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New Coventry leader’s WMCA issues soothed by Clancy’s telephone diplomacy

New Coventry leader’s WMCA issues soothed by Clancy’s telephone diplomacy

🕔10.May 2016

Last week’s local election results produced a mixed-bag of results for the main political parties, and as the votes were counted leaders of the fledgling West Midlands Combined Authority looked on anxiously, writes Paul Dale.

John Clancy, the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, had intended to catch up with some sleep having happily witnessed a steady stream of election successes for his party in the early hours of Friday 6th May.

But Cllr Clancy’s well-deserved rest had to be put on hold when events down the road in Coventry began to pan out. There, 24 hours after the elections, the Labour leader of Coventry Council, Ann Lucas, was dramatically ousted by Cllr George Duggins at the party’s annual meeting.

Duggins’ coup played out against a backdrop of complaints about Cllr Lucas’ alleged “dictatorial and dogmatic” style, and it appeared that the last straw for many Labour councillors was her approval of a deal allowing Coventry council chief executive Martin Reeves to work two days a week for the combined authority.

Of all the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils, Coventry’s support for WMCA has been the weakest with a sizeable minority of councillors from all political parties believing the city ought to have teamed up with Warwickshire to form a combined authority, and wanting nothing to do with “Birmingham domination” and the rest of the West Midlands.

Cllr Lucas forced the WMCA deal through a disgruntled Labour group, and angered some colleagues by securing approval for a devolution deal dependent on the election of a West Midlands metro mayor. She ultimately paid the price when Cllr Duggins decided to take her on.

In Birmingham, on the Saturday morning, Cllr Clancy was immediately on the phone to congratulate the new leader of Coventry Council, although the real purpose of his greeting was more about attempting to judge Cllr Duggins’ view on the West Midlands Combined Authority.

Clancy wasn’t the only political leader to phone Cllr Duggins. In London, Local Government Secretary Greg Clark, a huge supporter of combined authorities and devolution, reportedly ordered his staff to contact Coventry and find out what was going on.

Cllr Clancy and Cllr Duggins are expected to meet face to face soon, but it would appear unlikely that Coventry will want to exit from the WMCA having come this far down the road, and just weeks away from the beginning of June when the combined authority will be up and running.

Cllr Duggins and his allies will be aware that Conservative-led Warwickshire county council is on the brink of reversing a decision to stay out of WMCA. The county council is expected to vote at a meeting on May 17 to apply for non-constituent membership of WMCA, with a view to becoming a constituent member with full voting rights in due course.

It is also likely that North Warwickshire district council will soon join Stratford-on-Avon council as new non-constituent members of WMCA.

Coventry, if it did pull out of WMCA, would have run out of prospective combined authority partners, unless Rugby and Warwick councils wished to participate and the Government was willing to approve such a deal, which seems so unlikely as to be unworthy of serious discussion.

However, it is perfectly possible that the new leader of Coventry Council will wish to mark his victory and impress his supporters by negotiating some quick wins from WMCA for Coventry.

The leader of Birmingham city council appears to be taking over the role of his great friend Darren Cooper, the former Labour leader of Sandwell Council who died in March. Cooper used his considerable powers of persuasion behind the scenes to convince doubting councils, Tory-run as well as Labour-led, of the economic benefits that WMCA could bring to their authorities.

Coventry is not the only WMCA constituent member where political change could cause concern.

Labour managed to lose overall control of Dudley Council at the local elections, although several results were very close indeed. The party lost Wollaston and Stourbridge Town by three votes after five recounts, and went down in Gornal to the Conservatives by 27 votes, and lost Belle Vale to the Tories by 13 votes.

The political make-up of the new council is: Labour 35 (-3), Conservative 29 (+4), UKIP 8 (+1).

No party has a majority and although Labour is the biggest party, the results left council leader Pete Lowe two seats short of overall control. The Conservatives have ruled out working with UKIP, who themselves have ruled out working with Labour, leaving some tricky negotiations to decide just who is going to run Dudley, and what their view on the combined authority might be.

Chamberlain Files understands Dudley’s Conservative leadership has indicated privately that it would be prepared to support the council’s continuing membership of WMCA.

Meanwhile, Conservative control of Walsall Council is looking dubious after Labour and UKIP gained seats, leaving the council still in no overall control but raising the prospect of a Labour-led administration with the support of two Liberal Democrat councillors.

No party has control of the council and though Labour is the biggest party, the results left them two seats short of overall control.

The make-up of the council is now 28 Labour councillors, 25 Conservatives, three UKIP, two Liberal Democrats and two Independents.

Were Labour to take control, there would be no impact on WMCA since the party is supportive of Walsall’s membership of the combined authority.

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