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Council leaders in last ditch attempt to curb metro mayor’s powers

Council leaders in last ditch attempt to curb metro mayor’s powers

🕔16.May 2016

This time next year, the West Midlands’ first metro mayor will have taken office. But whoever gets the job is unlikely to enjoy anything like the sweeping powers imagined and feared by so many people, writes Paul Dale.

Leaders of the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils are busy negotiating the fine details of the mayoral system with the Government, and there appears to be one issue driving their talks above all others – how to curb the powers of the mayor.

The proposed devolution agreement signed last year between the council leaders, chairs of three local enterprise partnerships, and Chancellor George Osborne sets out proposed powers for the mayor, and it is fair to say these are already of a fairly limited nature.

But Chamberlain Files understands some of the leaders of the seven Mets – Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry, Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley – want to reduce even further the powers of the directly elected mayor and that private discussions have been taking place to see how this might be managed.

Sensitive discussions are also underway over the mayor’s salary, with figures anywhere between the £100,000 paid to the West Midlands police and crime commissioner and the £200,000 paid to chief executives of the largest councils having been mentioned.

Under the proposed 30-year devolution deal, said to be worth about £8 billion, the West Midlands metro mayor will chair a cabinet consisting of the seven council leaders, LEP chairs and the leaders of non-constituent district councils, who will not enjoy full voting rights.

Mr Osborne is suggesting the mayor should be given powers to levy additional business rates up to a maximum of two per cent to pay for new infrastructure – but only with the agreement of the local enterprise partnerships.

The mayor will chair the West Midlands Combined Authority and will exercise powers and functions devolved from central government:

  • Responsibility for a consolidated, devolved transport budget, with a multi-year settlement to be agreed at the Spending Review.
  • Responsibility for franchised bus services, which will support the WMCA’s delivery of smart and integrated ticketing across the Combined Authority’s constituent councils.
  • Responsibility for a new Key Route Network of local authority roads that will be managed and maintained at the Metropolitan level by the WMCA on behalf of the Mayor.
  • Planning powers will be conferred on the Mayor, to drive housing delivery and improvements in housing stock, and give the same competencies as the HCA.

In addition, it’s proposed WMCA will receive the following powers:

  • Control of a new additional £36.5 million a year funding allocation over 30 years, to be invested to drive growth.
  • Devolved 19+ adult skills funding from 2018/19, with the Shadow Board responsible for chairing Area Based reviews of 16+ skills provision.
  • Joint responsibility with the Government to co-design employment support for the hardest-to-help claimants.
  • Responsibility to work with the government to develop and implement a devolved approach to the delivery of business support programmes from 2017 and deliver more integrated working together on investment and trade.

While WMCA will be up and running as a legal entity next month, its constitution will have to be amended when the metro mayor is elected in May 2017. Only then will the powers to be handed to the mayor become clear.

Under the draft devolution agreement, the powers the Government wants the mayor to have are set out alongside a number of checks and balances that will enable the council leaders to intervene. Broadly speaking, it has already been agreed that anything of any importance will require a two-thirds majority vote of support from the council leaders.

The proposed rules include:

  • Any questions that are to be decided by the combined authority are to be decided by way of two thirds majority of constituent members and overall majority of all members present and voting, subject to those majorities including the vote of the mayor, unless otherwise specifically delegated through the authority’s constitution or where it is agreed that specific issues will be reserved for unanimous or constituent member majority voting only.
  • The cabinet will examine the mayor’s draft annual budget, plans and strategies and will be able to reject them if two-thirds of the constituent council members agree to do so, subject to the circumstances set out in the Mayoral Order.
  • Any transfer to the combined authority or mayor of existing powers or resources currently held by the constituent authorities must be by agreement of all constituent members.

The myth of an all-powerful mayor – an ‘elected dictator’, as Birmingham once put it – has frightened the West Midlands’ for 15 years, and it is no secret that council leaders reluctantly agreed to have a metro mayor only when it became clear there would be no meaningful devolution deal without one.

What is happening now appears to be a final effort to pare back the mayoral powers, but the Treasury will surely have swatted away similar bargaining attempts from the likes of Greater Manchester and Liverpool.

It seems unlikely that Mr Osborne will be willing to water down even further the mayoral powers, placing a West Midlands mayor entirely in the hands of council leaders, since to do so would negate the Chancellor’s much-quoted observation that city regions must have elected mayors with powers to get things done who are directly accountable to the electorate.

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