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West Midlands metro mayor election ‘will go ahead’ as Tories gear up for selection battle

West Midlands metro mayor election ‘will go ahead’ as Tories gear up for selection battle

🕔30.Aug 2016

The Conservative party is pressing ahead with plans to select a candidate for next year’s West Midlands metro mayor election, pouring cold water on claims that Theresa May is considering scrapping the powerful directly elected role.

Chamberlain Files understands Tory members may be offered a choice of two candidates for the region’s mayor – Andy Street, managing director of John Lewis and chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP, and former Dudley council leader Les Jones.

Mr Street has made little secret of his mayoral ambitions and sources close to him expect a formal announcement by the middle of September.

Mr Jones, a veteran Tory councillor, has twice been the party’s candidate for West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, losing out on both occasions to Labour’s David Jamieson.

Friends of Mr Jones say he is keen to put himself forward for metro mayor, while Conservative sources suggest the party could opt for a shortlist of two to avoid any suggestion that the candidacy will be “gifted” to Mr Street.

Were the John Lewis boss to get the nod, he could be anointed by Mrs May during the Conservative conference in Birmingham at the beginning of October.

It’s thought Mr Street will have to resign from John Lewis and stand down as GBSLEP boss if he wins the Tory mayoral nomination.

Whoever the Conservatives select will face MEP Siôn Simon who earlier this month was confirmed as Labour’s candidate. The Liberal Democrats are yet to reveal who they will field.

It was claimed earlier this month that the Prime Minister might be getting cold feet about metro mayors, fearing that elections next May in the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Liverpool would probably result in wins for Labour – enabling Jeremy Corbyn to boast of major successes in the largest English cities.

An article in The Times by respected Whitehall Editor Jill Sherman suggested that while mayoral elections in Manchester and Liverpool are likely to go ahead Mrs May is set to let the next phase of devolution proceed without directly elected mayors. The story did not mention the West Midlands.

The article also hinted that regions such as Leeds and Newcastle, where devolution negotiations have been taking place for two years, might be able to opt out of having an elected mayor.

There’s little doubt that Mrs May is under pressure from Conservative MPs to ditch metro mayors, which have never been popular among the party faithful and are viewed suspiciously as an American-style gimmick promoted by former Chancellor George Osborne and David Cameron.

It appears highly unlikely that the Conservative selection process for mayor would take place if the Government was intent on scrapping the post. The 2015 Conservative General Election manifesto also made it clear that city regions negotiating for maximum devolution would be required to have an elected mayor.

The West Midlands Combined Authority, representing the seven metropolitan councils, several shire districts and counties, and three local enterprise partnerships, has completed a consultation on powers to be handed to the mayor.

Powers proposed for the mayor are extremely limited and council leaders have made it clear they regard the elected politician merely as the leader of a team rather than as a powerful individual.

A final decision over how much control the mayor will have over an £8 billion transport, economic development and skills devolution package will be taken by the Government.

The Times story prompted widespread reaction across the local government world.

Birmingham city council chief executive Mark Rogers suggested on his Twitter page that the article was an example of an August story in the media silly season.

Alexandra Jones, chief executive at the Centre for Cities thinktank, wrote to The Times calling on the Government to confirm that next year’s mayoral elections will take place as planned.

Ms Jones said:

The drive to devolve more powers and introduce metro-mayors in major city regions across England has the potential to make a huge difference to the millions of people who live there. The government should confirm that mayoral elections in places such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands will go ahead next May, as planned.

Taking a more flexible approach to county devolution deals, where the case for mayors is less strong, is welcome but that should also be clarified as soon as possible.

While uncertainty continues, there is a risk that devolution could yet be derailed altogether. That would be a huge missed opportunity to support local economic growth, and would mean that political and economic power remains concentrated in Whitehall rather than in town halls across the country.

The Financial Times reported Mrs May’s spokesman confirming that the prime minister was less wedded to mayors than Mr Osborne, but reports that the Government would drop the policy were wrong.

The Government was trying to agree devolution deals that have “clear accountability including mayors” and this would on a “case-by-case basis” and regions could have “what works for them”, the spokesman said.

Resistance to elected mayors is mainly in areas with two-tier authorities — smaller district councils and an overarching county council. Some district councils want to join up with neighbouring cities but their county councils, responsible for transport, education and skills training, fear losing money and say some services would be harder to run.

Derbyshire county council has taken legal action to try to prevent Chesterfield joining the Sheffield city region, formed by four city authorities in South Yorkshire.

It is seeking a judicial review to overturn Sheffield’s consultation exercise as “misleading and flawed”.

Nottinghamshire county council is also seeking to block Bassetlaw from joining the Sheffield city region. Alan Rhodes, Labour council leader, said the move “makes no sense”.

Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire dropped their own joint devolution bid after local MPs objected to having a mayor.

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