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Welcome to politics, Mr Mayor

Welcome to politics, Mr Mayor

🕔15.Jan 2018

After seven months in the role, Andy Street has discovered that being a Metro Mayor is a political job after all, writes Kevin Johnson.

The Conservative Mayor, who deployed a green tinge on his campaign material, has tried to be the business leader-turned-Mayor with party politics downplayed. But, by any definition, the role of Mayor is political – and Mr Street has paid a small price for poor politics.

As 2017 closed, Mr Street could rejoice in victories in the race to be city of culture and host to the Commonwealth Games. 2018 has kicked off with a big campaign to persuade Channel 4 to give up its HQ around the corner from the Palace of Westminster.

Late in 2017, he was able to chalk up the second devolution deal. It included money for a metro extension through Dudley, a homeless project pilot and funding for a National Battery Manufacturing Development Facility at the University of Warwick.

But the celebration of the devo deal was muted – it was not a big money deal. At the beginning of last week, Mr Street’s friend Greg Clark was in danger of being pushed out of Government or promoted to Health Secretary, depending on which briefing you read.

But the blow arrived on Friday.

Street loses first vote as Mayor

It came as a surprise, but shouldn’t have been.

Liam Byrne, Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill and a potential Labour candidate for the Mayor at the 2020 election, was quoted earlier in the week:

The Mayor’s new tax hike is piling on the pain for hard-pressed Midlands families.

Mr Street promised to look everywhere before asking for new taxes. Now he’s been forced to raid local families because Theresa May’s Tories shortchanged the West Midlands and spent £1 billion on buying the votes of Northern Ireland’s DUP to prop up her shaky government.

Labour leaders on the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) executed a brake on Mr Street’s plan to add £10.80, based on Band D properties, to council tax bills in the West Midlands. That would raise a total of £7.5million to spend on his office with the majority set aside for “congestion-busting measures.”

Cllr George Duggins, the politician who replaced Ann Lucas after she effectively lost her position for supporting Coventry’s involvement in the fledgling WMCA, led the strike.

There’s a debate to be had about the intentions of Labour leaders. Standing up for their hard pressed citizens? Sending a message to the Tory Government? Damaging one of the Conservative’s few electoral assets? Take your pick.

Cllr Claire Spencer, Vice-Chair of the WMCA’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee, wrote to fellow Birmingham councillors at the weekend suggesting either Labour leaders had been excluded from the budget development process or they were involved and “pulled a stunt.”

It was certainly politics, albeit somewhat more sedate than the Commons or some local council chambers.

Many in the Labour party still struggle to come to terms with a Conservative victory in the race to be first West Midlands Mayor. For others, the idea of a Mayor – of whatever colour – is anathema.

This May will see council elections. In Birmingham, they will be particularly interesting as they’ll be based on new boundaries which will form a council that will last for four years. In the aftermath of the waste management dispute and Cllr Clancy’s demise, but with the Tories struggling nationally, who knows what will happen.

But Mr Street must look closer to home than political opportunism.

In particular, where were his political colleagues, such as deputy mayor Cllr Bob Sleigh; his office and the WMCA executive?

Did Mr Street and his deputy put in the political leg work with Labour leaders in advance of the budget paper and Friday’s meeting?

Had his political staff advised him on the risk and what deals might need to be done with Labour leaders?

Had they taken the temperature of local councillors across the region – and what influence they were exerting on their leaders?

WMCA governance specialists, Cllr Sleigh and chief executive Deborah Cadman were on hand with Mr Street during the meeting. Whilst the deputy mayor offered an alternative vote, why did nobody step in to pull the report, its key recommendation on the mayoral precept and avoid a vote altogether?

Beyond Friday’s meeting, the preparations and political effort to secure the approval of the WMCA seems rushed. That was made obvious by the recalculation necessary after the first round of media activity. The proposal almost seemed to come from nowhere – had Mr Street and his team been laying the ground?

As Cllr Spencer pointed out in her pre-meeting briefing, Andy Street had committed that he would not utilise a Mayoral precept on the council tax before 2018. He said he would convene a panel of experts to advise and that such a precept would be a last resort.

Whilst he remained true to the wording of his ‘Renewal Plan,’ many might have expected to have seen expert advice and recommendations supported by a communications plan before Mayor Street attempted to insert another entry into council tax bills.

In a small example of Mr Street’s political tin ear, he gave a swift rebut to Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson’s suggestion that having a council leader from outside the metro area – and therefore who would not have to add the precept to her own council tax bills – present the proposal was inappropriate.

Mr Street pointed out Cllr Seccombe’s (Con, Warwickshire) finance and investment portfolio was agreed at the July meeting. But that was to miss the political point.

The level of precept – and the revenue it would yield – seem to be neither one thing nor the other. On the one hand, low enough for the question to be raised about what it would really achieve and the scale of impact it could afford the Mayor.

On the other, it offered a wedge to Labour leaders who have an inbuilt majority on the WMCA.

By any reasonable definition, Mr Street has a small team.

The WMCA now has a full suite at the senior executive level, with Henry Kippin (public service reform) and Patrick White (industrial strategy) added at the end of the year under the management of formidable chief executive Deborah Cadman.

But beyond the top tier and the Transport for West Midlands and West Midlands Growth Company teams, there is limited resource.

As we have suggested previously, the incorporation of the Fire Service and West Midlands Police (under the PCC) staff and assets seem to be treated as a bureaucratic bolt on rather than a strategic opportunity.

There are many who are yet to be sold on devolution. Many who are familiar with the WMCA question its purpose, beyond co-ordination and tactical activity. The added value of the Authority, not simply the presentation and ambassadorial abilities of the Mayor, has yet to be comprehensively communicated.

Even ardent supporters of Mr Street ask what the WMCA has in its bag by way of strategic powers and capacity to make a tangible difference.

Last week the Birmingham Post reported on its Google survey showing that “just one in three people in the West Midlands say they can name the region’s mayor.”

Whilst there is awareness and appreciation of Mr Street among the business community and what we might describe as the chattering classes, that’s not yet translating to many voters on the streets.

To be honest, at this stage of the game, that’s not too bad in our book. Three-fifths in the survey said they were aware such a person existed.

But it underlines the need to make the Mayor, the WMCA and most importantly what they do clearer in the public mind.

Even at Friday’s meeting, there were concerns raised by Labour leaders that some work at WMCA level was in danger of duplicating their efforts locally.

There needs to be a clearer understanding of where WMCA can add value – either where the total it offers is greater than the sum of local parts; or, where it is securing powers and resources from central government, bringing policies and decision-making closer to home.

Mr Street needs to help local politicians fight local battles they can’t win alone with a Government of another persuasion. That might be on the social care crisis, education and skills or squaring the circle on land and housing.

What sold Labour leaders on the WMCA and the imposition of a Mayor in the first place was simple. More money.

So far, Mr Street has remained loyal to Theresa May and the party to which he has belonged for most of this life.

There have been only small slithers of light between Government on immigration caps, maintaining access to the single market and customs union and the appetite of the Department for Education to even entertain devolution.

Somehow, Mr Street needs to find ways in which he can help Labour politicians without being disloyal or that risks him or Labour leaders believing it threatens their prospects at the ballot box this year or in 2020.

The Mayor needs to start by reviewing his political operation and building deeper political relationships across the region.

It’s always surprised us that he has staffed his team solely with Conservative colleagues. An offer to Sion Simon to lead on a policy or head up a commission would have been fanciful, but what about James Burn – the Green candidate who impressed many during the campaign – or Lib Dem Beverley Nielsen?

Who is offering advice or even brokering relationships with Labour politicians and who might have forecast Friday’s turn of events or, better still, prevented it altogether?

Let’s not be carried away by Friday’s vote. It was a relatively minor blow and, whether rescuable or not ahead of the final budget meeting, it will not be a major factor in May 2020.

Last year’s victory and the months that followed might be viewed as the easy part for Mr Street.

2018 is going to be a tougher year for him.

Greater regional and political collaboration was never going to be straight line progress.

To make 2018 run slightly smoother, he would do well to remind himself he is a politician.

Mr Street needs to think and act like one, without losing the qualities that have afforded him and the region recent successes or that make him a less attractive electoral proposition in 2020.

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