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Dead hand of council bureaucracy ‘will turn metro mayor into toothless tiger’

Dead hand of council bureaucracy ‘will turn metro mayor into toothless tiger’

🕔04.Aug 2016

The West Midlands first elected metro mayor will have wholly inadequate powers and is likely to be shackled by a committee of local council leaders, a senior Labour politician has claimed.

In a withering critique of plans for the new system, West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson says the proposed mayoral powers fall a long way short of the Government’s ambitions to develop a Midlands Engine of economic growth.

He claims the limited powers proposed “have been framed to protect the control of council leaders rather than empower an elected mayor to tackle the issues that the people of the West Midlands will be voting on in 2017.”

Describing the mayor, who will be elected next May, as a “toothless tiger”, Mr Jamieson once again raises the prospect of Ministers shelving the West Midlands’ £8 billion devolution deal unless the mayor is given substantial executive powers over economic development, transport and housing.

A spokesperson for the Commissioner said:

The Commissioner will be meeting senior government figures and key civil servants over the coming weeks. Government’s willingness to engage with the Commissioner is a clear signal that they also want a strong Mayor who can deliver for the region and they have high aspirations for the role.

The PCC has made similar comments before but the scale of his attack in a formal submission to the mayoral consultation process is unprecedented.

He accuses the seven metropolitan council leaders who make up the West Midlands Combined Authority cabinet of being determined to decide “what the mayor cannot do” rather than what the mayor can do:

It would appear that the proposed mayor has been given as few powers as possible, with any prospect of an executive function being hampered by the overriding authority of the cabinet. This raises the question of whether an impotent or smothered mayor will demonstrate value for money and deliver the high ambitions for economic development and civic leadership.

Furthermore, it should be considered whether lodging powers for strategic continuity and relationship-building is best served by a cabinet of ever changing council leaders rather than a mayor with a four-year democratic mandate.

Mr Jamieson gives several examples of how the council leaders will be able to block the mayor’s policies. The mayor’s budget can be rejected if two-thirds of the leaders vote against. Compulsory purchase powers passing from the Homes and Communities Agency to the mayor can also be blocked by individual councils.

The PCC comments:

With such limited powers it is difficult to envisage how a prospective mayor could guarantee delivery on manifesto comments relating to housing.

He notes that WMCA has refused to set a salary for the incoming mayor, and warns that this may suppress interest from “potential high calibre candidates”.

Some of the most critical remarks are reserved for the seven West Midlands council leaders who will make up the WMCA cabinet, which will be chaired by the mayor.

Mr Jamieson says the nature of the cabinet “raises troubling questions” and he goes on to suggest that the cabinet is actually nothing more than a committee of council leaders rather than an executive decision making body, and is set up to favour “local government bureaucracy over the empowerment of individual decision makers”.

He adds that a cabinet, unelected and imposed on the mayor, is “a unique prospect in British politics” and will be composed of members with different political allegiances to the democratically elected mayor.

Ironically, it is a cabinet set up that no local authority leader would even consider accepting in  their own governance structure.

Mr Jamieson doubts whether the council leaders, with busy workloads of their own, will have the time or capacity to assist the mayor in developing strategic policies as well as holding the mayor to account. He describes the cabinet as “unaccountable” and raises doubts about proposals for a scrutiny committee consisting of one member form each of the WMCA councils.

He warns that the mayor will have no powers to dismiss “under-performing” cabinet members and accuses the council leaders of treating the mayor as “a threat that has to be managed or constrained”.

Only two declared candidates for West Midlands mayor have been confirmed. Siôn Simon and Steve Bedser are contesting a Labour party selection race and the result will be declared early next week. It has been reported that Andy Street, chief executive of John Lewis and chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP, is in line to be the Conservative candidate for mayor, but Mr Street is yet to declare.

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