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West Midlands is getting a Mayor – it’s time to be honest about that

West Midlands is getting a Mayor – it’s time to be honest about that

🕔28.Sep 2015

The one thing that stands out from a draft devolution agreement submitted to the Treasury by council leaders is that the West Midlands combined authority will be led by a metro mayor, writes Paul Dale.

If a devolution deal is agreed, and something certainly is going to be agreed, it will be based on the understanding that key powers and budgets transferring from Whitehall must be placed in the hands of a mayor, who will become the country’s most powerful directly elected figure after the mayor of London.

There is no ‘plan B’. The draft document, contrary to claims made by some council leaders, fails to set out two alternative proposals – one with a mayor, and one without.

Rather, it details very carefully the way powers and responsibilities would be carved up between a mayor and the West Midlands Combined Authority, consisting of the seven metropolitan council leaders, the three local enterprise partnerships, and as many leaders from surrounding shire district councils as can be persuaded to join WMCA, with Cannock Chase the latest district on course to sign up.

The mayor will be able to levy additional council tax and business rates, and will take control of strategic transport decisions and a ten year transport investment fund.

WMCA will control the HS2 growth strategy, cream off a substantial sum of money from business rates uplift across the three LEP areas, have powers to create local enterprise zones, control a £500 million housing fund and take charge of a devolved adult skills and careers budget.

Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of deals being hammered out up and down the country by the Government and councils will have known for a while that any significant devolution package must come with a metro mayor. George Osborne has said so many times, as has the prime minister.

Unfortunately, West Midlands council leaders have not been as open with people as they might have been.

Sir Albert Bore, the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, was questioned by a scrutiny committee four days after the WMCA devolution submission was sent to the Treasury. Asked whether the West Midlands would have a metro mayor, Sir Albert stuck to an agreed ‘party line’ and replied “we haven’t ruled it in and we haven’t ruled it out”, before adding somewhat cryptically that the “issue is sitting on the table” and the Chancellor would be asked “what’s the colour of your money?”

He could of course have explained that the draft submission document was based entirely around the West Midland councils accepting a metro mayor and consequently any deal would collapse if WMCA did not wish to embrace a mayor. He preferred instead to leave the issue hanging in the air.

It will be fascinating to see whether the scrutiny committee invites Sir Albert to return in order to clarify his remarks following publication of the draft devolution deal.

Far from not ruling a mayor in, the council leaders have set out on a path that is bound to result in the election of a mayor if the West Midlands is to get a decent devolution deal.

Bob Sleigh, the leader of Solihull Council and chair of the shadow WMCA, was a little more candid when interviewed by Chamberlain Files. He pointed out that an “exceptional” devolution deal would require a mayor, and the West Midlands naturally wanted an exceptional deal.

The big question, Sleigh said, was around the powers to be granted to the mayor and how a mayor would work with the combined authority, the LEPs and the shire districts. His question is sketched out in the draft submission document, and will be answered in due course by George Osborne.

The secrecy surrounding the submission is difficult to explain, for there is nothing in the document that comes as a surprise, certainly nothing of a ‘wow factor’ to make West Midlanders sit up and say ‘I never saw that coming’, unless you count as big news a plan to relocate the National Art Collection to HS2 stations.

Most of the proposals have been well trailed, in particular transport powers, the amalgamation of business rates uplift, the HS2 growth strategy and a housing investment fund, which at £500 million will have to be spread rather thinly across the West Midlands, and appears to be only for private sector investment rather than social housing.

It appears the seven West Midlands council leaders have decided individually how much of the draft submission they should share in advance with colleagues. In Birmingham’s case, backbench councillors and even some cabinet members have been kept in the dark and will doubtless have been crashing the website of the Coventry Telegraph, where the submission document first appeared in full, in order to discover the devolution details.

Birmingham’s Labour councillors were reportedly warned by Sir Albert that absolute secrecy was required over the devolution deal on the orders of George Osborne. The deal could even be at risk of collapsing if anything slipped out in advance, apparently.

Now that the deal is out in the open, it will be interesting to see whether Mr Osborne rejects the entire package, tells council leaders they can’t keep a secret, and orders WMCA to come back next year. Somehow, I don’t think he will.

In some respects the reluctance to debate publicly the mayoral issue is understandable, albeit not justified. Most West Midlands councillors, from all political parties, remain at best wary of, and more likely opposed, to the elected mayor model which they see as handing too much power to one individual. Naturally in such a climate the first thought of most council leaders will be to keep discussions under wraps until a devolution deal is agreed.

The issue is particularly sensitive in Coventry, which has long had a love-hate relationship with the West Midlands. Some city councillors, and not just the Tories, would rather see Coventry jump into a combined authority bed with Warwickshire. The discovery through a leaked document that a WMCA mayor will have powers to levy additional council tax and business rates will not go down well in Coventry.

What’s happening now is that seven council leaders have the power to sign the West Midlands up for an elected metro mayor by approving a devolution deal with George Osborne. In theory they must show they have consulted the public about this, but demands for referendums on whether the region should have a mayor are certain to be ruled out as too costly, too time consuming, and would inevitably produce a resounding ‘no’ vote.

The fact is we are following Greater Manchester and other combined authorities down the mayoral route. It’s time for West Midlands council leaders to be open and honest about the direction of travel.

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