‘We’re ambitious for second Devo deal, but it will take time’, WMCA chief warns
A second devolution deal for the West Midlands could be on the cards, but council leaders are stressing that talks with the Government are still at an early stage.
West Midlands Combined Authority chief executive Martin Reeves said “the ink is barely dry” on a 30-year £8 billion devolution agreement negotiated with Ministers in 2015 and it would take time to work out the elements of a second deal following the arrival of an elected metro mayor next May.
It would be wrong though to think that the combined authority, which only became a legal entity three months ago, was dragging its feet. “This is an ambitious growth programme. There will be a flurry of activity between now and Christmas,” Mr Reeves declared.
Mr Reeves told Chamberlain Files a second devolution deal would focus on public service reform by re-targeting investment on the most vulnerable communities and families.
Last year’s deal, described as ‘infrastructure-heavy’ set out plans to extend the Midland Metro tram network and capitalise on the arrival of HS2, creating thousands of jobs around high speed rail stations at Birmingham Curzon and Birmingham International.
The intention now is to concentrate on skills and productivity issues, mapping out ways to close a £4 billion gap between the money the West Midlands receives from the public purse and the funding councils say they need to meet demand for public services.
Last year’s deal across the seven West Midlands metropolitan authorities and adjoining shire districts and counties earmarked just £30 million towards improving skills and productivity, described by Mr Reeves as “a tiny amount”.
It’s been confirmed that Mr Reeves and other WMCA officials are working with the three candidates declared for metro mayor to understand the policies they are proposing and how they might be implemented. A common theme from Labour’s Siôn Simon, Conservative Andy Street and Liberal Democrat Beverley Nielson is the improvement of public transport links.
Mr Reeves said he would not describe the process as scenario planning, but added:
What we are doing at the most senior level is speaking to the candidates. They want to know about what we are doing and what our plans are and we are talking about the areas where they might potentially want to go.
He hinted that a proposal by the council leaders to hand limited powers to the mayor might be extended as some point in the future, but insisted there was a need for the new devolution arrangements to bed down first.
Chamberlain Files understands that all three of the candidates fighting to become mayor expect the powers of the office to be extended by the Government in future, but some leading figures expect further developments before Government signs off the balance of powers between the office of Mayor and the WMCA. The results of a widely criticised consultation exercise on mayoral powers was submitted to the Government last week.
Mr Reeves said:
The powers of the mayor are linked to the Devolution Bill. We are having discussions with the Government about the West Midlands becoming a powerful devolved area. There will be discussions in the future about how these powers are best delivered through the mayoral authority.
As devolution plays out there will inevitably be conversations about what powers come down from Whitehall and how they are dealt with by the mayoral combined authority.
It’s very early. We have barely got the ink dry on the first round of devolution. But we are well placed to go to the Government and say we are ready to think carefully about what this looks like over the next few years.
Mr Reeves said WMCA had detected “very positive signs” from Theresa May’s government for the future of devolution and pointed out that the West Midlands found itself in a positive position compared to the North East and West Yorkshire where devolution deals have fallen apart over the question of a metro mayor.
The challenge facing the West Midlands councils was to find ways of “balancing out massive growth from HS2 and reforming public services at scale”. He added:
What the new government is interested in is how you can square economic growth and think about our families and communities with poor quality outcomes.
There are massive challenges in the North East and West Yorkshire but we are well structured and having regular conversations with Ministers and civil servants.
The West Midlands has a very strong combined authority, a very strong alliance with the LEPs and the metropolitan council leaders and non-constituents councils.
There is a huge amount of energy and a lot of focus on what we are trying to do. But we can’t take anything for granted. We are focusing on a weekly basis on what the combined authority needs to do.
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