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Metro mayor ‘a sensitive issue’ as West Midlands devolution talks drag on

Metro mayor ‘a sensitive issue’ as West Midlands devolution talks drag on

🕔01.Oct 2015

West Midlands councils are struggling to strike a devolution deal, with shadow combined authority leaders yet to agree draft proposals with Ministers after four weeks of tough negotiations, writes Paul Dale.

Talks about wide-ranging plans to devolve transportation, economic development and workplace skills from Whitehall to WMCA under the leadership of an elected metro mayor have been taking place since September 4.

A leaked draft submission from the councils suggests the mayor would be able to levy a council tax precept and impose supplementary business rates without holding a referendum. It is unclear whether a West Midlands mayor’s decisions could be vetoed by a majority of council leaders on the combined authority, as is the case with the Greater Manchester devolution deal.

There are also plans to spend £15 million a year from the Government’s road fund to make the M6 Toll road free, and for the combined authority to take control of air passenger duty at Birmingham Airport. A £500 million housing loan fund is envisaged as well as an £8 billion investment fund tied largely to economic development off the back of HS2.

Leaders of the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils had believed the Chancellor, George Osborne, would rubber stamp a deal that could then be announced and praised as one of the largest in the country at next week’s Conservative conference.

That is now highly unlikely according to sources close to the negotiations.

Instead, Mr Osborne is expected to announce two successful devolution deals – one for the north-east and one for the Sheffield city region. Both will involve a metro mayor – which will be a major U-turn for North East Combined Authority, which includes Durham and Northumberland county councils, and Newcastle, Sunderland, North Tyneside and South Tyneside councils.

Chamberlain Files understands a major sticking point for the West Midlands council leaders is the overall financial value of the devolution deal and the length of time it will run for.

The leaders know they have to convince sceptical councillors a metro mayor “is the price we have to pay” for a deal, but there are questions about how generous an £8 billion investment fund really is and also how much inward investment will in any case flow to the West Midlands off the back of HS2 with or without a devolution deal.

The authoritative Local Government Chronicle has reported that the seven West Midlands council leaders are struggling to convince the Treasury to sign off a deal. It could also be the case that Mr Osborne is struggling to convince the council leaders to sign on the dotted line, partly because they have been unable to overcome the sensitivities of the metro mayor issue.

Coventry council is fast emerging as the flakiest of the seven combined authority members. Labour councillors were reportedly furious to discover from the leaked submission that a metro mayor was almost inevitable, and would have tax raising powers. Coventry’s Labour council leader Ann Lucas is said by the Coventry Telegraph to be fighting for her political life amid allegations of unnecessary secrecy over the devolution bid.

Bob Sleigh, the leader of Solihull Council and chair of the shadow West Midlands Combined Authority told Chamberlain Files the talks were highly sensitive and had to remain confidential under the orders of the Treasury. Cllr Sleigh said:

We have put forward an ambitious and complex package of proposals that are the subject of ongoing negotiations.

He refused to speculate on how close the council leaders are to reaching agreement.

Cllr Sleigh was called to the Treasury on Tuesday this week to discuss developments. WMCA deputy chair Darren Cooper, the leader of Sandwell Council, left the Labour conference in Brighton mid-way through Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to attend the Treasury meeting.

Birmingham city council chief executive Mark Rogers and Coventry council chief executive Martin Reeves have taken part in numerous meetings with civil servants and Ministers in an attempt to break the deadlock.

Any deal reached with the Treasury would have to be approved by each of the seven councils – Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Sandwell and Dudley – before the combined authority can start work and the devolved powers can be handed down.

Five of the councils are Labour controlled and two are run by the Conservatives. A majority of councillors across the West Midlands, from all political parties, are thought to remain opposed in principle to city mayors and metro mayors. Birmingham and Coventry voted decisively against having city mayors in a 2012 referendum.

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