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No ifs, no buts, West Midlands must accept Osborne’s mayoral invitation

No ifs, no buts, West Midlands must accept Osborne’s mayoral invitation

🕔09.Jul 2015

The most important word in George Osborne’s Budget turned out to be ‘if’.

The Chancellor dwelt lovingly on his pet Northern Powerhouse project, painting a rosy picture setting out how other city regions and counties could jump on the devolution bandwagon……but only if they were prepared to elect a metro mayor.

It’s all set out with admirable clarity in the Budget Red Book:

To fulfil its commitment to rebalance the economy and further strengthen the Northern Powerhouse, the government is working towards further devolution deals with the Sheffield City Region, Liverpool City Region, and Leeds, West Yorkshire and partner authorities, to be agreed in parallel with the Spending Review.

If agreement is reached, including on an elected mayor working with local leaders to oversee new powers devolved from ministers, these city regions will be granted significant additional powers and the opportunity to take control of their own affairs to support economic growth.

The document continues:

The government remains open to any further proposals from local areas for devolution of significant powers in return for a mayor, in time for conclusion ahead of the Spending Review.

The government is committed to significant transport devolution in all of the country’s city regions that elect a Mayor, as well as the country’s counties. This includes the rollout of Oyster-style smart and integrated ticketing systems that will provide people with quicker and easier door-to-door journeys, greater choice, as well as simpler and more flexible fares.

The government intends to support towns and counties to play their part in growing the economy, offering them the opportunity to agree devolution deals, and providing local people with the levers they need to boost growth. The government is working with towns and counties to make these deals happen and is making good progress towards a deal with Cornwall.

Mr Osborne is also planning to allow cities and city regions to tear up what remains of the Sunday trading laws, enabling supermarkets and large stores to open for as long as they wish – but, crucially, the power to do this will be invested in a mayor.

He welcomed, of course, and strongly supported the progress being made in the West Midlands where the seven metropolitan authorities have published a prospectus setting out a plan to form a combined authority, although there is as yet no commitment to having a mayor.

But while the West Midlands is still talking, Greater Manchester and the north is doing.

Mr Osborne announced what he termed the next phase of Northern Powerhouse.

Fire services will be placed under the control of the new directly-elected Mayor, a Greater Manchester Land Commission is to be formed, the city region will be granted more powers over planning, and discussions are underway about how central government and the city region might collaborate further on children’s services and employment programmes.

There was yet more good news for Greater Manchester, where a mayor will be elected in 2017.

The Chancellor explained the government was committed to devolving far reaching powers over transport to the north’s mayor-led city regions to deliver fully integrated public transport systems, supported by smart and integrated ticketing technology.

The government will work with Transport for North (TfN) to advance the introduction of Oyster-style smart and integrated ticketing across bus, tram, metro and rail services throughout the region, establish TfN as a statutory body and stump up £30 million towards the authority’s running costs.

This is not to say that nothing is happening in Birmingham and the West Midlands.

Mr Osborne has found £5 million to help develop Midlands Connect, an ambitious scheme to improve transport links between the west and east Midlands, and is also “looking forward” to considering plans for further expansion of the Midland Metro tram network in Birmingham “when they have been developed further”.

The Chancellor could hardly have made his devolution proposals, and the rules of the game, clearer. Getting a full suite of devolved powers and budgets is dependent upon having a mayor, but ultimately the decision to go down this path is up to the councils themselves.

All across the country local government is beginning to get it. The great northern cities and regions are ahead of the game and as they begin to elect mayors and qualify for Mr Osborne’s largesse, others will surely follow.

The question for the West Midlands is very simply this: for how much longer are council leaders selfishly going to resist the mayoral route? WMCA says a mayor hasn’t been ruled in and hasn’t been ruled out, which is the type of glorious fudge you’d expect to enjoy in Cornwall, which incidentally could be the next region to get a mayor.

Darren Cooper, the leader of Sandwell council and spokesman for WMCA, welcomed the Chancellor’s positive comments about the West Midlands. Cllr Cooper said:

We are setting up the new West Midlands Combined Authority to show that we are fully committed to agreeing a devolution deal that will help close the £16 billion productivity gap in our region – and drive growth, reform and prosperity for local people.

Bold words, but Cllr Cooper must recognise by now that the type of devolved powers required to drive local decision making and deliver economic growth on the scale required can only be obtained if the West Midlands is brave enough to embrace a metro mayor.

The worst possible result, having finally managed to cobble together plans for a combined authority which fails even to mention the name of the region’s greatest economic asset, Birmingham, would be for West Midlands council leaders to spend another two or three years pretending that the mayoral issue really isn’t very important, when they know it lies at the heart of the government’s devolution strategy.

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