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New chair to take helm at WMCA – but, what’s it been up to?

New chair to take helm at WMCA – but, what’s it been up to?

🕔05.May 2017

It’s all over bar the counting, writes Kevin Johnson, as Mayoral candidates turn their attention from campaigning back to the WMCA. 

The polls have closed and the count begins now (9.00am, Friday).

The candidates can do nothing but wait (and tweak their winning/losing speeches).

They – particularly Siôn Simon and Andy Street – might contemplate what and how they might actually do if they assume office on Monday morning.

They have manifestos for the three year term and plans for their first days in office.

But just what is this thing called the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and what has it been up to?

During the campaign, two things have been clear. There are widely held objections to the very idea of a Metro Mayor.

Secondly, the WMCA has low levels of awareness.

Indeed, many of the candidates do not agree with the Mayoral model and most have plenty to say on the lack of representation and levels of transparency and scrutiny around the WMCA.

On an already long to-do list, the new Mayor will need to build trust and understanding into the very organisation of which they chair, whilst at the same time allowing councils to maintain their own identities and purpose.

Such criticisms are valid and we would expect to see some changes to how the WMCA works relatively quickly.

But, any observer of cross region working who has been on another planet for the last two years would be amazed by progress if they were to return to planet West Midlands today. The level of partnership working across the region, compared to just two years ago, should not be underplayed.

As we reported last week, Marketing Birmingham has been metamorphosed into the West Midlands Growth Company under the WMCA umbrella.

The region’s universities are now being further embedded into the work of the WMCA – as well as helping to fund the new Growth Company, they will also invest in the director of university partnerships role and their work.

One of the WMCA’s first acts was to establish three commissions. There has been praise for the work of the Land and Mental Health Commissions. The Productivity and Skills Commission has just launched its call for evidence.

Meeting the region’s housing and employment land needs is likely to be the biggest political headache for the incoming Mayor.

The Combined Authority has recently awarded a £53M grant to the Land Reclamation Fund to support projects in the Black Country and is working on proposals for housing action zones throughout the region.

This Saturday, WMCA is helping to stage Walking out of Darkness, an opportunity for everyone to walk together in support and unity for individuals and families suffering from Mental Health Difficulties and those who have lost loved ones by suicide. It helps to kick off Mental Health Awareness Week.

Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) is the transport arm of the WMCA, re-branded from Centro and is the organisational base upon which the Combined Authority has been built.

TfWM has just launched a six-week public consultation period on the draft 2026 Delivery Plan for Transport.

It sets out the schemes which will deliver a large amount of the Combined Authority’s long term transport strategy Movement for Growth.

Public consultation will finish at the end of Friday 9 June 2017.

HS2 is, to deploy an overused phrase, the game changer for the West Midlands in both transport and economic terms. HS2 provides the spine to WMCA’s economic growth strategy.

WMCA has a range of projects which aim to maximise the potential and connectivity of HS2 across the region, including:

  • Curzon Investment Plan
  • UK Central Hub
  • City of Wolverhampton Interchange Programme
  • Coventry City Centre Regeneration
  • UK Central Plus – Connecting Coventry
  • East Birmingham & North Solihull Project.

The new Mayor will walk into office with a Strategic Economic Plan in place. That is likely to see some reworking, especially if Siôn Simon wins. James Burn, the Green candidate, has been particularly critical of the current economic approach during the campaign. But there is plenty of data and thinking in place.

The WMCA and new Mayor will want to take a pro-active role in shaping the Industrial Strategy White Paper later this year.

The WMCA has a long way to go before it can be deemed representative, open and transparent. The Mayor must address these issues in governance, cultural and operational terms.

Separately and together, the Mayor and the WMCA must develop scrutiny arrangements that command confidence.

But it is an exaggeration to say that WMCA is a “secretive” body. It does needs to find new ways to consult, engage and share its work.

In common with many public bodies which now hold their meetings in public, there are perhaps too many occasions on which it conducts business in the private section of the agenda and too many times when papers are not published in advance.

You only have to read meeting minutes to work out that the very idea of a Mayor popping up soon to chair meetings and generally lead things is not something that will be met with great excitement.

The WMCA website is improving with more content, although still needs some work. The new Mayor should invest in the site, and a range of accompanying social and digital tools, as part of an immediate communications review.

You can find papers here for the main Board and a range of other committees.

Cllr Claire Spencer, Labour Co-op councillor for Moseley & Kings Heath on Birmingham city council, is a member of the WMCA’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee. She attends meetings, tweeting regularly, and puts together a very helpful blog covering the business. She is well worth following.

It is likely that an incoming Mayor will want another review of the constitution of the WMCA, which recently passed the Board.

The WMCA has just published its Annual Plan, which may appear strange given its new chair is yet to take up their seat and the plan covers a period of just 10 months.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting another two months would have helped with some of the vacuous language and proofing errors which can beset such documents.

As we have been saying on these pages, the first document from the WMCA talked big on public sector reform (PSR). PSR would be key to re-balancing the books between the Treasury and the region, a gap which currently stands at £4Bn. As this Plan makes clear, there has been little apparent progress to date in this area.

But the Plan provides a good overview of the WMCA at work.

It sets a confident tone, which is no bad thing.

We are big, we are bold and we are busy.

As Interim Chief Executive Martin Reeves says in his introduction:

The WMCA has come a long way in a very short time. We are still less than a year old.

Martin Reeves and and his colleagues have done a job which might have looked impossible three years ago – and in Martin’s case with unending positivity. One of the Mayor’s first tasks will be to work with WMCA colleagues to find a new Chief Executive as well as a number of other senior postholders.

But the final word must go to Cllr Bob Sleigh, leader of Solihull Council and who, until Monday, has been the only chair of the WMCA. He has steered the ship, by common consent, remarkably given the geographic, political and personal differences and history leading to the formation of the body.

He deserves, in our view, a huge vote of thanks. The incoming Mayor, whoever that is, from whichever party, would do well to ensure Cllr Sleigh continues to have a leading role in the WMCA.

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