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Five things we learned at WMCA Board

Five things we learned at WMCA Board

🕔24.Jun 2017

Attending a West Midlands Combined Authority Board (WMCA) is not everyone’s idea of fun. Neither is it where you find out what’s really going on in the bowels of the Mayoral WMCA, writes Kevin Johnson.

That is not to say there is nothing to learn from WMCA meetings. Here are five things we thought worth sharing from yesterday’s AGM and Board.

New(ish) Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street chairs a business-like meeting. He does it with some style and in good humour. “First class”, as he would say.

But, as elsewhere in politics and even in the private sector, the real business is done outside Board meetings. In committees, corridors and cosy chats. The Labour and Conservative political groups meet immediately before the Board so they can sort their out their party lines in advance.

READ: Street works – mayor to appoint business advisory group.

There’s a lot going on in the WMCA.

Broadly, meetings take and accept the papers presented as a matter of routine. There shouldn’t be any surprises when business reaches the Board.

But, in many ways, these meetings undersell the work of the WMCA and councils as well as the Mayor. The gatherings give almost no clue of the political, personal and territorial effort or debates beneath the surface.

To coin a phrase, Board meetings knowingly undersell the Mayoral WMCA.

We did learn that the widely respected Jean Templeton of St Basil’s will chair the Mayor’s Homelessness Task Force.

You need to delve deep into the WMCA website (newly updated, now including information on the Mayor) – and in particular its Committee pages – to see the breadth and depth of the combined authority’s work.

We’ll do our best to shine some rays of sun onto the WMCA here on the Chamberlain Files. As we’ve remarked before, Claire Spencer – Birmingham city councillor and member of the WMCA Scrutiny Committee – does a great job of sharing, monitoring and explaining its work through her Twitter feed and blog.

There are ‘non-cons’ and ‘cons’ around the WMCA table.

Constituent and non-constituent members. Different classes of memberships.

On a few occasions, there were obvious divides. The non-cons hadn’t been consulted properly as to which of them would be their representative at Cabinet level. The Mayor’s structure had assumed Cllr Izzy Seccombe – Conservative leader of Warwickshire County Council who was awarded an OBE in last weekend’s Birthday Honours – would continue. Stratford had been missed off a committee. The non cons weren’t consulted properly by the Land Commission.

All minor spats that were handled with due diplomacy at the meeting.

Although Roger Lawrence, Labour leader of Wolverhampton and the WMCA’s political transport supremo, made one of those jovial asides that might reveal a truth. He suggested Cllr Chris Saint, Conservative leader of Stratford Council, should not only turn his microphone off so others could address yesterday’s meeting, but should “keep it off.”

‘Many a word said in jest’, and all that…

Don’t hold your breath for Devolution Deal 2 (or 3, or 4….).

Martin Reeves, Acting Chief Executive of the WMCA, tried to balance stating the bleedin’ obvious with maintaining some optimism about the prospects for further devolution.

But, there is no deal around the corner and whatever does come next is not likely to be a big, policy-based chunk of powers. The shiny deals are no more.

Nevertheless, Mr Reeves said he wanted the WMCA to channel its efforts through its devolution strategy committee and make sure they could respond dynamically to new opportunities.

Even Mayor Street didn’t pretend his Conservative colleagues in Government knew what they were doing or were about to make exciting offers.

Land and planning is the Mayoral WMCA’s biggest political challenge.

This is not a body that has the powers or appetite to tackle the region’s biggest political challenge, that of making enough functional land available for housing and employment. The WMCA has appointed PwC to help it respond to the Land Commission’s findings and recommendations.

It is clear there is no desire among the councils to give up or share any of their planning powers, a view expressed firmly by both Sandwell and Stratford’s leaders. More to the point, nobody wants to open up the can of worms that is the green belt.

Finally, you can rely on David Jamieson, the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, and the scrutiny committee chair, Cllr Peter Hughes, to make sure nothing is missed.

It took Mr PCC just seven minutes to pop up at the meeting with ‘some helpful contributions.’ Cllr Hughes, chair of Scrutiny, gave the longest verbal report of the meeting. HS2, the transport Swift Card and the Channel 4 bid were nowhere near as deserving of time.

Whilst having most of the Board meeting open to the public is transparent, it does not really provide a clear window into the WMCA.

They won’t be selling tickets for WMCA meetings any time soon. But, as Mayor Street seeks to implement his political mandate alongside his role chairing the WMCA bringing all the areas and parties together, these sessions might slowly become more interesting.

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