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Summer Special: Metro Mayor Countdown

Summer Special: Metro Mayor Countdown

🕔18.Aug 2016

In the first of our special summer reports, the Chamberlain Files team look forward to the election of a metro mayor for the West Midlands.

OK, it’s difficult to write a report on something that doesn’t yet exist, but looking ahead a year the West Midlands will have had a metro mayor for about 100 days.

The battle lines are already clear. Will the mayor make any real difference, or will whoever has the job turn out to be little more than a figurehead, a glorified chair of the West Midlands Combined Authority?

Is the mayor going to be simply a first among equals of the seven metropolitan council leaders, or will the biggest local government job outside of London come with meaningful executive powers?

The Government has insisted that city regions and combined authorities requesting devolved powers and budgets to run transportation, economic development, housing and skills must be overseen by an elected mayor.

Former Chancellor George Osborne spoke about the importance of mayors being directly answerable to the public, a person where the buck stops, a direct link for prospective investors, and crucially someone who can take and implement decisions quickly.

The question as yet unanswered is whether Theresa May’s government embraces mayors with quite the same enthusiasm given the deep-rooted hostility among many Tory MPs and local councillors to the mayoral system?

A highlight so far of the battle to become mayor of the West Midlands, or perhaps that should be a lowlight, is the absence of runners and riders. With the exception of the Labour party, which has selected MEP Siôn Simon as its candidate, no one else has declared themselves definitely to be in the race.

Labour, it should be noted, had a shortlist of just two candidates to choose from, Mr Simon and former Birmingham council cabinet member Steve Bedser – two middle-aged, middle class, white males to represent one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the country.

There have been media briefings suggesting that Andy Street, chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP, is looking to be the Conservative candidate, while former CBI director general Lord Digby Jones has been stating for several years that he might possibly throw his hat in the ring.

Lord Jones has not responded to Chamberlain Files’ request for an interview, although he has from time to time popped up on television news programmes to suggest that what the West Midlands requires is a Digby Jones mayoralty. Mr Street, asked by Chamberlain Files at GBSLEP’s annual meeting whether he was going to run for mayor, simply replied that “I love my job” as chief executive of John Lewis.

Conservative interest in the contest has been given fresh legs by the disunity of the Labour party which is tearing itself apart over the future of leader Jeremy Corbyn. With Labour bombing in the opinion polls and Theresa May still enjoying a honeymoon period as prime minister, it would not be impossible for a Conservative candidate to become metro mayor of the West Midlands in May 2017.

That possibility may be even greater if the personable Mr Street is the Tory candidate. At the head of John Lewis for 10 years and a highly regarded chair of GBSLEP, he could be portrayed as a ‘non-political’ candidate, a successful business leader with links to the top of the Government.

The Prime Minister would not be able to resist anointing Mr Street at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham at the beginning of October, if he decides to put himself forward.

A debate is raging about the proposed powers for the mayor. WMCA is consulting on this and has put forward a framework under which the mayor would have to gain the backing of a majority of council leaders for the most important decisions. The consultation deadline is this Sunday and Chamberlain Files urges visitors to make their voice heard.

Crucially, the mayor’s budget could be rejected if two-thirds of the council leaders vote against, and the mayor would not then be able to vote on new budget proposals proposed by the council leaders.

Mr Simon has said he is comfortable with this, stressing that if he becomes mayor he does not wish to be “the big I am” and sees the value of working together with the council leaders as a team. Mr Bedser said pretty much the same. As for Mr Street, if he ever becomes mayor, an examination of his period as GBSLEP chair suggests his instinct would very much be to gain the cross-party support of council leaders before taking any decisions.

One person definitely not happy about the proposed mayoral powers is the Labour police commissioner for the West Midlands, David Jamieson. He has more than a bit part role in this as the police commissioner must advise the Home Secretary as to whether it would be appropriate for the mayor to take on the powers of the PCC. As things stand, Mr Jamieson certainly will not be advising anything of the sort.

In a formal submission to the consultation process, Mr Jamieson wrote:

It would appear the proposed mayor has been given as few powers as possible.

This raises the question of whether an impotent or smothered mayor will demonstrate value for money and deliver the high ambitions for economic development and civic leadership.

Put simply, what the people of the West Midlands are being offered is not fit for purpose and things need to change.

Unless the plans for the region are bold, we risk falling behind not just Manchester but other areas that have got their act together.

The police commissioner has suggested several times that the Government may go so far as to withdraw the West Midlands devolution deal if the mayor’s powers are shackled, although it is far from clear whether there is any substance behind the claim.

What’s clear is that the mayor from day one will be looking to negotiate further devolution deals with the Government, and possibly seeking additional mayoral powers. The devolution deal struck last year sounds impressive at first – a £40 million annual contribution from the Treasury for 30 years, unlocking £8 billion of investment – but when those figures are spread out across the 12 WMCA councils (soon to be 14), the Government’s generosity amounts to £3.3 million a year per local authority.

The mayor’s in-tray:

Transport

If the mayor cannot make a huge difference to the West Midlands’ appalling reputation for poor public transport, then the mayoral experiment will have been a failure. Metro tram extensions to Birmingham Airport and the NEC, and new connections between the Black Country and Birmingham are viewed as a vital first step in getting the region moving, as well as pressing ahead with Sprint bus services.

The future of the M6 Toll must surely be a top priority for the mayor. The privately run road is up for sale, giving WMCA and the mayor an ideal opportunity to hatch a deal with the Government. If the toll road became free to use, the impact on relieving congestion on the M6 through north Birmingham could be huge.

Regeneration

It’s all about the economy. Parts of the West Midlands are booming, notably Birmingham city centre and Solihull, but other areas continue to suffer from an economic downturn. The Black Country, for instance, regularly comes close to the bottom of the English wealth league with high unemployment and below average incomes.

The mayor will have one huge advantage – the arrival of HS2. Even before high speed trains reach Birmingham in 2026, regeneration opportunities are already becoming apparent on land adjacent to the Birmingham Curzon HS2 terminus in the city centre and the Birmingham International interchange at the airport/NEC.

Thousands of jobs could be created off the back of HS2. The question is, how many will go to local unemployed people?

Housing

The West Midlands has a chronic housing shortage. It’s thought something like 200,000 new homes are needed to meet demand. The mayor will inherit some of the powers of the Homes and Communities agency, but will be unable to force local councils to grant planning permission for new housing estates. Powers of compulsory purchase can only be used if the mayor can obtain agreement from the relevant council, raising huge questions over how local authorities previously unable to deliver enhanced housing targets will do so in future.

WMCA has a land commission looking at how the demand for new housing can be met. But construction at the level required will depend on several factors: the willingness of councils to grant planning permission, the ability of the private sector to build homes, and the success of councils like Birmingham in pushing forward in partnership with housing associations to build social housing.

Buses

One of the mayor’s powers will be to offer franchises to bus operators through Transport for the West Midlands, which it is suggested will like Transport for London be able to offer ‘Oyster cards’ allowing customers seamless travel via buses, trams and trains. The current West Midlands ticketing system, the Swift card, has plenty of critics. Only customers prepared to enter into a direct debit payment can use the card on trains. There are also doubts over whether planned Swift express bus services will be accompanied by the necessary infrastructure of bus lanes and traffic light control systems to enable them to make a difference to travel times.

Skills

The West Midlands economy suffers from a productivity and skills deficit. Put simply, we are not matching the English average for wealth production, and not enough of the workforce possesses the skills required for jobs in a modern economy.

Addressing the skills deficit has been a common theme for 20 years, pursued by the former regional development agency Advantage West Midlands and now by WMCA. But all of these efforts have made little difference so far.

It is difficult to see how the mayor and the combined authority can deliver on this without having control of schools and further education colleges.

Paul Dale and Kevin Johnson

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