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Metro mayor won’t have much power, ‘but I’m OK with that’ says Sion Simon

Metro mayor won’t have much power, ‘but I’m OK with that’ says Sion Simon

🕔19.Jul 2016

Siôn Simon, hot favourite to become the first elected metro mayor of the West Midlands, says he is glad he won’t have many powers if he gets the job. In fact, he prefers it that way because he wants decisions to be made by consensus.

The West Midlands Combined Authority is consulting on the role of the mayor who will be elected in May 2017, and is proposing that the region’s seven metropolitan council leaders should be able to veto the mayoral budget and policies if that is thought necessary.

It’s all a far cry from a general perception, stoked deliberately by opponents of change, that metro mayors will possess sweeping powers on a par with elected officials in the United States.

Perhaps it is appropriate that we are talking in Birmingham where in 2001 councillors from the three main political parties joined forces to campaign against having a city mayor, or “an elected dictator” as they put it in a rather nasty but highly effective campaign.

Eleven years later, Birmingham voted in a binding referendum against having an elected city mayor, so it would be optimistic to suggest there is any great enthusiasm for metro mayors today.

Mr Simon, a Labour MEP and former Birmingham Erdington MP, will chair WMCA and in theory will have overall control of an £8 billion devolution package, will oversee transportation, economic regeneration, skills and housing across the West Midlands region if he is elected.

He admits though that the powers to be handed to him are largely of the ‘soft’ variety, that is to say the ability to bring politicians and organisations together, to knock heads if necessary, and of course having a direct line to the Government to lobby for the interests of the West Midlands.

Mr Simon said:

I agree that at day one it is a fairly minimalist prospectus. It is at the bottom end of what you might expect a mayor’s powers to be. But I am OK with that.

That is the political reality. The Tory Government brought this in and I don’t kid myself that there’s been a huge clamour among the public or the political parties or anyone who sees this as a good thing.

We are not getting metro mayors through popular acclaim. It is Tory Government policy. People are sceptical so it is right to treat this in a cautious way.

We are not going to succeed by having mayor who comes in as the big I am with an attitude that I have got the powers and everyone has to do as I say. The way to succeed is to build a consensus.

I don’t want to be in a position where I have powers to ignore the wishes of the seven metropolitan council leaders. I want to be in a position where the seven leaders and I agree because we want the same things for the region.

What we have to do is to make it work. The legislation is designed to encourage regional mayors to bid for more powers. This is the point at which we start, but it is a constantly evolving dynamic process.

He has published a manifesto which he describes as a “direction of travel not set in stone”.

Populist proposals include a one year freeze on all bus, rail and metro fares as well as subsidised charges for jobseekers. Asked how he would be able to bring this about Mr Simon says he has had preliminary talks with bus, rail and tram operators but is unwilling to go into details because “it is going to be a long and delicate process”.

He said:

It’s not just a question of me talking to the bus operators there needs to be a broad conversation between everyone. We are heading towards a future of much more integration and cooperation between regional government and private operators.

We will have to talk to the bus and rail companies about it but I have no doubt it can be done.

We are moving into a new era where regional authorities will set the strategic direction for transportation. We don’t know how that will change things. What’s clear is the new regional bodies will have increasingly more input into the decisions.

He wants to build more council and social housing, something that is not directly a mayoral power but is definitely an area where he hopes to influence the seven West Midlands council leaders. Simon says the public sector must take a lead because private house builders are sitting on land banks waiting for prices to go up.

I find it hard to believe it’s been possible for so long that there’s been a shortfall in house building by the private sector and that this doesn’t have something to do with the private house building sector seeking to maintain prices and margins at an advantageous level.

He rejects suggestions that it is hard to find suitable land for housing development.

The West Midlands is not full. It is a relatively dense conurbation but it isn’t bursting at the seams. There are a lot of brownfield sites that could be developed for housing.”

He is urging MPs and the Government to take a realistic view of the likely low turnout at next year’s mayoral election which is taking place in a year when there are no elections for the seven metropolitan councils, thereby making it even more difficult to persuade people to vote.

He added:

We are asking people to go out and vote for something that hasn’t previously existed. It is hard enough to get people to vote for something they are familiar with, so it will be even harder when electing a mayor.

Mr Simon says the second mayoral election in 2020 will be an important benchmark:

Three years later when the second election is held if we don’t have a significantly bigger turnout and a higher level of public engagement then we will have failed. This whole project entails fostering a sense of regional identity and ownership and people need to realise that the mayor and combined authority are making a difference to their lives.

I recognise that scepticism is widespread and there are parts of the region where this is more ingrained than others.  If we can improve people’s public transport experience and improve housing they may begin to be less sceptical and think there is something in regional governance after all.

Siôn Simon is contesting the Labour party nomination to stand for metro mayor against former Birmingham city council cabinet member Steve Bedser. The result is expected to be announced on August 7.

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