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Metro mayor the price to pay for ‘exceptional’ devolution deal, says WMCA chair

Metro mayor the price to pay for ‘exceptional’ devolution deal, says WMCA chair

🕔04.Sep 2015

The West Midlands will probably have to accept a metro mayor if it is to get the best possible devolution deal from the Government, the leader of the region’s shadow combined authority has admitted.

Councillor Bob Sleigh said council leaders “accepted the reality of the situation” and it was clear future governance arrangements would have to be looked at to secure “the devo deal of devo deals”.

Speaking exclusively to Chamberlain Files in his first major interview since being appointed chair of the shadow West Midlands Combined Authority, Cllr Sleigh, the Tory leader of Solihull Council, said:

We recognise that if it is to be an exceptional deal there will need to be discussions about a metro mayor.

The question is what powers would the mayor have, how will he link into the combined authority?

We would be letting the West Midlands down if we didn’t negotiate a real game changer. We are up for discussions.

He accepted it was highly likely a metro mayor would also act as West Midlands police commissioner and take charge of the fire and rescue services.

WMCA’s devolution submission will be signed off by Cllr Sleigh today and sent to the Treasury.

The seven West Midlands councils are in a race with other English local authorities to get a slice of a £60 billion pot that the Government is considering devolving to combined authorities – but only if the business case put forward stacks up.

The submission proposes giving WMCA powers and budgets to run transportation, economic development, skills and culture. It is not thought at this stage to follow Greater Manchester down the route of running health and social services.

Although precise figures are not being mentioned, it is claimed the deal could be worth several billion pounds in economic uplift to the West Midlands over a 15-year period.

Cllr Sleigh described the bid as “an opening gambit” and said WMCA was “very much up for negotiation” with Chancellor George Osborne about the precise powers and budgets to be devolved to the combined authority.

Exact details of the submission are not being disclosed while negotiations take place, but Cllr Sleigh said the bid revolved around:

  • Transportation: plans to roll out extensions to the Midland Metro tram system, sprint bus services and develop a London Oyster-style single ticket for passengers using buses, trains and trams in the West Midlands.
  • Economic Development: huge expansion of the business rates retention scheme, allowing councils to retain and borrow against rates from new businesses moving into the area. Creation of a ‘super strategic economic plan’ with a single investment pot aimed at eradicating the £16 billion West Midlands productivity gap.
  • Skills: a strategic plan to match the workforce with the skills required to take the jobs flooding into the region, particularly in new technologies and medical science. The three local enterprise partnerships will play a key role.
  • Culture and tourism: a surprise inclusion in the package, based around promoting parts of the region where tourism is big business. Some councils, including Birmingham, have already considered and rejected imposing a tourism tax, but this is something the Chancellor could be asked to look at.

Cllr Sleigh rejected criticism that the bid is vague and too modest and insisted the shadow combined authority had made incredible progress in less than a year.

We have been working through a range of ideas since last November. A level of confidence has been built up and people understand what it is we are trying to achieve.

We are putting forward a devolution deal that is ambitious which puts the West Midlands where it should be, at the front of the UK economy. The model we are using is radical and we think it is the best model around.

The prospectus going to the Government is very comprehensive. It is a hugely ambitious devolution proposal. There is a lot in there for the whole of the West Midlands relating to transportation, skills and new investment. A single investment fund will drive the economy massively.

There will also be an element of culture and tourism in our devolution deal for areas where that is important. This is a deal to promote tourism.

Cllr Sleigh said he didn’t want discussions to be “bogged down in governance issues” and stressed that a metro mayor would simply oversee the “big ticket items” such as transportation, regeneration, police and fire services.

He added:

The terms of reference are clear. We don’t cede any powers. This is about additionality, the big ticket items. It’s all about skills and transportation and a single investment fund.

We have offered assurances that this doesn’t change relationships. Solihull Council will still be Solihull Council.

He was speaking on the day that Warwickshire county council voted not to join WMCA on the grounds that the body would be dominated by Birmingham.

Cllr Sleigh said:

I think my appointment as chairman is a clear indication that this isn’t driven by Birmingham. But Birmingham is an extremely important partner and it’s no good saying it is not.

He said he fully expected to be confirmed as the first WMCA chair when the body formally begins work in April 2016. The position will be held for 12 months and is subject to re-appointment by the seven WMCA council leaders – five are Labour and two are Conservative.

Cllr Sleigh stressed that county and district council members of WMCA could be made full voting partners through the development of a local scheme under provisions contained in the devolution bill currently passing through Parliament.

We are operating under the 2009 Act currently which talks about constituent and non-constituent members of the CA. We recognise that non-constituent authorities won’t have a vote but what we are proposing to do is develop some local solutions to the problem.

We don’t know how many districts will come in but the intention is through the constitution rather than the scheme we can have a home grown solution around voting rights.

Cllr Sleigh, 66, who manages to hold down a job in industry as well as being the full time leader of Solihull Council, said he was very optimistic about the future and believed the combined authority could make a real difference to the West Midlands economy. The venture had a greater chance of succeeding than previous efforts at regional governance because the LEPs and business leaders were “fully on board and committed”.

He added:

The arrival of HS2 and all the stuff around that is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

There’s real growth potential for the West Midlands putting us in our right place as the engine room of the country.

Devolution is the order of the day and would have been whichever party won the General Election, but we have to put through a model based on evidence for the right way forward.

At the end of the day it’s getting people to jobs and moving people to places where the economy is growing. To develop a skills package that actually meets the needs of the West Midlands industry.

One of the combined authority’s first tasks will be to address the age-old problem of how best to promote the West Midlands to inward investors, in particular the extent to which the Greater Birmingham brand should be used.

Cllr Sleigh said:

WMCA is a working title for what we are trying to do. We do need to spend some time thinking about how we market the West Midlands across the national and international economy to drive inward investment. We will be working on the branding stuff as time progresses and see where that brings us. There could be different branding for different sectors of the area.

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