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Communication breakdown: WMCA hit by strange case of portfolio paralysis

Communication breakdown: WMCA hit by strange case of portfolio paralysis

🕔12.Apr 2016

There are 50 days to go until the West Midlands’ local government landscape changes irrevocably.

On June 1, all being well, the West Midlands Combined Authority will become a legal entity, bringing together the seven metropolitan council leaders, representatives from adjoining shire districts, and three Local Enterprise Partnerships.

WMCA will have devolved powers to run transportation, economic development and skills and is the first step along the path to yet more radical change. This time next year we shall be gearing up for the election of a metro mayor who will possess limited executive powers and will chair the WMCA cabinet.

This is a good opportunity therefore to ask about the combined authority cabinet.

We know there are going to be seven portfolios, conveniently one for each cabinet member. But what are the portfolios, and how are they to be split up?

Followers of the devolutions saga will be dismayed, but hardly surprised, to learn that, with 50 days to go, the shadow combined authority is unable to confirm any details of the portfolios, except that transport, the economy and skills will definitely feature.

As to the four remaining portfolios, it’s anyone’s guess although tackling crime is believed to be one of the slots.

The sudden death last month of Sandwell Council leader Darren Cooper put paid to a shadow WMCA meeting at which the portfolios were to have been divvied up. That meeting is yet to be rearranged, and it has emerged that final decisions about the portfolio titles haven’t been taken, never mind any decision about who gets which job.

A WMCA spokesperson told Chamberlain Files:

We are currently working on the governance arrangements to ensure members play a clear and full role in combined authority business. Once the detail of these arrangements is confirmed – which is likely to be over the coming weeks – we will share them.

The use of the words ‘coming weeks’ hardly inspires confidence. There are after all only seven weeks until June 1.

Neither, incidentally, has the shadow WMCA been able to give any answer to the matter of scrutiny and how council leaders and the LEPs are going to be held publicly to account. They and the metro mayor will, after all, be responsible for a devolution programme worth about £1.2 billion over 30 years, and the mayor will have powers to raise an additional business rate.

This portfolio paralysis is merely the latest in a line of communication mishaps surrounding the shadow combined authority and the devolution deal.

Last year, the then leader of Birmingham city council Sir Albert Bore, refused to share with his cabinet details of a devolution submission claiming that the Treasury was insisting on absolute secrecy. It transpired the Treasury had made no such demands.

That was followed earlier this year by a council decision to limit a debate about setting up the combined authority to just 15 minutes, although the allotted time was later extended following an outcry.

A ‘consultation’ exercise carried out by the shadow combined authority posed five leading questions framed in such a way as to invite positive comment from a sceptical electorate. Even so, the results indicated less than overwhelming backing for the combined authority, and worrying doubts about any benefits the local enterprise partnerships might be expected to bring to the table.

No blame for the failure to get the WMCA message across should be attached to the press officer seconded from one of the West Midlands councils last year and handed the task of responding to media questions about the combined authority. Questions are indeed asked and dutifully passed on to the appropriate politician or officer, but very few answers ever come back.

Understandably, given the general public disregard for local government, the fledgling authority is keen to avoid being seen to spend anything very much on administration and has appointed two part-time chief executives, Martin Reeves from Coventry Council and Jan Britton from Sandwell Council, who are not paid for their additional duties.

But the time is fast approaching when a far more professional outlook is required, even if that means spending some money on the back office.

The combined authority needs to improve its communications because it will start life at a distinct disadvantage – a third of those quizzed in the consultation didn’t think WMCA would achieve anything very much at all. This plays into general cynicism about politicians and councils as well as public opposition to what is seen as “another unnecessary layer of local government”.

Some people think WMCA is simply an attempt to re-establish the former West Midlands county council, without the elections, making it an undemocratic quango. Having a cabinet portfolio for the seven council leaders may also give the impression that jobs are simply being invented to make sure everyone has something, rather than that of a lean, pared down organization capable of acting quickly and decisively.

John Clancy, the leader of Birmingham city council, who will shortly inherit one of the mystery portfolios, has said he wants the West Midlands “to lead the way on public engagement”. Cllr Clancy responded to questions about WMCA at a recent council meeting:

I am concerned about making sure these new arrangements are accountable and we enable the public to engage in decisions of the combined authority once it is set up.

I want to ensure the combined authority works closely with all groups from civil society.

If Cllr Clancy means what he says, he must persuade his fellow council leaders to do more to get the devolution message across. The portfolio paralysis is a small issue, but it is symptomatic of a wider reluctance by officialdom to tell those that elect them and pay their wages what they are doing.

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