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‘Boxed in’ West Midlands metro mayor will be far from all-powerful autocrat

‘Boxed in’ West Midlands metro mayor will be far from all-powerful autocrat

🕔13.Jun 2016

The elected metro mayor of the West Midlands may have almost no executive powers to spend money or push through policies without gaining the overwhelming backing of council leaders.

Under a draft scheme of rules devised by councils and local enterprise partnerships, the mayor is in danger of being boxed in from all sides from the moment of taking office in May 2017.

Paragraph eight of the Establishment of the Mayoral West Midlands Combined Authority (Mayoral WMCA) makes it clear that the council leaders will control the mayor’s spending plans:

The cabinet will examine the mayor’s draft annual budget and the plans, policies and strategies, as determined by the Mayoral WMCA, and will be able to reject them if two-thirds of the Mayoral WMCA cabinet agree to do so.

In the event that the Mayoral WMCA rejects the proposed budget then the Mayoral WMCA shall propose an alternative budget for acceptance by the cabinet, subject to a two-thirds majority of those present and voting. The mayor shall not be entitled to vote on the alternative Mayoral WMCA proposed budget.

The proposed scheme continues:

The mayor will have responsibility for a devolved and consolidated transport budget and for a franchised bus service. As part of the mayoral budget, the consolidated transport budget will be subject to the examination of the cabinet and can be rejected if two-thirds of the cabinet decide to do so, in accordance with paragraph eight of this Scheme.

The shackling of the mayor’s powers, in particular barring the mayor from even voting on an alternative budget put forward by the cabinet, has been sharply criticised by the Labour Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands, David Jamieson.

Mr Jamieson said he was deeply worried about the lack of powers being proposed for the mayor and he would not recommend to the Home Secretary any transfer of police commissioner powers to the mayor.

Leaders of the seven metropolitan West Midlands councils have made little secret of their wish to scale back any powers granted to the mayor. Cllr Roger Lawrence, Labour leader of Wolverhampton council, told a media briefing the mayor would have to be a “team player” and not “some autocratic figure”.

All transport, economic development and regeneration functions already carried out by the combined authority, including functions of the former passenger transport authority Centro, will remain the sole responsibility of WMCA, not the mayor.

The draft scheme says “it is not appropriate that the mayor is required to vote in favour as such functions are local authority functions, exercised concurrently in parallel and with the local authorities”.

Similarly, proposals to set up HS2 Growth Development Corporations will be the responsibility of the combined authority. The mayor, as chair of the WMCA cabinet, gets a vote, but cannot overrule the council leaders.

The mayor will be entitled to put forward proposals to the WMCA cabinet, but two-thirds of members present and voting must vote in favour.

In theory, the mayor will have a handful of powers, but even then all is not straightforward.

  • The mayor will be able to use compulsory purchase powers to acquire land or buildings in consultation with the Homes and Communities Agency, but must obtain the consent of the appropriate council.
  • The mayor will have powers to distribute the devolved consolidated transport budget, but only if the cabinet agrees to approve the overall mayoral budget.
  • An additional business rate can be raised by the mayor, but only if the business-led LEPs agree.
  • The mayor can raise a precept from member councils, but only if the cabinet agrees.

The draft scheme suggests handing the mayor powers to borrow money to deliver transportation, economic development and regeneration projects, subject to approval by the WMCA cabinet.

Public consultation on the proposed mayoral scheme begins at the end of this month, with an order to be laid before Parliament by the end of the year. Ultimately, it will be a matter for MPs, and the Government, to decide whether the powers West Midlands’ councils wish to bestow on the metro mayor are sufficient.

WMCA has listed the key messages it says will be reflected during the consultation:

  • The proposed changes are not about taking powers from the individual constituent councils (all local authority powers would be exercised concurrently/jointly with the councils) but are about gaining additional powers for the WMCA from central government
  • The process of transferring / providing additional powers is being carried out in partnership with central government departments and agencies.
  • The proposed changes are the first in a series of changes to powers for the West Midlands and that local people will have opportunities to comment on those future proposed changes.

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