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Don’t panic: West Midlands metro mayor won’t have unlimited powers

Don’t panic: West Midlands metro mayor won’t have unlimited powers

🕔27.Aug 2015

With the West Midlands edging nervously towards a directly elected metro mayor, it’s time to address head on claims that this will place unlimited power into the hands of one person. If Greater Manchester is anything to go by, a mayor will be far removed from the autocratic figure that opponents of change fear, writes Paul Dale.

The writing was on the wall for local government when a few months before the General Election the 10 Greater Manchester council leaders reluctantly agreed to have a mayor in return for a £1 billion devolution package from the Chancellor.

George Osborne subsequently made it clear that maximum devolution for city regions would come at a price – combined authorities must sign up for the metro mayor model. He has repeated this many times since then with the result that most of the big English cities and regions are negotiating mayoral devolution deals, including Birmingham and the West Midlands, with a September 4 deadline ahead of the Autumn Statement to convince the Chancellor that their plans to develop the Midland Engine to rival the Northern Powerhouse are sound.

The advantages of a mayor, as set out by Mr Osborne, are that for the first time the buck will stop at the desk of a single, accountable, elected, leader. Businesses, the public, foreign investors and Government Ministers will know who is in charge, and who to blame if things go wrong.

This is not to the liking of traditionalists, some of whom are still opposed even to the leader-cabinet system of local government and long for a return to the town hall committee system. They rail against the “American personality politics” surrounding a mayor.

In the case of Manchester the council leaders, mostly Labour, were accused of engaging in a political stitch-up. Ten politicians took the decision to have a mayor without a referendum or much in the way of consultation, raising complaints about abuse of the democratic process. Similar claims are emerging at political grass roots level in the West Midlands.

However, the direct powers enjoyed by Greater Manchester’s first elected mayor, who will follow on from interim post holder Tony Lloyd in May 2017, while certainly greater than under the council leader and cabinet system, are very far from all embracing.

As Ed Cox of IPPR North writes, the directly elected mayor will chair meetings and allocate responsibilities to a cabinet made up of the leaders of Greater Manchester’s 10 local authorities (GMCA).

The mayor’s main powers will be over housing, transport and policing.

He will control a Housing Investment Fund, worth £300 million, with a view to providing 10,000 to 15,000 new homes over 10 years.

The mayor receives strategic planning powers and can design a framework to identify Manchester’s future housing and land requirements and help to guide investment and development.

There are safeguards built into the system though.

To get the plan through, the mayor will require the unanimous support of all 10 local authority leaders, and that may not be straightforward given the Labour-Conservative-Liberal Democrat split across the GMCA.

The mayor will also have responsibility for a devolved, multi-year transport budget and for the management of franchised bus services –if the Greater Manchester Combined Authority decides to re-franchise its network.

The mayor will act as the Police and Crime Commissioner for the city region, but this was something that Tony Lloyd was doing already in his former role so this is not a ‘new power’.

It is possible city and metro mayors may be handed powers to extend Sunday shopping hours, the Government is consulting on this at the moment.

Not only will the mayor require unanimous support from his cabinet to get a planning and housing strategy approved, anything else that the mayor intends to do can be overturned if two-thirds of the cabinet votes to reject the plans.

Considerable powers are to remain with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and are outside of the mayor’s direct control. These include wider economic development, business support, UKTI advice, apprenticeships and further education.

The GMCA will be responsible for the next phase of the work programme and other employment support services and, significantly, for the £6.5 billion devolved health and social care budget.

In all of these matters the mayor has but a single vote alongside his 10 local authority counterparts.

IPPR North concludes that the way the new system has been set up means the mayor “may get plenty of attention and soft power as a result, but in reality they will have little say over the big budgets and will be shackled to the decision-making processes of their combined authority peers”.

If the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill passes through Parliament as planned, the Greater Manchester mayor and indeed the West Midlands mayor will have powers to appoint a deputy. It will also be the case that leaders of the combined authority council cannot run for mayor – they would have to stand down first before contesting an election.

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