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Dale’s Diary: West Midlands metro mayor no one wants (except Sion Simon)

Dale’s Diary: West Midlands metro mayor no one wants (except Sion Simon)

🕔07.Jun 2016

The general reaction when it emerged that West Midlands council leaders wanted to pay the region’s elected metro mayor as little as £30,000 a year was ‘who on earth will we get for that?’

It is becoming clear however that a low salary for a big job is all part of the plan.

It is quite difficult to find a politician – Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat – in the West Midlands who actually wants a metro mayor, or at least is prepared to say so in public.

The Parliamentary order establishing the West Midlands Combined Authority was approved yesterday and WMCA will hold its inaugural meeting this Friday (June 10). But there is little enthusiasm for the new body from most of the region’s MPs, and outright hostility from some to the metro mayor, who will be elected in May 2017.

The leaders of Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry, Sandwell, Dudley, Walsall and Wolverhampton councils will be happy with what they see as a reinvention of the old West Midlands county council, with the important distinction that the WMCA cabinet is appointed and not directly elected.

The council leaders will have their own portfolios, transport, economic development, skills etc, and won’t even need to bother with direct elections. All they have to do is keep the mayor under control by seeking to shackle his powers. What’s not to like?

What they fear is an elected mayor with a huge democratic mandate who might wish to shake things up and, crucially, could even persuade the Government to hand more powers to the mayor.

The council leaders and most councillors don’t want a metro mayor, but they recognise there is no option in order to cash in on an £8 billion devolution deal. Don’t be fooled into thinking they will quietly accept a mayor. They won’t.

We are now faced with the surreal possibility that the Labour party, odds on favourites to win the metro mayor election, may only be able to find one candidate prepared to run – step forward MEP Siôn Simon whose impeccable connections to the top of the party surely make it a certainty he will be the candidate even if other people come forward before the close of nominations this Friday.

It is unthinkable that Labour will approve a shortlist of one candidate – a white, middle aged male. Isn’t it a matter of fairness under the party’s diversity rules that members are at least given the chance to back a BME and/or a woman candidate?

What does Mr Simon stand for? It is impossible to answer this question because he has been unwilling to mount any type of public campaign. It’s been an open secret for a year or more that the former Erdington MP would put himself forward for selection, and indeed he did so yesterday, but we are still no nearer knowing his views on the big issues facing the West Midlands.

At the start of the year he sought to play down speculation about his future by proclaiming it was all too early to talk about the metro mayor election. As for launching a campaign now, he says he is far too busy concentrating on the EU referendum to even think about being mayor.

Yes, yes, this is all very well. But surely sooner or later the metro mayor-elect might wish to share with the public some of the radical policies he proposes to endorse when he takes on his £30,000 role, cutting by more than a half his current salary as an MEP incidentally. Given Labour’s past form, the first opportunity voters will have to learn about Mr Simon’s plans is after he is chosen as the party’s candidate for metro mayor. We are hopeful that Mr Simon, who it us understood has assembled a team to help develop his policies, will begin to roll out his campaign.

As for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, no one from either party has expressed a desire to be metro mayor of the West Midlands. The only other candidate willing to give Mr Simon a run for his money is former CBI boss Lord Digby Jones who has spent a long time saying he may run as an Independent, but never quite gets around to doing so.  Can’t imagine a £30,000 salary would be very attractive to Digby.

Perhaps this is all a self-deprecating West Midlands thing. After all, there is no shortage of high profile mayoral candidates in Greater Manchester where shadow home secretary Andy Burnham is seeking the nomination for Labour alongside MP Ivan Lewis and police commissioner Tony Lloyd.

It would be presumptuous to imagine that Greg Clark, the Communities Secretary, will be casting his eye over Chamberlain Files in order to take the pulse of politics in the West Midlands. But if any of his advisers should read this article, please ask Greg to get a grip, before it is too late.

The Kerslake Review into Birmingham council’s governance failings has a lot going for it, but one aspect is based more in hope than expectation – the somewhat naïve view that all would be well if the political parties could just get on a bit better with each other.

The latest letter from Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel chair John Crabtree to Communities Secretary Greg Clark praises Labour council leader John Clancy’s “positive and proactive approach to cross-party engagement” which has “received the co-operation of the two opposition party leaders”.

Sadly, since then things have gone downhill a bit.

The Conservatives demanded the resignation of children’s services cabinet member Brigid Jones, effectively accusing her of misleading the council over the true state of children’s social care, and have also gone on the attack over transparency, openness and equalities cabinet member Waseem Zaffar’s comments in 2014 about “state-supported terrorism” in Israel.

Cllr Clancy has been forced to concede a 90 minute debate on children’s social care at the next city council meeting. Cllr Jones’ cabinet place may depend on the level of support she receives from Labour councillors, as well as her own performance in replying to criticism.

As for Cllr Zaffar, the leader of the council is yet to respond to a letter sent on 1st June from Tory equality and community cohesion spokesman Ewan Mackey demanding to know how Cllr Zaffar can “retain the confidence of the Jewish community”.

Sources suggest Cllr Zaffar, promoted to the cabinet in May, is under no threat of the sack. The brutal truth is, as far as Labour’s alleged anti-Semitic remarks are concerned, claiming that Israel is guilty of state-supported terrorism is pretty mainstream stuff.

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