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Dale’s Devo Diary: Minister – ‘We won’t force mayor on West Midlands’

Dale’s Devo Diary: Minister – ‘We won’t force mayor on West Midlands’

🕔13.Jul 2015

There is no prospect of the Government stepping in and forcing the West Midlands combined authority to have a metro mayor against the wishes of council leaders, MPs have been told.

Local Government Minister Marcus Jones said any move to a directly elected mayor had to emerge “bottom up” from councils and no regions or cities would be forced to adopt governance changes.

However, Mr Jones made it clear that the West Midlands combined authority (WMCA) cannot expect to benefit from a devolution deal on the scale of that handed to Greater Manchester without having a metro mayor in place.

Mr Jones was quizzed during a Westminster Hall debate by Midland MPs demanding to know what the “tipping point” might be which resulted in WMCA having to embrace a mayor.

He said the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill currently at its committee stage in the House of Lords made it clear nothing would be imposed on councils.

On whether the West Midlands will have a mayor, as I said, that is a bottom-up process. It is for the West Midlands to come forward and tell us the level of its ambition. It has set out an initial document, but it is early days.

I reiterate that where there is a request for the ambitious devolution of a suite of powers to a combined authority, there must be a metro mayor, but no city will be forced to take on those powers or to have a metro mayor, just as no county will be forced to make any governance changes.

As I said, it is clear that if the West Midlands want to put together a package as extensive as Manchester’s, for example, it will certainly need a metro mayor. However, it is up to them to decide exactly what they want in that sense.

Mr Jones continued:

In 2012, a number of cities, including Coventry, voted against introducing a directly elected mayor. I wish to make it clear that, to be successful, decentralisation must be about not only devolving powers and budgets but having the necessary leadership in each place. We need governance and accountability so that powers can be exercised properly and effectively, for the benefit of all.

Mayoral governance is an internationally proven model of governance for cities. Hence, as the Chancellor has made clear, we will devolve major powers only to cities that choose to have an elected metro mayor, but the Chancellor has also made it clear that we will not impose a metro mayor on anyone.

Jim Cunningham Lab Coventry South) introduced the debate and stated:

With a population of four million, the West Midlands combined authority would be the largest by population in the UK and the second biggest economic area after London, contributing more than £80 billion gross value added to the United Kingdom economy each year.

Members can understand my worry, then, when the Government remain remarkably silent on such a combined authority while mentioning the northern powerhouse at every opportunity.

The Government have spelled out their intention that each combined authority be headed by an elected mayor. The idea of elected mayors is ingrained in the Bill. As it stands, it mentions the word mayor 209 times. I am concerned that the Government have little to no room for negotiation on alternatives.

The debate followed publication by the seven West Midlands metropolitan authorities of a combined authority prospectus setting out the aims of the proposed body. It’s also been confirmed that the embryonic authority is seeking to expand its membership taking in Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire county council and their district councils.

Solihull MP Julian Knight (Con), who campaigned against Solihull joining the WMCA before the General Election, appears to have undergone a Damascene conversion and now sees considerable advantages from a combined authority. Mr Knight said:

When I am stopped in the street and asked about the combined authority, I say that there are things we can do together that we cannot do on our own.

There are opportunities in our economy, what I would call the economy-plus model, with skills and apprenticeships, particularly with the new apprenticeship levy introduced by the Chancellor in the Budget, which should bring exciting opportunities for the region to harness the skills of our young people.

On transport, I agree that we are not currently as well served as we might be in the region. Solihull is lucky with its train links, but there are problems with the bus links, such as in north Solihull, where buses are infrequent—up to one an hour in certain parts of the constituency.

Something similar to an Oyster card for the Midlands would be a good idea, as well as being a positive step towards economic integration and in getting people to the jobs that they need.

A combined authority would also bring the ability to pitch for more European Union cash. Local enterprise partnerships are not recognised by the EU and, although we still get some money, it would be much easier for a combined authority to pitch for EU money to bring about the infrastructure and other improvements that we all wish to see within the region.

The idea is not to lose powers or, in effect, to see the well-run local council evaporate, but to gain powers to overlay existing ones—devolution from the centre. Solihull stands ready to deal with our neighbours to grasp the opportunities, although I caution against any top-down approach and I commend the Government for looking for a bottom-up approach.

Liam Byrne (Lab Birmingham Hodge Hill) hoped Stratford-on-Avon council would join WMCA, allowing the new authority to cash in on the Shakespeare brand:

The West Midlands boasts the greatest British cultural brand in the world: William Shakespeare. That is why I hope that the combined authority brings Stratford-upon-Avon into its ambit as quickly as possible.

Stratford-on-Avon council does not have the investment required to unlock the potential of that brand. The region is so disjointed that if someone goes to tonight’s performance of “Volpone”, which finishes at about 10.40 pm, it is impossible to get the train back to Wolverhampton or Sandwell, and if someone wants to get the train back to Coventry, it will take 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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