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‘Devolution’s dead in the water without a mayor – that’s fact, not cynicism’

‘Devolution’s dead in the water without a mayor – that’s fact, not cynicism’

🕔15.May 2015

Further evidence, if any were needed, that the north is outpacing Birmingham and the West Midlands in the race for devolution emerged yesterday when Sheffield, West Yorkshire and the North East took pragmatic decisions to reconsider their opposition to elected mayors.

They really had little choice following George Osborne’s announcement that only regions with metro mayors would be considered for maximum devolution of the type being handed out to Greater Manchester – gaining extra budgets and direct control of police, housing, transport, economic development and health.

As the Chancellor put it:

It’s right that people have a single point of accountability, someone they elect, who takes the decisions and carries the can.

Meanwhile, here in the West Midlands, where councils tend to move at a glacial pace, the ghastly truth is becoming clear: Greater Birmingham is so far down Mr Osborne’s list for full devolution that it may not even figure at all.

Naturally, those of us daring to express such a view are portrayed as dangerous malcontents.

I’ve been kicking around Birmingham city council for long enough not to worry that officials have taken to describing me as cynical and, in the case of policy executive officer Tony Smith, as someone suffering from an acute case of the grumps.

The grumpy bit I plead guilty to. Who wouldn’t be a bit miserable after writing about the council’s shortcomings for so many years? As to cynicism, I prefer realism, or possibly scepticism.

But don’t take my word for the devolution debacle. The respected think tank Centre for Cities has placed Greater Birmingham in the fourth tier of local authorities likely to qualify for maximum devolution. We are way behind London, Greater Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Cambridge, Liverpool Newcastle and Glasgow in the queue for devolved powers and there is no sign of Greater Birmingham making it into even the second tier any time soon.

Centre for Cities acting chief executive Andrew Carter comments:

Both Bristol and Birmingham, despite good progress, still lack the robust city region governance institutions and investment frameworks and as a result haven’t been able to strike any further devo deals, beyond their initial City Deal, with Government.

Birmingham city council is usually keen to promote Centre for Cities, but Tony Smith and his chums have been strangely silent about the organisation’s latest pronouncements. It is clear though that Mr Carter is as usual spot-on – Birmingham lacks the “robust city region governance institutions and investment frameworks” required to secure maximum devolution.

And if lacking robust governance isn’t bad enough, Mr Osborne’s insistence that combined authorities must have metro mayors to qualify for full devolution will probably keep Greater Birmingham on the sidelines for a very long time.

No doubt Mr Smith is miffed that yesterday’s ‘Devolution Declaration’ by the Labour-dominated Core Cities group was eclipsed by the Tory Chancellor’s ‘real deal’ on devolution. The declaration wasn’t required at all since Mr Osborne will give the major English cities all they desire, as long as they opt for elected mayors. What’s not to like about that?

In the case of Birmingham, though, the mayoral issue isn’t the only hurdle that must be overcome. Here are a few difficulties:

  • Can Greater Birmingham ever qualify for maximum devolution while the city council is effectively in special measures? The Kerslake Review exposed years of poor leadership, lack of a positive vision and the absence of a strategic plan that anyone could understand. A Government-imposed improvement panel is overseeing implementation of the Future Council Plan, and commissioners are running schools and children’s social services. And Birmingham wants to take on more responsibilities?
  • Talks about forming a combined authority have been taking place for at least three years. It is possible that a new administrative body will be cobbled together later this year, but it is far from certain that the Birmingham-Black Country combined authority will include Coventry and Solihull, in which case it will not represent the region’s economic footprint and will not make it to the top of Mr Osborne’s devo-max list.
  • And finally, the mayoral question. Can the councils of the West Midlands ever find the courage and the foresight to accept Mr Osborne’s game-changing decision? Can the councils stop obsessing about who might or might not be the mayor, bite the bullet and follow Greater Manchester’s pragmatic lead? Taking a gamble on the Government eventually backing down and allowing Greater Birmingham to have devolution without a metro mayor on the grounds that you can’t ignore the Midlands powerhouse for ever would be foolish, but that is what I expect to happen.

The Chamberlain Files, and our publisher RJF Public Affairs, passionately supports the devolution cause and will continue to promote the case, including through the Think Birmingham campaign working closely with Centre for Cities. The challenge now is not in convincing Government to offer devolution, but in encouraging our elected leaders, and their officers, to work together to secure a deal that is being tantalisingly dangled above us.

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