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Teamwork becomes slightly more taxing

Teamwork becomes slightly more taxing

🕔10.Feb 2018

Yesterday’s meeting of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) confirmed at least one political truth for Mayor Andy Street, writes Kevin Johnson.

This West Midlands teamwork thing is becoming more challenging.

Last month’s mini fracas over the WMCA budget and Mayoral Precept has been squared. But it was indeed a sign of things to come.

Welcome to politics, Mr Mayor

Almost from the off, Labour leaders lined up to highlight concerns and dissatisfaction.

Ian Ward (Birmingham) on the workings of the Housing Infrastructure Fund. Sean Coughlan (Walsall) and George Duggins (Coventry) found language in Board reports to give the Mayor more credit than he perhaps deserved.

It was Cllr Duggins who, for a second month running, moved an early amendment.

Backed by Roger Lawrence (Wolverhampton), Labour leaders wanted to ensure councils would be consulted and sign off plans to integrate the powers of the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner into the office of Mayor ready for the 2020 election.

You might think that sounds simple and reasonable enough. Dear reader, you would be wrong.

The amendment was tabled, but it took some time before anyone thought to share the details with media and public observers in the council chamber or watching the unreliable Birmingham city council live web feed.

But with the guidance of the Monitoring Officer and the help of Cllr Courts (Solihull) – if ‘help’ is the word – it was more or less resolved without the need for a show of hands.

Perhaps surprisingly, there was no intervention from the PCC himself on the issue. In fact, we did not hear from David Jamieson for all of 121 minutes into proceedings.

Times are indeed a changing.

All this emerged from an update on Devolution Deal II from WMCA chief executive Deborah Cadman. She is unlikely to have anticipated paragraph 3.5 of her report would have provoked so much discussion.

However, her verbal report was notable in its tone. When she first reported on the deal, it was clear that it did not contain everything that had been hoped for. Ms Cadman was among many who felt, and sometimes expressed, their frustration at the attitude of Government towards devolution.

At yesterday’s meeting, WMCA’s top public servant was keen to highlight key developments in the deal and anxious to point out that a new relationship with Government was emerging. It was becoming more collaborative and being pursued with shared endeavour.

Devo Deal II: How does it stack up?

Later in the meeting, deputy leader of Birmingham city council Cllr Brigid Jones expressed her disappointment with the lack of engagement in the devolution agenda from the Department for Education (DfE). As we know, Mayor Andy Street shares the same feelings towards DfE.

Ahead of yesterday, the budget was going to provide the money shot of the meeting. But it passed through relatively easily.

The item warranted a lengthy introduction from Cllr Izzy Seccombe (Warwickshire) who looks after the finance and investment portfolio.

Cllr Peter Hughes gave the assessment of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Cutting through his studious manner were razor sharp points.

The committee was critical on the timetable for the budget process; a lack of openness and its chair took issue with the Mayor’s introduction which had suggested due process had been followed to reach a final budget for WMCA approval.

Cllr Hughes proposed a review of WMCA’s governance arrangements and sought more resources to support the Committee’s work.

The Overview and Scrutiny Committee chair had pointed out the Committee’s Mayoral Question Time was the first such occasion outside of the Greater London Assembly.

The West Midlands trumps Greater Manchester once again…

Three notable themes became clear at this meeting:

Labour leaders are increasingly co-ordinated, working together to find issues where they can clip the wings of the Conservative Mayor

Members will continue to emphasise policy areas where they believe there is a risk of duplication by WMCA or incursion into their areas of responsibility or activity

Non-constituent members will question programmes and workstreams which appear to only cover constituent members (the seven Met areas).

The bureaucracy and cost of the WMCA was mentioned in passing by the leader of Birmingham city council. But it was there and could act as something of a marker.

For those opposed to the Metro Mayor model – especially a Tory who had the temerity to beat Labour in its own backyard – it is the cost of running a perceived new layer of government that rankles the most.

The public part of the meeting concluded in something of confusion. Lee Baron, representing the Trades Unions as an observer, wished to record his pleasure at the WMCA becoming a Living Wage employer.

Only that it hadn’t.

It’s pay scales happened to match Living Wage levels. But no policy decision had been made to commit to the Living Wage.

WMCA’s finance director seemed reluctant to offer an explanation in the open.

Cllr Ward was quick to jump in to propose a policy decision be made at the next meeting.

For the second month running, the WMCA executive seemed flat-flooted.

Lest there be any confusion, this was not an acrimonious meeting. Theresa May need not concern herself with any coarsening of political debate or intimidation of the Mayor here.

This is not the end of collaboration across the West Midlands political landscape as we have begun to know it.

Mayor Street handles all contributions with style and good grace. As he might say, “first class.”

More debate at WMCA Board meetings is to be welcomed. They were in danger of becoming vanilla exercises covering up real political business being conducted in committees and corridors.

But make no mistake, Mayor Street will need to become accustomed to Labour leaders flexing their political muscles and making sure the Mayor and his team do not take all the political credit.

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