the promotion of so-called Green Bonds to fund and develop low-carbon infrastructure and decarbonisation. As well as these emissions-based actions, Harper-Nunes highlights the need for more trees and green spaces. She outlines that as Mayor she would develop an “ambitious, but realistic” target for annual street tree planting. As well as this top-down effort, she proposes a ‘Community Greening Fund’, in the hopes of supporting small-scale local projects to green public areas. She also insists that it would be a requirement of proposed new-build developments to have either green roofs or rooftop solar, in order to qualify for any kind of funding support from the West Midlands authority.

Harper-Nunes’ attention-grabbing proposal is for transport to become completely free for under-22s

On the subject of public transport, and supporting its use by students, Harper-Nunes’ attention-grabbing proposal is for transport to become completely free for under-22s, via central government funding. This fare-free transport would further extend to the unemployed, those in full-time education, and 60-65 year olds. Her office would then examine the benefits of extending the scheme for every West Midlands resident. Perhaps more affordable solutions ventured by her campaign include incorporating walk and cycle routes into every new transport project, as well as creating a fund with which to prioritise pedestrians and cyclists at junctions. Harper-Nunes vows that she would lobby for increased transport funding from Westminster, arguing that the West Midlands deserves the same investment in transport per head as London. She also expresses her support for bus franchising – a proposal shared by fellow Mayor-hopeful Richard Parker of the Labour Party. Harper-Nunes goes one step further, suggesting she would look into the possibility of the WMCA owning local bus services outright.

An issue unique to higher education is the funding crisis facing UK universities, which has hit West Midlands-based institutions as well as elsewhere in the country. Though Warwick hasn’t yet taken special measures, the Universities of Aston, Coventry, and Stafford, have made substantial cuts. When asked how she would work with and support higher education in the region, Harper-Nunes first takes the opportunity to rubbish what she describes as the “marketisation of higher education” over the last 30 years. Universities, she says, now prioritise “student recruitment and performance data over delivering a genuine learning experience” – the result being a “disaster”. Harper-Nunes affirms that as Mayor she would campaign for the university funding system to be reformed – “central government has caused this problem and central government must solve it.” She charges that there has been a “complete failure” to understand the importance of higher education to the economy.

Her core message […] is that the WMCA is “out of touch, and doesn’t look like or represent us”

Her core message, in closing, is that the WMCA is “out of touch, and doesn’t look like or represent us”. Harper-Nunes says that her objective is to give communities a stronger voice, and to ensure that “the Combined Authority works to and listens to us”. She floats a range of proposals intended to encourage popular participation, the centrepiece of these being lobbying Westminster for a directly elected West Midlands Assembly. Until that point, she explains, she would involve regular people via a range of measures. These would include having representatives of key groups, such as volunteer organisations, unions, and community groups, on scrutiny committees, and engagement with Citizens’ Assemblies in forming WMCA policy. Her aim would be for 20% of the Mayor’s annual budget to be set through a participatory process.

Further information on Siobhan Harper-Nunes’ candidacy, and on all other candidates for West Midlands Mayor, can be found in the official West Midlands election booklet, available here. Elections for Mayor of the West Midlands, as well as Police and Crime Commissioners and local councillors, will take place on Thursday 2 May. Voting is open from 7am until 10pm, and anyone wishing to vote must be registered and have a valid photo ID.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.