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WMCA elects a Tory chair, Corbyn powers on: has politics gone mad?

WMCA elects a Tory chair, Corbyn powers on: has politics gone mad?

🕔24.Aug 2015

Anyone who six months ago walked into a bookmaker’s and asked for odds on Jeremy Corbyn becoming the next Labour party leader and a Tory being the first chair of the West Midlands combined authority would probably have been escorted from the premises by men in white coats, writes Paul Dale.

Half of that strange political double is in the bag – Bob Sleigh, the Conservative leader of Solihull, was last week elected WMCA’s first chair by fellow council leaders. As for Corbyn, he remains on course to take over from Ed Miliband unless, as seems possible, the verification of ballot papers succeeds in purging a large number of his supporters.

The choice of Sleigh as chair of WMCA is a shrewd move for several reasons.

It will remind the Government that the largest combined authority in the country covering some four million people is not a Labour fiefdom – in fact, if the Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire shire districts become members the political balance will be split fairly evenly between Labour and Conservative.

The decision will reassure Tory controlled Solihull where until fairly recently most councillors and the borough’s new MP regarded a West Midlands combined authority with deep suspicion and didn’t want anything to do with it. Cllr Sleigh’s role behind the scenes in convincing his colleagues that devolution would be good for Solihull and the only way to achieve that is through a combined authority cannot be over-stated. He deserves the chairmanship.

Finally, the election of Sleigh and Sandwell Labour council leader Darren Cooper as vice-chair sends out a quite deliberate message that WMCA is not about domination by Birmingham. The seven metropolitan councils, with the willing agreement of Birmingham, have gone out of their way to do everything possible to demonstrate that there is no truth in the claim that WMCA is a new version of a Brummie-led county council, and that crucially the role played by the region’s three Local Enterprise Partnerships will be crucial.

Sadly, and unjustifiably, the “we don’t want to be taken over by Birmingham” mantra continues to be put about, often by politicians that either don’t understand what a combined authority is, or are wilfully misrepresenting the position. A candidate at a recent council by-election in my part of Warwickshire stressed in a leaflet that he would fight Birmingham’s move to “swallow up” surrounding authorities through a combined authority. Needless to say, he didn’t get my vote.

The speed at which the seven Mets finally moved to seal a deal has been impressive, particularly given Birmingham’s own domestic problems following the highly critical Kerslake Review which has clearly been occupying a vast amount of council leaders and officials time. We reported on the ‘consultation event’ staged by those leading on putting a deal together for WMCA earlier this morning. Even so, it seems doubtful that the Chancellor will be in a position by the Autumn Statement in November to fully approve the West Midlands devolution package, although most of the building blocks should be in place.

Almost a year ago Cllr Cooper warned Birmingham and Solihull that they had to get on board by Christmas, or run the risk of the Black Country forming a combined authority with Staffordshire, Telford and Stoke. The sight of Greater Manchester reaping rich devolution rewards from the Government in return for agreeing to move to a metro mayor clearly focused minds in the West Midlands, helping to bring Solihull and Coventry on board.

Cllr Cooper used his blog recently to tackle head on the propagation of WMCA myths:

A combined authority will bring millions of pounds worth of investment into the West Midlands. It will take decision making powers away from the government and give them to us here in the very heart of our country.

A combined authority is not about Birmingham swallowing up all of the smaller councils. It’s not about adding an extra layer of government, or more politicians. Some people have even asked me if their address would change.

The answer is no. Who your council is, where you live and what town you come from will not change. Sandwell, and all of the other councils, towns and cities, will keep their own name, their own governance arrangements and their own identity.

What will change is it will be the West Midlands – and not Westminster – making the big decisions on the things that affect us.

Declaring that the West Midlands would be “daft not to take this opportunity”, Cllr Cooper added:

A combined authority will mean higher productivity, more skilled and better paid jobs, better health outcomes, reformed public services and a lower welfare bill.

A combined authority gives the West Midlands a future where we’ll be able to secure more resources from the government and have the power to choose to spend that money where they are most needed.

The focus now is on the type of devolution package the West Midlands can negotiate with the Government. Maximum devolution around transport, economic development and skills will require a metro mayor – the council leaders know this and have already unofficially accepted that a mayor must be in place, probably by 2018.

According to the Municipal Journal, the councils have told Ministers they want control of a capital and revenue budget in return for a mayor. This claim has not been challenged by any of the councils.

The Cities and Local Government Bill promises to “devolve far-reaching powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors” with the devolution of powers from the centre to cities “to give them greater control over powers currently exercised by ministers over transport, housing, skills and healthcare”. The Bill states:

The Government considers that it is necessary for the people of the area to have a single point of direct accountability. The Government’s view is that for cities, elected mayors for combined authority areas will achieve this and ensure the continuation of strong democracy.

Anyone who thinks WMCA can succeed without a metro mayor is living in cloud cuckoo land, although it remains unclear what view of combined authorities would be taken by a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government.

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