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A week? A day is a long time in politics

A week? A day is a long time in politics

🕔09.Dec 2017

From City of Culture to the Commonwealth Games (with “sufficient progress” in the Brexit negotiations thrown in), it was quite a 24 hours on the regional political scene. For all that, the most heat felt by the Chamberlain Files on Friday was on the riveting subject of police and fire governance, writes Kevin Johnson

At just before 7.30pm on Thursday night, we learned that the City of Coventry had been awarded UK City of Culture status for 2021.

There has been unconfined joy all round since that moment in Hull, which was re-run at the start of Friday’s West Midlands Combined Authority Board (WMCA) meeting.

The Mayor, Andy Street, has been careful not to claim full ownership of the first of three possible big wins for the region. Rightly so as Coventry City Council, the universities of Warwick and Coventry, Ricoh Arena as well as the WMCA deserve credit for backing an excellent bid and campaign.

People like David Burbidge, the bid chair; Jonathan Neelands and Alan Rivett from the University of Warwick; Martin Reeves, chief executive of bid sponsor Coventry city council and advisor Andrew Dixon as well as bid manager Laura McMillan should be the ones winning most plaudits this weekend.

On Friday morning, Birmingham city council’s cabinet met to consider the city’s Commonwealth Games bid. Ian Ward, leader of the Council, started by congratulating the City of Coventry and his counterpart Cllr George Duggins.

Cllr Ward gave, perhaps, the most impassioned and eloquent speech that the Chamberlain Files has ever heard from the Labour figure who, until very recently, has been political bridesmaid.

The sports-mad councillor said it is Birmingham’s time. It might just be Ian Ward’s time too if he pulls off the bid and makes financial sense of the 2022 Games.

But it was the financial risks and lack of consultation which Conservative Group leader, Cllr Robert Alden, chose to highlight as he poured some cold water on the leader’s enthusiasm.

He wanted greater involvement of the wider council and a truly cross-party approach to managing a successful bid, as well as more effort to secure a sporting and health legacy.

As Cllr Ward made clear, there are risks to the Council in pursuing the Games, but Cabinet papers state that the local authority will seek to ensure that its funding mechanisms do not prejudice day-to-day services and that costs should not be covered by council tax receipts.

The Government has committed to fund 75%, leaving the Council to find the remaining amount in conjunction with regional and public bodies. This is likely to equate to around £200m, but could be more with cost overruns.

Chamberlain Files understands that a range of funding streams have been identified, including with the three LEPs, and that negotiations have been continuing with Government over its level of guarantee and access to interest free loans in order to secure the bid with the Commonwealth Games Federation.

The Cabinet continued into a private session to consider the financial details and later gave licence to the interim chief executive to sign off the bid.

Upstairs at Birmingham’s Council House, the WMCA Board meeting continued without representation from Birmingham and Coventry councils.

David Jamieson, West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), and Cllr Saint, leader of Stratford-upon-Avon District Council (a “non-con” council in WMCA jargon) can be relied upon for ‘helpful’ (ahem) contributions from the backbenches. For the final WMCA Board meeting of the year, they shifted up a gear.

The PCC had much to say on both the review of fire governance and the proposal, set out in the latest Devolution Deal, for the Mayor to absorb the powers of the PCC. His interventions were not met with universal appreciation, not least by Cllr Roger Lawrence, leader of Wolverhampton city council (who was on especially good form) and Cllr John Edwards, chair of the West Midlands Fire and Rescue Authority.

The transfer of duties, powers and assets of the Fire Authority is proceeding with a consultation exercise due to start in January.

Mayor Street shot down the PCC’s suggestion that the separate tracks of fire and police governance transfers to the Mayor should be brought together. But it’s difficult to argue that Mr Jamieson has a point.

With the Fire Authority moving across in 2019 followed police governance in time for the 2020 mayoral election, surely an integrated transfer of blue light services should be considered.

Cllr Edwards told the PCC that the benefits of the Fire Authority transfer were clear, including single person accountability through the Mayor as preferred by Government.

But the benefits in the Board paper do not appear particularly well detailed – and certainly appear less than if police and fire were taken together.

The opportunities presented simply by the scale of human resources and other assets from the Fire Authority and PCC are considerable. The increase in people and responsibilities will dramatically change the nature of the WMCA which was been built on the foundations of a transport authority.

The potential for reform and innovation by closer working between blue light services, councils, transport and co-operation with health (including mental health) and care services is significant.

At present, Chamberlain Files has a sense that the transfers of fire and police governance are being treated as simply ‘bolt on’ bureaucratic exercises.

It’s unlikely we have heard the last word from Mr Jamieson.

Deborah Cadman, WMCA’s chief executive, updated the Board on the recent devolution deal. Whilst highlighting £280m of financial delegations from Government, it was not everything “we wanted” she said. It was noticeable that Mayor Street did not seek to claim a major victory.

Ms Cadman suggested that there was a resetting of relations with Government, with promises to work together on other issues and less of an “episodic” approach to devolution. Time will tell.

Neil Rami presented the Business Plan of the West Midlands Growth Company (formerly Marketing Birmingham). Given Mr Rami now has to account to the Mayor, the WMCA through its chief executive, seven local authorities and six universities, he has his work cut out compared to the days when he just had to keep Cllr Mike Whitby topped up with PR wins.

Cllr Saint wondered why Stratford was both an owner and a stakeholder. It was that kind of meeting.

Mr Rami acknowledged that the Company needed to make more progress, including developing wider knowledge and relationships across the region.

Jonathan Browning, who chairs both the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP and the Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) committee for WMCA, later said the Authority does not yet have a plan to fully deliver the ambitious goals in the SEP.

The Growth Company’s chief executive painted a positive outlook for the region, particularly in terms of interest from investors. But he acknowledged that we are dealing with “dynamic market conditions.”

Maybe Mr Rami had not caught up with news of “sufficient progress” in Brussels during the whirlwind 24 hours. The West Midlands Growth Company need not worry,  after all – Brexit negotiations are going swimmingly…

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