Why doesn’t English Devolution deliver for Women? One Day it might…..
Date Posted: Tuesday 28th September 2021
Written by: Dr. Fiona Armstrong Gibbs
We’ve always been known in Liverpool for being feisty and political. We’re not afraid to shout about what we believe in. There’s a long history of formidable and brilliant women activists and changemakers in Liverpool from Kitty Wilkinson – who created the first public washhouse in the 1830s – to independent MP Eleanor Rathbone, who campaigned for family allowance and women’s rights in the 1930s. In the years since there have been thousands of other women: the Liverpool Black Sisters; Women on the Waterfront; former Hillsborough Families Support Group chair Margaret Aspinall and road safety campaigner Frances Molloy. They continue to fight injustice and stand side-by-side with each other to create a better world for the next generation.
But when David Cameron and George Osbourne delivered their English devolution agenda in 2017, no one thought to check their gender bias. They left another all-male cabinet, this time at the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.
England’s combined authorities have significant economic responsibilities as part of the devolution agenda. In Liverpool (and other places) there wasn’t a single woman eligible to vote on its most important decisions: on regional economic decision-making, with a budget of over £30 million per year and a portfolio that includes transport, spatial planning, post-16 skills, training, business support and economic development. Its proposal for a regional industrial strategy poured over 90% of our money into companies run by men, employing 90% men largely building roads, trains and office blocks.
So, on the 30th anniversary of the Women’s Budget Group two years ago, we gathered our networks and a small group of women who ran businesses in the city and boiled our anger. We felt misrepresented and excluded from decision making – so we formed our own authority, One Day. We agreed what was important to us – One Day priorities; written from a women’s perspective for everyone. We published it and shouted from the rooftops. We set about supporting women to deliver, with amazing achievements. The themes and issues we discussed on that one day, un beknown to us – were the first and the worst to be hit by the pandemic. This included keeping care homes – threatened with closure and sale – open, mid-pandemic. Women in leadership positions joined the Local Enterprise board and were selected to chair it; we were promoted to senior roles in the city’s institutions; there were resignations, because those institutions wouldn’t change. We presented our report to the region’s MPs and we complained to the (former) chief executive of the Combined Authority when innovation funds excluded women. More women got funds in the second round as a result.
As for votes on the Combined Authority and who says what is important… In 2020, Janette Williamson was elected leader of Wirral Council and became the first woman with a vote at the Combined Authority table. In 2021, Joanne Anderson became Liverpool City Mayor and joined the CA as the second voting woman. In May 2021, Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram made Janette Williamson his first ever Deputy Mayor. And the CA’s new chief executive, Katherine Fairclough, supports our mission, alongside many of the region’s MPs, including Kim Johnson and Alison McGovern.
We now see ourselves as a civic group, formed to improve inclusive growth with a gendered lens. We are passionate about increasing the visibility of women who live and work in the region. The global coronavirus pandemic has had a profound effect on us all throughout 2020 and 2021 and, as we have evolved, we are formalising and learning what we need to craft our message and create further change.
Our most recent report, supported by Liverpool John Moores University, has reviewed the work from 2019 and aims to capture more data and evidence to inform policy. It offers our action plan to rebalance our regional industrial economy from a sustainable, gendered perspective. We know that, left to its own devices, a small group of decision makers would craft an industrial strategy which would unintentionally exclude women and destroy the environment in the pursuit of industrial growth.
Many women have helped write our One Day reports and there are 100s more who are now helping to deliver it. Challenging systemic gender bias in our workplaces and public services is hard, asking tough questions about funding, money and economics is not easy – we are the first. Working with the WBG on the Local Data Project we have found the support and tools to challenge with confidence much of what we all take for granted. Thank you all for creating paths other women can follow.
Our One Day Today report is largely aimed at the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority. We have developed ten key objectives – a road map for the CA to follow over the next year to address gender equality. We also hope that others may see this as a call to action and use it to drive accountability in their regions.