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Dale’s Devo Diary: West Midlands hatches ‘to be or not to be’ Metro Mayor plan

Dale’s Devo Diary: West Midlands hatches ‘to be or not to be’ Metro Mayor plan

🕔28.Jul 2015

West Midlands council leaders are planning to put two separate submissions for a combined authority to George Osborne – one without and one with an elected metro mayor.

They will then consider what level of devolution the chancellor offers for a non-mayoral and a mayoral authority and decide which model offers the best devolution deal.

The tactics – essentially putting the ball into Mr Osborne’s court – were explained by Darren Cooper, the leader of Sandwell Council and lead spokesman for the shadow West Midlands combined authority.

Cllr Cooper told BBC Radio 4’s World This Weekend programme that the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils wanted to explore options with the chancellor.

He said:

We are going to put a radical agenda to Government to see what we can get without having a mayor and we are also going to ask what we can get if we do have a mayor and then we will ask people to make a choice on that.

The answer from Mr Osborne would appear to be fairly easy to predict.

He has made it clear since the General Election that full-scale devolution of the type being handed to Greater Manchester is dependent on a combined authority being overseen by a directly elected mayor. City regions that refuse to embrace the mayoral model are likely to find themselves at the bottom of the queue for devolved services and budgets.

However, in the West Midlands where opposition to mayors is endemic at council level, Cllr Cooper and his colleagues will be looking with some hope to the far south-west where Cornwall Council has recently reached a devo-max deal with Mr Osborne without having a mayor.

At least seven combined authority regions in the north of England have signalled their intention to go down the mayoral route as the push to devolution takes pace.

The West Midlands metropolitan councils have published a combined authority prospectus in which they propose bringing in district councils in Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire as associate members, as well as three Local Enterprise Partnerships.

The proposal was described as far too complex and a “dog’s breakfast” by West Midlands police commissioner David Jamieson, who accused the council leaders of missing an opportunity to bring police and fire services under the control of a metro mayor.

Chamberlain Files understands that Mr Jamieson, a senior Labour politician and former Minister, has not been invited by the West Midlands council leaders to take part in discussions about the combined authority – an omission that may be questioned by Mr Osborne.

The West Midlands has until September 4 to submit a case for a combined authority to Mr Osborne for inclusion in the Government’s Spending Review.

Cllr Cooper stressed that a decision would have to be taken about whether the West Midlands should have a mayor, based on the devolution deals offered by the chancellor. He did not elaborate on his comment that “we will ask the people to make a choice”, although it seems unlikely the council leaders will risk a referendum after mayoral models were decisively rejected in Birmingham and Coventry three years ago.

He said:

The fact is we have to come together. There are four million people in this combined authority area and that means the combined authority can speak on behalf of these people.

I can go, or whoever chairs the combined authority can go knocking on the door of the Government and say ‘hang on where’s our share?

Cllr Cooper said he “trusted” Mr Osborne on devolution, even though he was a “very political chancellor”.

Directors for Devolution

Businesses across the country see devolution as an opportunity to spur growth, promote competition and kick-start regional economies, a new survey of members of the Institute of Directors has revealed.

In the poll of over 1,000 business leaders, two-thirds (65%) said they backed the Government’s plans to devolve powers to cities and regions.

IoD members supported giving combined authorities significant extra powers on housing, planning, transport, education, skills and local taxes.

But businesses were clear that tax-raising powers should not be used by local authorities to raise rates or increase the complexity of tax rules. More than half (56%) of IoD members said they were concerned that devolution could lead to higher taxes, or additional tax compliance costs.

James Sproule, Director of Policy at the IoD, said:

Businesses see huge potential in devolving power from Westminster to England’s great cities and regions. Each has its own strengths, opportunities and challenges, and should be given much more control over vital areas including education and skills training, local transport and planning and housing. Local government, working with business, will know how to boost competitiveness and tap into an area’s specialisms much better than any central planner in Whitehall.

Devolution will be most effective when it puts business at its core. The ultimate goal is to create vibrant local and regional economies, each competing to deliver efficient transport systems and workers with the right skills. However, if local authorities seek to avoid political responsibility for devolved issues or to boost their coffers by hiking taxes and creating obstacles to business, the great opportunities of devolution will be lost.

The Communities and Local Government (CLG) Select Committee has announced an inquiry into the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill.

The committee will examine a variety of devolution issues, looking at the lessons which can be learned from City Deals, whether the Greater Manchester devolution deal provides a model for other areas, and how the Devolution Bill will build on local accountability.

Among other issues, the Committee will also examine the current devolution plans for London in relation to the Bill and how the devolution of health spending to Greater Manchester will affect delivery of health services locally.

Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, said:

Devolving power to local areas is the right way to help boost economic growth across the country and can potentially deliver more effective and efficient public services.

As a Committee we will want to examine whether this Bill can help deliver real devolution, making services responsive and accountable to local people, and how far the Greater Manchester model is a template for other areas.

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