MPs set election day, but still no news on powers for West Midlands metro mayor
The final hurdle standing in the way of a metro mayor for the West Midlands has been cleared after MPs took less than 45 minutes to approve the first election next May.
The Draft West Midlands Combined Authority (Election of Mayor) Order 2016 was passed by a House of Commons delegated legislation committee by 10 votes to two.
But voters living in the seven metropolitan council areas that make up the West Midlands Combined Authority are still no nearer to knowing exactly how the mayor will be able to take control of a multi-million pound budget and run transportation, economic development, skills and housing.
Consultation on a package of powers proposed by the combined authority closed on August 21. WMCA says it will release details of what people and organisations had to say once the Department for Communities and Local Government has had a chance to consider the response to the consultation.
If WMCA gets its way the mayor’s powers will be strictly limited, enabling council leaders to overrule anything they do not like. Labour mayoral candidate Siôn Simon recently became the latest politician to criticise WMCA, describing the proposed powers as “an administrative attempt to weaken the mayor and minimise the possibilities for progress”.
Local government minister Andrew Percy told the delegated legislation committee detailed Government proposals for mayoral powers would emerge “later in the parliamentary calendar”, but assured MPs the matter would be resolved “before we proceed to the election”.
Mr Percy pointed out that an £8 billion devolution deal agreed last year between WMCA and the Government had at its heart the need for an elected mayor:
The devolution agreement announced in November 2015 provided an offer of powers and budgets from Government, on the basis that the area would deliver certain reforms and measures, including adopting a directly elected mayor covering the whole of the combined authority area.
That agreement stated that the mayor for the West Midlands would be responsible for a consolidated, devolved transport budget and franchised bus services, following the introduction of the necessary primary legislation. Those services will support the combined authority’s delivery of smart and integrated ticketing across the constituent councils—something I am sure local residents will welcome.
The mayor will also take responsibility for an identified key route network of local authority roads and for driving the delivery of housing and improvements to housing stock within the combined authority. The mayor will, of course, work with the combined authority, which, in turn, will be responsible for the devolved funding to the West Midlands, which will be £36.5 million per year over a 30-year period.
The mayor will be expected to work closely with the local leaders who sit on the combined authority board, and together they will drive forward the economic opportunities presented by devolution. The mayor will act as the chairman, or chairwoman, of the combined authority, providing a single, nationally prominent voice for the area that helps to drive forward the devolution agenda.
MPs questioned the timing of the West Midlands mayoral election. The first mayor, to be elected in May 2017, will serve three years. The next mayoral election, in May 2020, will coincide with the General Election and the new mayor will serve four years.
But the mayoral elections as planned will never coincide with Birmingham city council elections, which from 2018 will be once every four years. Some MPs believe it will be difficult to persuade Birmingham voters to go to polling stations to elect a mayor when there are no council elections.
Mr Percy rejected suggestions that the Government under new Prime Minister Theresa May might row back on metro mayors:
It is very difficult to design a system that does not include a mayor and gives the level of accountability that we require and expect, particularly given the significant powers that will be conferred as part of these devolution deals.
Long-time mayoral critic John Spellar, Labour MP for Warley, accused the Government of “putting the cart before the horse” by approving an election next May before the powers to be handed to the mayor have been decided. Mr Spellar said:
Given that it is unclear as yet—it has not been thought out and certainly not agreed—what powers, levers and various opportunities will be open to the mayor, why are the Government going for the election of the mayor in a few months without knowing what the job will be?
He described the £36 million a year to be paid to the WMCA councils by the Government as part of the devolution deal as a “pittance” and claimed that council leaders signed up to the deal “in the face of unremitting attack and pressure”.
Shadow local government minister Grahame Morris said Labour firmly supported the principle of devolution but only if “meaningful powers and appropriate resources” were handed down to local communities.
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