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Metro Mayor vote – the elephant in  the combined authority room

Metro Mayor vote – the elephant in the combined authority room

🕔23.Jun 2015

Any agreement with the Government by West Midlands political leaders for a directly elected metro mayor to oversee a new combined authority is certain to spark bitter protests in Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country, writes Paul Dale.

As the West Midlands councils edge ever closer to setting up a combined authority, a rather large and obvious elephant sits in the corner of the room.

Full devolution isn’t possible unless the region accepts a directly elected mayor. George Osborne, the chancellor, has made this clear. Lord Heseltine, the Government’s devolution midwife, underlined the mayoral dividing line at the GBSLEP annual meeting – you don’t have to have one, but if you don’t you won’t get much in the way of devolution.

The urgency of the situation is said to be dawning slowly on the leaders of Birmingham, Solihull, the Black Country councils, Coventry and Lichfield.

We are already light years behind Greater Manchester in terms of devolution, where ten council leaders bravely set aside their dislike of mayors, agreed to have one, and were instantly rewarded with a £1 billion devolution deal including control of part of the health budget.

The challenge for the West Midlands, according to Heseltine, is to see whether you can catch Greater Manchester. At the moment, it appears our friends in the north are about to lap us in the devolution marathon with the finishing post in sight.

The West Midlands leaders’ initial tactics were to get the combined authority up and running and then talk about a mayor. That’s now being refined with a grudging acceptance that a combined authority without a mayor doesn’t add up to a hill of beans in the Government’s eyes.

So the dilemma facing the council leaders now is simple: can we sell a mayor to the people?

This will be a difficult job, to say the least. Birmingham has twice rejected a mayor, first in 2001 when the city council held a consultative ballot, although to be fair a majority did vote in favour of two different types of mayor.

The ballot campaign was fought against a tsunami of scare stories from the anti-mayor brigade whose catch-line was ‘say no to an elected dictator’. Stories abounded of dodgy American mayors and how Birmingham would descend into a pit of corruption and debt.

In 2012, Birmingham and Coventry voted in binding mayoral referendums. Birmingham rejected an elected mayor by 58 to 42 per cent while Coventry rejected the idea by 64 to 36 per cent. A referendum in Manchester also threw out the mayoral proposal, although by a far closer 53 to 47 per cent.

In Birmingham today, and elsewhere across the West Midlands, particularly in the Black Country, there are the beginnings of a social media campaign demanding that people must have the right to vote in another referendum, or at least be consulted, before the region gets a metro mayor.

Steve McCabe, the Labour MP for Selly Oak, by no means generally regarded as a troublemaker, took to Facebook to state that he wasn’t against a combined authority but was “surprised an issue with such implications for local democracy not subject to any public test.”

“Would need to elect mayor but what about approving such an office. What about consent for that? Did anyone vote for it?” McCabe added.

Actually, lots of people did vote for it because the case for metro mayors featured in the Conservative General Election manifesto. The Tories won the election and are now doing what they said they would do, which seems reasonable.

McCabe’s argument is likely to strike a chord in Birmingham where only three years ago people voted fairly decisively against a mayor, although that was a city mayor rather than a regional metro mayor. The same can be said for Coventry, where feelings are running so high that a city council meeting was interrupted by protesters demanding a referendum on joining a ‘Birmingham-led’ combined authority

Chris Game highlighted on these pages the differences between what was before the citizens of Birmingham three years ago and the metro mayor proposition. 

Things would be a lot simpler were the Government to simply impose metro mayors and force the pace on combined authorities. But this seems unlikely to happen with Mr Osborne sticking to a well-tested formula that requests for a mayor must be bottom-up from communities and not forced top-down from Westminster.

Greater Manchester council leaders had to bite the bullet and opt for a mayor. They didn’t hold a referendum, probably because they feared the result would have been a resounding no vote.

Any attempt to hold a West Midlands ballot, whether formal or informal, would I can safely predict result in the rejection of a metro mayor by a comfortable majority, so misunderstood and toxic the notion has become. For many people, including councillors and some MPs, the issue hasn’t really moved on from the elected dictator campaign 14 years ago. They don’t want a mayor and will do anything not to have one imposed upon them.

Some brave decision making is called for. If council leaders want the best for the West Midlands, and that means maximum devolution, they have to opt for a mayor – and be prepared to face down a crescendo of noisy protests.

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