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Why Greater Birmingham can’t afford to be left behind in the metro mayor race

Why Greater Birmingham can’t afford to be left behind in the metro mayor race

🕔05.Nov 2014

Who would have thought it? Elected mayors are back on the local government agenda in a big way and this time, apparently, the idea has the support of the main political parties in Westminster.

After a lost decade in which referendums were botched and Government ministers ran scared from openly backing the mayoral system, it is suddenly a case of full steam ahead for change.

Greater Manchester will have its mayor in place by 2017. The other northern combined authorities will follow shortly afterwards and are likely to form a powerful ‘mayors’ cabinet’ to oversee a huge territory from Liverpool in the west to Newcastle in the east, and taking in Leeds and Sheffield.

The so-called Northern Powerhouse is a dream no longer. If the next Government follows the plan set out by Chancellor George Osborne, the transfer of budgets and powers from Westminster to the regions will represent the most significant change in the way England is governed for 100 years.

Once the devolution dominoes begin to fall over, other city regions will demand their share of the cake. Even the West Midlands, where moves to form a combined authority are proceeding at glacial pace, will have eventually to come round. The circumstances dictate it. There can only be so much ground we can cede to the north before heads in Birmingham, the Black Country and Solihull are well and truly knocked together.

Mr Osborne made a fascinating intervention in the House of Commons yesterday when he hinted that Birmingham, given the size of the city, might well qualify for its own mayor.

In reply to a question from Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart (Lab) Mr Osborne said: “Clearly Birmingham city council is much larger than Manchester city council alone, so I would like to have a conversation with the hon. Lady, and with Albert Bore and other civic leaders in Birmingham, about whether we can move to a mayoral model, perhaps just in the city. That is a discussion to be had with local people, however.”

In the space of two sentences the Chancellor deftly lobbed a rocket into the box of fireworks that represents the Greater Birmingham combined authority debate. His comments raised two obvious questions. How would a Birmingham mayor fit in with the mayor of a West Midlands combined authority, and how on earth will Birmingham get its mayor given that most city councillors and much of the cabinet remain adamantly opposed to the idea?

There is of course joy over a sinner that repents, and Mr Osborne’s conversion to the mayoral camp is welcome, but you have to ask what the Chancellor was doing when Birmingham and other cities voted in 2012 in referenda to decide whether they wanted elected mayors. Silence from the Government contributed to a non-campaign, resulting in most cities rejecting the idea – in Birmingham 58 per cent said no and 42 per cent said yes.

The tail end of Mr Osborne’s reply to Mrs Stuart may be significant. Birmingham moving to a mayoral model is a discussion “to be had with local people”. In other words, the Government appears to be sticking to its default position that there must be public support for a switch from the cabinet-leader system to an elected mayor.

At the moment there are two ways in which cities can get an elected mayor. The first is through a petition raised by council tax payers, and the second is through the council itself agreeing to move to a mayoral system. Greater Manchester’s metro mayor is backed by the 10 combined authority councils who put opposition to the idea behind them when offered the Government ‘carrot’ of devolved powers and budgets.

Sir Albert Bore, the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, is involved in an exhaustive round of ‘telephone diplomacy’ with West Midlands council leaders in an effort to persuade them that a combined authority is the only way forward. The Black Country council leaders are yet to fall into line and there is confusion over Coventry and Warwickshire, where an economic partnership has been set up.

As for the name to be given to a combined authority, don’t even mention it. This area is so sensitive that Sir Albert’s diplomatic skills are yet to address the matter.

Pulling off a Greater Birmingham combined authority deal is a big enough challenge on its own; persuading Birmingham city councillors that an elected mayor is the best option is probably beyond even Sir Albert’s powers of persuasion.

So if Mr Osborne is serious about city regions and devolution, he may have to prepare to legislate in the case of Birmingham. It would be ridiculous, as well as damaging to the national economy, if Birmingham and the West Midlands were to plod along with the existing arrangements, which are not by any stretch of the imagination delivering positive results, while other regions took advantage of devolution by approving metro mayors.

A glance at the Greater Manchester agreement between the 10 councils and the Treasury gives a flavour of what the West Midlands might expect.

The mayor’s powers are to include:

  • Responsibility for a devolved and consolidated transport budget, with a multi-year settlement to be agreed at the next Spending Review.
  • Responsibility for franchised bus services for integrating smart ticketing across all local modes of transport, and urgently exploring the opportunities for devolving rail stations across the Greater Manchester area.
  • Powers over strategic planning, including the power to create a statutory spatial framework for Greater Manchester. This must be approved by a unanimous vote of the mayor’s cabinet.
  • Control of a new £300 million Housing Investment Fund.
  • Control of a reformed earn back deal enabling the authority to keep business rates from new growth, within the current envelope of £30 million a year for 30 years.
  • Taking on the role currently covered by the Police and Crime Commissioner.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s powers will include responsibility for devolved business support budgets, control of the apprenticeship grant for employers and the opportunity to be a joint commissioner with the Department for Work and Pensions for the next phase of the Work Programme. Further powers may be agreed and included in future legislation.

But as Mr Osborne has pointed out, the sheer size of Birmingham and the West Midlands conurbation probably dictates a different approach. A mayor for Birmingham, and mayors for the Black Country councils and Solihull, under the control of a metro mayor, perhaps?

It could be significant that this issue has come to the fore when Birmingham city council’s governance arrangements are under examination by the Kerslake Review. If Sir Bob Kerslake is of a mind to produce radical proposals, and Mr Osborne is still in a pro-mayor mood, anything could happen next year.

One thing is certain, maintaining the status quo or merely tinkering at the edges is a non-starter as far as Birmingham is concerned. The times they are a changing, and fast too.

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