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West Mids devolution final hurdle: will enough councillors back a metro mayor?

West Mids devolution final hurdle: will enough councillors back a metro mayor?

🕔07.Oct 2015

Each of the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils will have separately to agree any devolution deal brokered with the Government and approve plans for an elected metro mayor, it has been confirmed.

Even if the leaders of Birmingham Solihull, Coventry, Sandwell, Dudley, Wolverhampton and Walsall councils can persuade George Osborne to agree an £8 billion devolution package, they may still face a difficult task in persuading sceptical councillors that a mayor is the best option.

It is highly unlikely that a decision of such importance could be taken at cabinet level.

Backbench councillors, particularly in Birmingham and Coventry, have expressed anger at a draft devolution document drawn up by the council leaders, which is based solely on an elected mayor at the head of a West Midlands combined authority.

They claim the leaders promised to put forward two options for devolution – one with a mayor and one without a mayor. There are also concerns about “secrecy” after details of the proposed devolution package emerged only after being leaked to a newspaper.

The threat of rebellion in Coventry has eased after council leader Ann Lucas persuaded the Labour group to back her handling of the devolution talks. Coventry council will vote next week to join a West Midlands combined authority, with Labour members using their huge majority to outvote Tory councillors who want Coventry to join a combined authority with Warwickshire county council.

However, Cllr Lucas made it clear that the council will only be voting to join WMCA. Approval for any devolution deal will come at a later date and will be subject to a vote at a full council meeting.

A report by Coventry council chief executive Martin Reeves notes:

Any devolution deal would be subject to a separate and detailed discussion by cabinet and full council which would include an analysis of benefits and risks and the value of the deal to the city of Coventry along with any proposed changes in governance including whether or not to have a metro mayor.

A highly volatile political situation in Birmingham may make it more difficult for the council’s Labour leadership to get backbench support for a metro mayor.

Council leader Sir Albert Bore is under intense pressure following the shock resignation from the cabinet of James McKay, and is fighting desperately to convince the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel that he is on top of implementing governance reforms demanded in the highly critical Kerslake Review.

One leading backbench Labour councillor in Birmingham said it could not be taken for granted that members would vote for a mayor. It would depend on the value of the devolution deal finally negotiated with the Government “which will have to be far better than what is currently on the table to persuade members that the upheaval of a metro mayor is a risk worth taking”.

Negotiations with the Treasury will pick up pace after today following the end of the Conservative conference as council leaders come under renewed pressure to reach agreement.

Mr Osborne was able to use the conference to announce a £900 million devolution deal with South Yorkshire councils based on an elected metro mayor and is believed to be close to approving a devolution package for the north east of England, also dependent on a mayor.

Bob Sleigh, the leader of Solihull Council and chair of the shadow West Midlands Combined Authority, told Chamberlain Files discussions with Chancellor George Osborne and his officials were ongoing but declined to give any hint about the chances of success.

Cllr Sleigh added:

“All of the key figures have been at Manchester for the conference, but discussions are continuing. We have agreed with the Treasury that these matters will remain confidential so I am afraid I cannot comment further.”

Cllr Sleigh said he had given a commitment that any devolution deal that can be negotiated will go to a meeting of Solihull Council for approval.

The main proposals in the draft West Midlands devolution package are:

A metro mayor will chair WMCA and have powers to raise cash through council tax and supplementary business rates.

Other proposed powers for the mayor include:

  • Control of a proportion of the Government Road Fund for local priorities such as tackling M6 congestion and making better use of the M6 Toll.
  • Control of a £1.3 billion ten-year transport investment fund. All transport investment funding for the West Midlands would be in the hands of the mayor who would have statutory traffic management duties.
  • Integration of bus and rail networks enabling the mayor to develop a bespoke model for bus franchising, the creation of a single commissioning body for transport infrastructure projects, and development of a rail and bus smart ticketing system.

Powers to be devolved to the West Midlands Combined Authority include control of £200 million land remediation fund to tackle the most “intractable sites” and bring them back in to use and control of a £500 million housing loan fund.

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