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Councillors in the dark over WMCA devo bid – George Osborne gets the blame

Councillors in the dark over WMCA devo bid – George Osborne gets the blame

🕔16.Sep 2015

Specific details of the West Midlands’ devolution bid to Government are being kept from almost all Birmingham city councillors while negotiations continue with George Osborne, reports Paul Dale.

Opposition Conservative group leader Robert Alden lodged a formal complaint after he and his members were told they couldn’t have the full devolution submission document.

But Chamberlain Files can reveal that Labour backbenchers, and possibly cabinet members, haven’t seen the document either.

The matter was raised at a Labour group meeting last week where city council leader Sir Albert Bore reportedly told councillors that Mr Osborne “has sworn us to secrecy” and that the devolution deal could be off if details leaked out in advance.

Sir Albert is said to have told Labour members that the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils were “dancing to a ballet choreographed by George Osborne”.

He is also reported to have made it clear to Labour councillors that there is no question of the West Midlands securing a devolution deal from the Government without agreeing to have a metro mayor.

It’s understood that the Chancellor is putting additional pressure on the seven mets to agree a devolution package before the end of the month so that he can announce details at the Conservative party conference in Manchester at the beginning of October.

The shadow West Midlands Combined Authority has only released the broadest details of its devolution bid, which is based on taking control of transport, economic development and skills through a ten-year investment fund worth £8 billion.

The submission document itself, though, remains under wraps.

Cllr Alden told a city council meeting it would be unfair if he had to read first about the full submission in the Chamberlain Files. He claimed that opposition groups on the six other metropolitan authorities have been given the full document.

He pointed out that opposition councillors in Birmingham regularly receive sensitive reports on a confidential basis and said the devolution document should be treated in the same way.

Meanwhile, confusion continues to surround the question of whether shire district councils in Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire will get a vote on the combined authority board.

Sir Albert told the city council it wasn’t possible under current legislation to give the districts a vote, although the combined authority could draw up a constitution that would allow voting rights to be given to the districts and the three local enterprise partnerships.

However, under the terms of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill now before the House of Commons, district councils can join a combined authority, even if their borders are not contiguous with metropolitan authorities, and they will qualify for a vote.

Just as importantly in the case of the West Midlands, when the Bill is passed the district councils can become constituent members of the combined authority, enabling their electors to vote in any poll for a metro mayor.

A Conservative amendment at the council meeting, to allow district councils full voting rights on the combined authority, was rejected after Sir Albert Bore said it was not possible for that to happen under existing legislation.

Sir Albert said he was disturbed if the Tories were suggesting non-met districts in Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire weren’t welcome members of the combined authority.

“That could not be further from the truth,” he added.

Sir Albert added:

Much time has been spent by the seven met leaders in trying to encourage all 12 districts. The districts have been involved in meetings for some weeks if not months now. The seven mets are set to welcome the districts into the fold.

I believe that over half of the 12 districts are likely to be named in the final scheme.

A further complication arises over the refusal of Warwickshire county council to join the West Midlands Combined Authority.

The county council has strategic powers for transportation, which means that while the Warwickshire districts can join WMCA the county will retain responsibility for transport. That raises a further question as to whether the Warwickshire districts would then qualify for a vote on the WMCA board if transport matters were being decided.

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