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Order order: the mayoral power play

Order order: the mayoral power play

🕔09.Dec 2016

If you were in any doubt about the level of excitement and anticipation felt towards the prospect of a Metro Mayor joining council leaders around the West Midlands Combined Authority table, look no further than its report on the draft parliamentary order setting out mayoral powers.

Next week should see the parliamentary order laid before the House of Commons, setting out the powers of the Mayor. Whilst still the subject of debate between government and the Combined Authority, it has been subject to the approval of the constituent councils in recent weeks and will be debated by WMCA members at their meeting today.

Regular Chamberlain Files visitors will be familiar with the debate about powers and the (ahem) consultation exercise a few months ago. Consultation exercises undertaken by the WMCA have been highlighted for criticism by the House of Lords.

The key drivers for political leaders in the West Midlands have been to ensure that the Combined Authority and, in turn, the Mayor do not take away any of the current powers and responsibilities of their local authorities and to ensure the Mayor only makes decisions on the small number of policy areas which have been directly devolved to them. The leaders want to have the ability to check mayoral prerogative when they feel necessary.

The key issue is the insistence by WMCA leaders on requiring unanimity of voting on a large number of matters and excluding the Mayor from such votes. As the WMCA points out in its paper, the “government’s position is that the exclusion of the mayor in such items is not aligned to the devolution agenda.”

On a connected issue, there is also an ongoing debate about the Mayor’s power of veto. The WMCA leaders do not want the Mayor to be able to veto or in any way affect unanimous voting by Constituent Members on matters which are reserved for them, as opposed to those which are for the Mayor and WMCA together or the Mayor alone.

Some policy areas which come under the Mayoral WMCA will require two-thirds majority voting where the Mayor will need to be in the two-thirds vote cohort in order to achieve consent.

The WMCA report – written under the direction of its Clerk, Wolverhampton city council Managing Director Keith Ireland – includes a wonderful paragraph of clarification:

It is also important to note is that the mayor cannot ‘force’ a decision with regards to Combined Authority decisions, if a vote were to take place, it would be a block rather than a forced decision.

There are also concerns over budget setting and controls, including financial risks associated with Development Corporations which the Mayor may seek to establish. However, some funding matters will be subject to a separate Finance Order whilst other issues will be left for the next devolution deal and other legislation.

In a somewhat remarkable part of WMCA’s proposed Scheme setting out powers, the political leaders had proposed that if the Mayor’s budget, plans, policies and strategies were outvoted by the WMCA Cabinet on a two-thirds majority basis, the Mayoral WMCA would be able to propose an alternative budget for approval by the Cabinet – where the Mayor would not be entitled to a vote.

WMCA leaders have withdrawn their proposal that only a unanimous vote of all the Constituent Members would enable the discharge of any of its functions by a committee, sub-committee or one of its officers. Similarly, it has agreed the Mayor will be able to delegate other functions as permitted by a law passed under the last Labour Government.

The West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), David Jamieson, has been a strong critic of some of the proposals from council leaders on the powers of the Mayor. He is expected to raise concerns at today’s meeting on how the Mayor’s powers over the Key Route Network will work given the Mayor is subject to seeking the assistance of the members and officers of the Combined Authority. He is likely to argue this will add an extra layer of bureaucracy with the region’s roads stretched to capacity and in need of a strong leader with a mandate to ease traffic across the region.

The PCC is also likely to question the latest provisions in relation to matters requiring unanimous voting. He will point out that the latest draft order now gives the Mayor a vote on these items but the Mayor’s vote is not required to be in the vote ‘for’, unless the matter affects the Mayor’s General Functions. Effectively, he will says, their vote will be totally meaningless. He is anticipated to argue council leaders want a Combined Authority with “a Mayor on the side – more bureaucracy, less democracy.”

Cllr James Burn, the Green candidate for Mayor and leader of the opposition group on Solihull Council, has been a strong critic of the democratic arrangements of the WMCA, including on scrutiny and overview. He told Chamberlain Files:

Cash for Questions. MP’s expenses. Cash for Honours. With good reason, voters don’t trust a politician to be honest anymore. And yet – that’s what they’re being asked to do in the case of the West Midlands Combined Authority Mayor. Under current plans, the public will vote every four years for a mayor. In the meantime, a single committee, meeting only four mornings a year, will be tasked with keeping the Mayor and entire Authority honest. This committee will consist of colleagues of the very people running the WMCA. These cosy arrangements would make the most corrupt of Banana Republics proud.

Contrast this with London, where 25 directly elected Assembly Members work full-time to make sure the Mayor and Authority works for the people they’re supposed to serve. If we want the public to get behind this new super-council and its mayor – both of whom can impose taxes on voters – then putting in visible measures to make sure they are held fully accountable, are transparent and work for ordinary people surely has to be the first priority for whoever is elected Mayor.

The contest to become Mayor for the four candidates so far declared is going to be a challenge, but is perhaps nothing when they consider how they will make the job work as they sit down with their ‘colleagues’ on 8th May 2017.

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