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Street loses first vote as Mayor

Street loses first vote as Mayor

🕔12.Jan 2018

Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, lost his first vote as chair of the West Midlands Combined Authority when local authority leaders rejected proposals for a Mayoral precept this morning, writes Kevin Johnson.

Meeting at West Midlands Police’s Tally Ho! Conference & Banqueting Centre, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) was considering an item on the WMCA’s Draft Budget and Mayoral Council Tax Precept. The Authority was not being asked to approve the budget, but if it was “minded to approve” ahead of it going to public consultation and formal scrutiny.

The Mayor announced his proposals for the precept at the end of last week. It originally suggested that it would equate to around £12 a year through local Council Tax on a Band D property. However, with further calculations, this was revised to £10.80.

Chamberlain Files understands that some WMCA insiders had been pushing Mayor Street to pursue an even higher level of precept, perhaps as much as £50. Other Metro Mayors, such as Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham, might be minded to generate more funding through their precept but they do not face the same delicate political balance as Mr Street has in the West Midlands.

The Mayor explained that around £2 of the precept would fund his office with the remainder on “congestion busting” measures.

At today’s WMCA meeting, he stressed that the office costs would cover work that has already been discussed at the WMCA Board such as the Leadership Commission and the Funding for Growth programme.

Mr Street had said:

In the seven months the role of Mayor has existed, the value of the office has already become quite clear, particularly in ensuring our region punches above its weight with Government.

The region is making exceptional progress and we must ensure this continues and help with our work to tackle homelessness and other important areas of work. The precept will be vital in ensuring we can continue our region’s economic recovery.

But I am conscious also that we need quick action to tackle congestion and this is what the majority of the precept will be used for, particularly encouraging cycling and giving commuters a viable alternative to driving.

However, Cllr George Duggins (Labour leader of Coventry city council) immediately introduced an amendment that would mean the WMCA was not “minded to” approve the Mayor’s Budget. He was seconded by Cllr Sean Couglan, Labour leader of Walsall.

Cllr Bob Sleigh, Deputy Mayor and Conservative leader of Solihull Council, suggested a different amendment that would remove the “minded to” commitment to the budget ahead of consultation. However, his amendment was lost when put to the vote.

Cllr Izzi Seccombe, the leader of Warwickshire County Council and holder of the Finance and Investments portfolio on the WMCA, made an impassioned defence of the financial plans and the value of investment already being seen on the ground.

David Jamieson, the Police and Crime Commissioner, suggested that it was not appropriate that a non-constituent member council leader – ie. Warwickshire – was responsible for presenting a proposal to increase Council Tax levels in the constituent councils.

Cllr Duggins’s amendment was put to the vote and, as Mayor Street feared, was carried through the inbuilt majority of Labour leaders representing constituent authorities on the WMCA.

It is highly likely that the move was co-ordinated in advance by the Labour group on the WMCA. It is the first time that party politics has broken out at the WMCA in public. In reality, it highlights the frustration of Labour leaders at their failure to secure the Mayoralty last year and their determination to make sure the Tory Mayor is not re-elected in 2020.

But there must also be a question about the approach taken by the WMCA and Mayor’s Office around the precept.

Cllr Khatun (Deputy Leader, Lab, Sandwell) suggested that the Mayor had not done enough to explain why the precept was needed and how it would be spent. Given publicity for the budget and precept only commenced a week ago, that might seem a reasonable point.

A wider point was made earlier in the meeting by Lee Baron, an observer member representing the Midlands Trades Union Congress, on an item discussing cohesion and integration. Supporting a contribution made by Birmingham leader Cllr Ian Ward on inclusive growth and the real living wage, Mr Barron said people need to see an uplift in their lives through devolution. If not, devolution  would have failed.

The break down in collaboration around the WMCA board table was met with frustration by Cllr Claire Spencer, a Labour Birmingham councillor who is Vice-Chair of the WMCA’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee.

Cllr Spencer’s informative blog on the WMCA Budget can be found here.

Today’s vote will be a blow to the Mayor, if only in terms of damage to the ‘optics’ of cross party, pan-regional collaboration. It also offers a glimpse, though, into the political reality of the Combined Authority which was delicately constructed after years of geographically and politically-centred mistrust.

Some will say that old fashioned politics broke out at Tally Ho! this morning. That’s probably true.

Mayor Street and his team will want to reflect not only on how they were faced with and lost a vote, but how they can improve public understanding of the work of the Mayor – beyond speeches and Twitter commentary – and develop deeper relationships with local politicians that move beyond party political lines.

Mr Street will no doubt deploy his customary optimism and energy in responding to the vote. He will have opportunities to change the minds of Labour leaders or to re-adjust the level of precept before the budget is finalised.

The process for a Mayoral precept was outlined in the Board paper for today’s discussion. It stated:

The Mayor must notify the West Midlands Combined Authority of his draft budget before 1 February 2018 and this report represents that notification. The Combined Authority must review the Mayor’s Budget and may make a report on it to the Mayor setting out whether they would approve it in its current form and may include recommendations. This must take place before 8 February 2018 otherwise the Mayor’s Budget will be deemed approved. If the Combined Authority makes a report then the Mayor must have at least 5 working days to respond and can either make the required changes or not.

The West Midlands Combined Authority must then decide whether to accept the original (or revised) budget or veto it and approve the budget with their amendments. Decisions of the West Midlands Combined Authority are by a 2/3rds majority for setting of the Mayoral budget.

The final budget will be considered by the WMCA on 9th February 2018.

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