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Shakespeare’s town signs up for WMCA, but council leaders still coy over metro mayor issue

Shakespeare’s town signs up for WMCA, but council leaders still coy over metro mayor issue

🕔26.Jan 2016

The future arrangements for local government in the West Midlands, specifically whether a combined authority will be approved later this year, are currently out for public consultation. Chief blogger Paul Dale examines the latest devolution developments.

Stratford-on-Avon district council is the latest local authority to sign up to the emerging West Midlands Combined Authority, finally ending a saga which began last summer when Shakespeare’s birthplace said it might join, then decided not to, but has finally bitten the bullet.

Stratford, which has a history of switching political control, is run by the Conservatives these days, which is interesting because most of WMCA’s non-constituent district council members are Labour-run, with the Tory council leaders largely turning their backs on the idea.

Chris Saint, the leader of Stratford council, explained why the Conservatives had changed tack, taking care to play down fears in the shires that a Birmingham and urban-dominated combined authority will turn into some kind of super power with the intention of replacing local decision making with a centralised bureaucracy:

The decision means we will be able to play an active part in the devolution process currently under development. This does not represent a ‘super council’ as each member of the combined authority retains its independence and will continue to provide services like planning and refuse and recycling.  It just means that there will be better collaboration between councils on strategic issues such as investment, skills, housing and economic development.

We have always been a big believer in partnership working and where you cannot do things on your own, joining a partnership gives you greater resilience, greater freedom and greater spending powers allowing us to make sure our district benefits as much as possible.

It is a safe bet that most people, even those that pride themselves on taking more than a passing interest in local politics, will be unaware that their views are being sought on one of the most fundamental administrative changes for a generation.

The shadow West Midlands Combined Authority, consisting of the seven metropolitan councils, Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Dudley and Walsall, as well as Cannock Chase, Nuneaton & Bedworth, Tamworth , Redditch, Telford & Wrekin and Stratford-on-Avon district councils and the region’s three local enterprise partnerships, are consulting because they have a statutory duty to do so.

It is possible through the WMCA website to take part in a survey where participants are invited to agree or disagree with a series of rather leading statements, such as:

  • By working together more closely through a West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), councils will be better placed to deliver improved outcomes in relation to economic development, regeneration and transport across the West Midlands region.
  • Our regional Local Enterprise Partnerships (voluntary partnerships between local authorities and businesses) will ensure there is a strong business voice within the Combined Authority and help it to deliver improved outcomes in relation to economic development, regeneration and transport across the West Midlands region.
  • In order to improve collaborative working across local authorities it is important that all local authorities in the West Midlands conurbation, as well as neighbouring and economically linked authorities, are invited to participate in the workings of the WMCA.
  • By better co-ordination of strategic issues on economic development, regeneration and transport across the region and by improving partnership working through the creation of a Combined Authority, councils will be better placed to secure more effective and convenient local government and better services in general.
  • The Combined Authority should not be a ‘super council’ and the democratic sovereignty of individual councils must be retained. This is important to ensure that a Combined Authority will not have an adverse effect upon the identity and interests of local communities.

The survey certainly ticks all of the correct boxes, but what it and the WMCA website do not do is go into any great detail about the way the combined authority will work under the control of an elected metro mayor from 2017.

Indeed, the website is at pains to suggest the mayoral issue is entirely separate to setting up a combined authority, almost as if it is something that doesn’t need to be considered now, if at all:

As stakeholders may be aware, following the publication of the scheme document a proposed devolution deal was signed by the leaders of the seven constituent councils and the three Local Enterprise Partnership chairs in November.  The proposed devolution deal is dependent on approval by each constituent authority.

Therefore the proposals on which views are sought in this consultation are separate from what is in the devolution deal, and though a combined authority is a pre-requisite for delivering devolution, setting up a basic combined authority has no bearing on whether in future there is to be a mayoral combined authority.

While this may be correct in theory, in practice the Government has already agreed with the council leaders that a £9 billion devolution deal is dependent on electing a mayor in 2017.

Incredibly, the website makes no mention at all of emerging plans to carve up responsibilities for ‘cabinet’ portfolios among the seven metropolitan council leaders.

In fact, no one would know anything at all about this were it not for West Midlands police commissioner David Jamieson who revealed that WMCA is developing a “crime and justice” portfolio, which he sees as an attempt to establish a shadow PCC.

The existence of this portfolio, and six others, was confirmed by shadow WMCA chair Bob Sleigh.

Chamberlain Files’ request for information about the portfolios was batted back with an explanation that nothing has been decided yet, although no one is denying that housing, economic development, transportation and skills will be key responsibilities.

It seems clear therefore that the new body is in many ways repeating on a regional basis the structures that already exist in individual councils. The WMCA will have a board, effectively a cabinet, consisting of the seven leaders plus representatives from the districts and the LEPs. The board will be chaired from 2017 by a metro mayor.

At the moment the district councils are non-constituent members and won’t automatically qualify for a vote when the board makes decisions, although that may change later this year when the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act is passed. Even now, it is within the power of the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils to allow the districts to vote.

As Chamberlain Files pointed out last year, the voting arrangements proposed for the board mean that unanimous agreement will be required for any decision of any importance, raising questions about the speed and efficiency of decision making.

The schedule sets out how the board will operate:

It is intended that decisions will be made by consensus. When this is not possible, matters will be put to a vote and will require a two-thirds majority vote of constituent members of the combined authority present and voting, apart from the following matters which require unanimity of constituent members present and voting:

  • Approval of land use plans
  • Such other plans and strategies as determined by the Combined Authority
  • Financial matters which may have significant implications on Constituent Authorities’ budgets
  • Approval of borrowing limits, treasury management strategy including reserves, investment strategy and capital budget of the Combined Authority
  • Agreement of functions transferred to the Combined Authority
  • Extension of voting rights to all or any non-constituent member
  • Approval of specific proposals for individual co-optees to the Combined Authority
  • Use of general power of competence beyond the powers provided within the Local Democracy Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, including in relation to spatial strategy, housing numbers and compulsory purchase powers
  • Establishment of arms-length companies
  • Approval to seek such other powers as may be appropriate and any new powers granted by government. · Amendments to the Constitution
  • Changes to transport matters currently undertaken by the ITA

In an article on the website explaining the consultation process, the council leaders set out why they think a combined authority is a good idea.

The seven constituent councils consider that a combined authority is the most appropriate governance model for them to act together to deliver their economic development, regeneration and transport functions.

This stronger governance will deliver a more joined up strategic approach.  By working together, members of a combined authority can deliver shared strategic priorities that are better addressed at a scale above local boundaries.

The area already has a good track record of collaboration between local authorities and with the Local Enterprise Partnerships on issues that affect the area covered by the local authority areas of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.  However, the governance needs to change if the West Midlands is to demonstrate stronger, more efficient and more effective delivery of economic development, regeneration and transport responsibilities.

The proposed Combined Authority will be a streamlined and strategically focused body, appropriately resourced to ensure more effective and efficient delivery of economic growth including – skills, regeneration and transport functions across the region.

The proposed combined authority’s roles will be underpinned by strong research, intelligence and advocacy.  The proposed combined authority will deliver area-wide functions around the co-ordination of funding streams, seeking investment and collective resourcing in relation to economic development, regeneration and transport responsibilities.

This will lead to greater self-reliance as the West Midlands will have the means to unlock its economic potential and contribute more fully to the vision of a wider Midlands Engine for growth.

Consultation runs until 8th February 2016.

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