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Street on the dash for cash

Street on the dash for cash

🕔21.Jul 2017

Andy Street’s third meeting in the chair of WMCA’s Board takes place today at the region’s Fire Service HQ – and he’s hunting for cash, writes Kevin Johnson.

A new Funding for Growth Programme, backed by a West Midlands Finance Commission, as well as a Leadership Commission will go before the Board this morning.

The Funding for Growth Programme will focus on generating and implementing ideas that will drive additional funding for the region. It will:

  • Consider existing financing/funding powers, their evolution and comparisons to London and other cities
  • Analyse public expenditure and tax revenues – and the funding gap – in the region
  • Consider potential options available from Government and local sources of incremental funding
  • Make recommendations – potentially including mechanisms to drive property and infrastructure investment
  • Consider further objectives beyond the current phase.

Board papers state that a budget of £50k will be required to support the work, with a team at PwC ready to manage the project. It is not immediately clear what procurement process was adopted to appoint any contractor. Julia Goldsworthy, a former LibDem MP now at PwC but also rumoured to be in the running for one of the new WMCA director roles, is a proposed member of the Commission.

The Birmingham Post published a list of names who have already agreed to join the Commission, including the country’s foremost expert on local government, Prof Tony Travers from the London School Economics who chaired the London Finance Commission, and former Birmingham city council chief executive, Stephen Hughes.

Chamberlain Files understands Andrew Carter, chief executive of influential think tank Centre for Cities and Simon Collinson, Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham are also on the commission which has already met once informally. Chamberlain Files is not aware that they or any other member are being paid.

There is currently nothing to suggest further devolved powers or increased funding is going to be a priority for the Government, with even business rates retention off the table.

The only significant devolution champion remaining in Government is Business Secretary Greg Clark who is currently focused on developing his Industrial Strategy White Paper with a commitment to it being ‘place-based.’

If Mayor Street is to secure additional funds, he would benefit from working in partnership with other Metro Mayors to secure funding powers.

The London Finance Commission, reconvened by Mayor Sadiq Khan, published its latest report Devolution: a capital idea in January 2017. There is no sign – or prospect, say informed commentators – that its proposals will be enacted by the current Government.

Its recommendations include:

  • Control over the full suite of property taxes
  • Assignment of a proportion of income tax and VAT yields
  • Devolution of the Apprenticeship Levy
  • Levies on property development
  • Other minor charges and levies, including expanding the congestion zone
  • Retention of some parts of future business rate growth generated by revaluation
  • Land value capture charge.

Mayor Street’s commission could look to develop some of the LFC proposals, effectively becoming a pilot area before being made available to London and other Metro Mayor areas. As a smaller area and as a Conservative Mayor, the West Midlands and Andy Street might offer a more acceptable first home to some LFC ideas.

The West Midlands Funding Commission will not necessarily need to look at a raft of new ideas, but how it can make existing ideas work and unlock cash. Some forms of property-based levies would seem to be the most obvious possibilities, although Mayor Street would be brave to make a case for rate revaluation.

Given the need to raise funds for a successful Commonwealth Games bid, a bespoke Commonwealth Games property-related levy might need to be considered.

Mr Street told the Birmingham Post:

The Combined Authority’s investment plan is totally dependent on the cash we have got coming in.

We have plenty more investment proposals, whether it is about brownfield remediation or further transport investment, and this is about giving us the firepower to make these things happen.

London has begun to think about these things, but it hasn’t really been thought about for the regions before.

This is not about small increments. It has got to be decisive.

It is billions not millions.

Meanwhile, the West Midlands Leadership Commission will seek to “improve the opportunities for people from those communities and groups which are currently under-represented in the leadership of the West Midlands. This should contribute to ensuring the leadership of the future is representative of the region it serves.”

It will be chaired by Anita Bhalla who was one of the architects of the BBC Asian Network and already involved with Mr Street in his Commonwealth Games and Channel 4 bids.

Mr Street highlighted the strength of feelings he experienced on the campaign trail about leadership in the region in his first meeting as WMCA chair. Chamberlain Files understands Ms Bhalla is open to suggestions on membership of the Commission.

Mr Street will also share progress on senior appointments, notably that of Deborah Cadman as WMCA chief executive. Questions remain as to how some of the new executive roles will work, given some have no obvious resources or staff to work for them.

Board papers also reveal that Mr Street has been approached by Sir John Peace, chair of the Midlands Engine, to be WMCA’s official representative. The Midlands Engine is having yet another refresh of its governance structures as well as working out a delivery plan. It’s perhaps surprising that the West Midlands Mayor is only being added to the Engine set up now.

Appointments, commissions and programmes are a sign of progress, for sure. But the issue for Mr Street is what he can tangibly deliver in the short window before the next Mayoral election.

Mayor Street is using his soft powers of convening along with impressive campaigning and communication abilities to drive initiatives, but his formal powers are constrained and the capacity of Government to support his agenda is more limited that he imagined on 5 May.

Announcing stuff and cutting ribbons is the everyday currency of politicians – as Mr Street effectively said in a recent interview with the Local Government Chronicle – but he knows that will not be enough to guarantee victory in 2020. Unlocking new funds would be one way of convincing voters of his worth and councillors of the point of a Mayor.

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