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The Metro Mayor debate: can we please get real?

The Metro Mayor debate: can we please get real?

🕔26.May 2016

You know that almost daily ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ feeling you get when you hear the latest exchange of personal abuse masquerading as The Great EU Referendum Debate?  Well, I got a similar feeling reading Paul Dale’s recent column on the metro mayor ‘debate’ writes Chris Game. 

First, we had the seven metropolitan council leaders who constitute the shadow board of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) apparently doing their utmost to undermine – before it even gets off the ground – the devolution package for which they or their predecessors spent weeks almost grovelling to Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and his Treasury civil servants.

We all know that, like most other CA leaders, they didn’t want a metro mayor. But it was in the Conservative election manifesto and was a pivotal feature of the devolution legislation. If they disliked it that much, they could always have walked away – mayor-free, but also without what they tried to sell us as “the country’s biggest devolution deal” yet.

As previously noted in these columns, it’s not the biggest, either in the range of its devolved powers and responsibilities or in the per capita value of its Investment Fund. Even so, as far as we can judge, it’s a package definitely worth having, and, as other city regional CAs have already shown, it can be built on and extended.

But it surely won’t be, if the clearest message received by those doing any extending is of a bunch of council leaders set on emasculating the powers and standing of the mayor ministers regard as the uniquely acceptable guarantor of public accountability.

Let’s, as the Americans say, do the math. The seven council leaders were elected by, on average, barely 2,000 ward voters, and became leaders of their respective councils with the backing of, at most, a few dozen party colleagues – 4,828 and 38 respectively in the case of Birmingham leader, John Clancy; fewer in all others.

Yet despite – no, it must be because of – the relative fragility of these personal mandates, the metro mayor they want to enfeeble before we even elect her, or him, will represent nearly 2 million of us, and be backed by perhaps a quarter to a third of a million actual votes.

The leaders’ suggestion apparently is that the way to attract the best possible candidates for a post carrying one of the larger personal electoral mandates in Europe is to offer a salary/allowance amounting (Table 1) to roughly two-thirds that of Birmingham’s leader and marginally higher than those of the other West Midlands council leaders. Or (Table 2), massively adrift of the allowances received by the current elected mayors of single towns and cities.

W Mids leaders' allowances (2)

Elected mayors' allowances (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps not surprisingly in the circumstances, this intendedly demeaning offer was communicated not by one of those leaders, but by the clerk to the shadow WMCA – the Wolverhampton managing director whose salary is just north of three times that he was proposing for the metro mayor.

Which brings us to the other key player in this particular Game of Thrones, David Jamieson – recently re-elected West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, and the only person so far elected to represent the seven West Midlands authorities, although not of course the additional associate member authorities.

Jamieson has from the outset had his criticisms of the council leaders’ approach to the WMCA negotiations, not least in these columns, but his position has been broadly consistent, if unashamedly self-interested.

Policing should have had a more prominent role in the devolution negotiations, preferably alongside the fire and rescue service, and both ideally should be brought together under what must be a strong elected metro mayor.

The model, as in so much else, is Greater Manchester. There were no PCC elections there this month, because the current PCC will serve until May 2017, when the role will be taken on by the newly elected metro mayor. Likewise, the Fire and Rescue Authority is set to be abolished and again the functions transferred to the mayor.

By contrast, in the WM Devolution Agreement both major functions are relegated to ‘Other areas’ – a single-sentence clause referring to proposals being developed for an ‘appropriate’ but unspecified relationship between the services and the functions of the mayor. Yes, we’re that far behind.

As far as policing is concerned, the two obvious ‘appropriate’ models would seem to be those Jamieson himself identified in an interesting interview in last week’s New Statesman: the mayor “absorbing” the PCC’s role, or it being transferred, maybe along with the fire service, into that of a Deputy Mayor – the latter, Jamieson feels, being currently the more likely.

But none of this will happen, Jamieson emphasises, unless “we elect a strong mayor who can deliver a plan that central government can trust”.

Jamieson’s starting point could hardly be more different from that of the council leaders. ‘Strong’ isn’t necessarily synonymous with ‘generously paid’, but that’s where his logic takes you, under either model.

As PCC, Jamieson is paid £100,000, as are his counterparts in West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, although the latter (Tony Lloyd), significantly, is also Interim Mayor.

If policing is ‘absorbed’ into and becomes just part of the mayoral role, the mayor’s remuneration logically must be well in excess of £100,000. And the same conclusion seems inescapable, if it becomes the separate responsibility of a deputy mayor.

Jamieson’s figure for the elected mayor thereby becomes “about £140,000” – or a little over three times that proposed by the council leaders. It’s not entirely clear how he arrives there, but it’s roughly what a cabinet minister, the London mayor, or West Midlands Police’s Deputy Chief Constable receive.

But, though there’s a logic to Jamieson’s case, it’s still in its own way, I’d suggest, as unhelpful and as careless of political and economic realities as that of the council leaders. Why should the remuneration of a mayor, with as yet a really rather limited range of potential responsibilities, be shaped by that of someone, albeit elected, responsible solely for aspects of policing?

It’s hardly as if PCCs institutionally have been a resounding success. The overwhelming majority of us have little idea either who they are or what they do.  If we did, we’d almost certainly say that they’re overpaid.

And ironically, these people whose principal job it is to hold the police to account were criticised earlier this year by the Commons Home Affairs Committee (p.23) for their own lack of accountability and transparency.

In summary, there is an important and increasingly urgent debate to be had about the kind of elected mayor we want our region to have – and, relatedly, how much they should be paid. But unfortunately it’s got off to a really depressing start.

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