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Council leaders trapped in metro mayor dance of the seven veils

Council leaders trapped in metro mayor dance of the seven veils

🕔02.Jun 2015

The long march of the West Midlands towards an elected metro mayor has a touch of the dance of the seven veils about it. We imagine feverishly what the end result looks like, but never quite get to see it, writes Paul Dale.

Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play Salome, based on a Biblical interpretation of the execution of John the Baptist, has King Herod’s niece performing an elaborate dance. Veils are seductively removed one by one, but frustratingly the audience only ever gets “brief views of her jewelled body”.

As Wilde put it:

She freed and floated on the air her arms,
Above dim veils that hid her bosom’s charms.
The veils fell round her like thin coiling mists,
Shot through by topaz suns and amethysts.

The charms of a West Midlands metro mayor as being promoted by Chancellor George Osborne are not yet shot through by topaz suns and amethysts and it is fair to say thin coiling mists are preventing many politicians from seeing the bigger picture.

But it must be correct to conclude that the Greater Birmingham area, if we may dare to call it that, is at the cusp and will probably have eventually to accept Mr Osborne’s insistence on having a metro mayor to get what the Chancellor calls the “full suite of devolved powers”, just as Greater Manchester has done.

For now, the leaders of Birmingham, Solihull, the Black Country councils, Coventry and Lichfield content themselves with a fingers in the ear approach along the lines of “the metro mayor issue isn’t at the top of the agenda, let’s just push ahead with forming a combined authority and hope for the best”.

In reality they know and worry of course that the mayoral issue is at the very top of the agenda, for Mr Osborne has made it clear many times now that the West Midlands and Greater Birmingham cannot qualify for maximum devolution without an elected mayor. And as long as Mr Osborne sticks to his guns and remains in office until 2020 and possibly beyond, that is the brick wall the region faces and will continue to face.

Some argue that the Chancellor will be forced to give in because the West Midlands economy is too important to UK plc to deny full-scale devolution. But by his latest pronouncements, Mr Osborne makes it clear that he is not for turning:

We’ll work with local council leaders across the party divide and assess each case on its merits, as every area is different.

And I know that one size doesn’t fit all. But I’m also clear that with new powers come new responsibilities. It is right that there’s a single point of accountability, someone elected to take decisions and carry the can.

And that means, if we go for the full suite of devolved powers, a metro wide mayor.

Manchester has already said it will travel down this exciting road to the future. It is my sincere hope that the cities of the Midlands will choose to be part of this revolution in city government.”

Having met Mr Osborne and Lord Heseltine yesterday, the leaders of the prospective combined authority councils have promised to “ramp up” discussions with district councils and the three Local Enterprise Partnerships about the precise shape of the new body and its aims.

Lord Heseltine urged the leaders to “get on with it”, but it would appear there are still a number of issues to be sorted out before the West Midlands can move forward.

Talks with the Chancellor the Local Government Secretary and senior civil servants will continue, but there is no date set yet for the combined authority to take office. When it does get off the ground there will surely be no need for the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP, the Black Country LEP and the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP to carry on as separate bodies. A single LEP reflecting the boundaries of the combined authority is called for, you would imagine.

Meanwhile, should the councils crack and go down the metro mayor route, the remarkable story of the Police Commissioner in the shadows continues apace.

As Chamberlain Files noted yesterday, West Midlands Labour PCC David Jamieson has made no secret of the fact that he fancies the role of interim metro mayor and police commissioner, following in the footsteps of Tony Lloyd in Greater Manchester.

No sooner had our story been published than Mr Jamieson’s highly efficient press officer was in touch with the following quote:

The key point isn’t who does the role, but that there is one so that the West Midlands doesn’t miss out on this huge opportunity.

Jamieson, a former transport minister regarded as experienced and a safe pair of hands, should by rights be pruning his roses and enjoying retirement, having announced in 2014 that he would never stand in an election again.

He responded to his party’s call for help just over a year ago following the death of PCC Bob Jones, and won the subsequent by-election easily enough. Now he sees the metro mayor as a “huge opportunity” for the West Midlands, and perhaps as a final swan song for himself.

Jamieson and Labour’s other big beasts Albert Bore and Darren Cooper will be keen to see how the dance of the seven veils concludes. If the delights of the metro mayor are finally exposed for all to see, they will be in the frame for the biggest directly elected job outside of London – whatever they may say to the contrary now.

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