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All systems go for West Midlands Combined Authority as MPs say ‘Yes’

All systems go for West Midlands Combined Authority as MPs say ‘Yes’

🕔15.Jun 2016

MPs have finally approved the setting up of the West Midlands Combined Authority.

Members voted in favour of establishing the new body today and formal approval is expected to be given by Communities Secretary Greg Clark tomorrow.

The decision means that WMCA – a body consisting of the seven metropolitan West Midlands councils, adjoining shire district councils and three local enterprise partnerships – will shortly become a legal entity and can then begin to transact business.

The combined authority will have devolved powers over economic development, transportation and workforce skills. It will be chaired by a directly elected metro mayor from next May who will oversee an £8 billion 30-year devolution deal negotiated with the Government.

WMCA’s inaugural meeting was due to have taken place last Friday but had to be postponed after MPs failed to approve a statutory instrument giving the new authority legal status.

The delay occurred after Warley Labour MP John Spellar objected to the creation of WMCA and election of a metro mayor which he said had not been the subject of proper consultation.

The shadow WMCA went ahead with last Friday’s planned meeting with more than 40 councillors from across the region attending as well as business leaders.

Several key spending announcements have been made including setting up a £70 million commercial development fund which it is claimed will unlock £1 billion of private sector investment, a £4 billion ten-year transport improvement scheme and a strategic economic plan promising to create 500,000 new jobs and thousands of new homes.

The past few weeks have been noticeable for a concerted effort among council leaders to play down fears that the metro mayor will possess wide-ranging powers and will be able to overrule local authorities.

The intervention from Mr Spellar which caused the delay in the Government approving the West Midlands Combined Authority was based on the Labour MP’s disapproval of elected mayors and his contention that consultation over the combined authority and the mayor has been inadequate.

Mr Spellar is hardly alone in this. It is difficult to name a single West Midlands MP, Labour or Conservative, who believes metro mayors are a good thing.

Most are keeping their powder dry, or have refrained from commenting publicly in the interests of maintaining party unity. But an undercurrent of bafflement and frustration at Chancellor George Osborne’s insistence that devolution deals like that negotiated in the West Midlands must be accompanied by metro mayors is all too apparent at Westminster.

Equally, most local councillors are also opposed to the metro mayor model. Hardly any West Midlands councillors wanted city mayors in Birmingham and Coventry, and they certainly do not see the case for a metro mayor.

There is plenty of scope for predictable tensions and turf wars between the councils and WMCA over decisions involving transportation, economic development and regeneration, where the combined authority and the three local enterprise partnerships will, under the chairmanship of the mayor, take strategic spending decisions.

Matters that were once the sole responsibility of individual councils will soon be handed up to WMCA and the mayor and however often the council leaders repeat the mantra that the seven metropolitan authorities will not lose any powers, this is not strictly the case.

This suspicion has manifested itself in the actions of the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils which have gone out of their way to shackle the powers of the metro mayor by proposing that almost any decision of importance must have the backing of the council leaders. If they succeed in doing so, and a final decision will rest with the Government, the mayor will have little going for him or her other than soft powers of persuasion and influence.

There are concerns too about the decision to press ahead with a mayoral election in 2017, a ‘fallow’ year for the seven metropolitan authorities with no council elections being held. Since voters will not be going to the polls to elect councillors, how many will bother to take part in an election to choose the metro mayor?

This is a matter of particular concern for the West Midlands Regional Labour Party Office where it is reported that estimates of turnout range from an optimistic 20 per cent to a pessimistic but more likely 15 per cent. If turnout really is that low, almost anything could happen and the chances of a charismatic Independent candidate garnering enough support to beat the Labour favourite Siôn Simon would be greater.

It is not widely recognised that the first West Midlands metro mayor will serve only a three year term. The next mayoral election will be in 2020, presumably on the same day as the General Election, and whoever is elected will serve a four year term. After 2020 mayoral elections will be held every four years.

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