WMCA gets go-ahead, but MPs pour scorn on Osborne and metro mayor
MPs have re-emphasised their opposition to an elected metro mayor for the West Midlands, claiming the idea is being forced on reluctant council leaders by the Government.
In a thinly attended House of Commons debate on a statutory order setting up the West Midlands Combined Authority, Ministers were accused of riding roughshod over the views of electors.
Shadow local government minister Liz McInnis (Lab) accused Chancellor George Osborne of hatching a devolution deal for the West Midlands “behind closed doors” in a manner which “added to the general public’s perception that they are being excluded from having their say in what will be a major change to how they are governed locally”.
While the order, which was approved, gives legislative approval for the combined authority to be formed, it does not deal with the issue of a metro mayor. A mayor, to be elected in May 2017, is a requirement of an £8 billion devolution deal being negotiated with the Government by the shadow combined authority.
The West Midlands Combined Authority, consisting of the seven metropolitan councils as full members as well as three local enterprise partnerships and some district councils, will hold its inaugural meeting in Birmingham on June 10.
Ms McInnis said:
Labour believes in a process of devolution that gives local people the power to make their communities and economies stronger and fairer. We stand for a bottom-up approach to the devolution of power, which does not appear to be the case here.
What is on offer demonstrates that the Government do not trust local people to decide how they want to be governed. Some may want elected mayors, others may not, but the imposition of mayors is in direct opposition to the very definition of devolution. Under this deal, the people of the West Midlands have a mayor imposed upon them, whether they want one or not.
The Government’s decision to impose metro mayors on local areas and combined authorities as a precondition of devolution is wrong and anti-democratic. What we have here is a top-down devolution deal that appears to have been shaped in No. 11 Downing Street, rather than by the people and communities of the west midlands.
There is no new money. The combined authority will make use of existing staff and finances, and decisions will be made by the existing council leaders working together. I am disappointed by the assumption that that approach will deliver better value for money. With no accompanying impact assessment, how can that possibly be known?
Warley MP John Spellar (Lab) accused Ministers who had never been councillors of “meddling” in local government:
That is why they so cavalierly ride over the wishes of local councillors. In the referendums that were imposed on our great cities, we saw all but one of the cities that were asked turn down the proposition of elected mayors. Interestingly, two of those cities, Coventry and Birmingham, which rejected elected mayors by an overwhelming majority, are now being forced to have one.
Mr Spellar forecast that Warwickshire county council would be under pressure from the Government to become a full constituent member of WMCA. He added:
Equally, discussions are taking place as to the involvement of Telford and the rest of Shropshire. That would be quite a different type of authority and people in the region—not just parliamentarians—want to know what the shape of the authority will be.
There is also concern that if the Chancellor, who has never served on a local authority, is going to force through not only the creation of an elected mayor, but an election next year in May, we could see a repeat of the stand-alone elections we had for police commissioners, where we saw incredibly low turnouts right across the country. That should be a concern on all sides.
Coventry South MP Jim Cunningham (Lab) warned that a combined authority and mayor would inevitably lead to further taxation and claimed not a single local authority in the West Midlands really wanted the devolution deal on offer:
Regardless of what the Government say, they certainly will be levying some form of precept. The Government have said that they want to move power from the centre to local areas. If they are going to move power from the top to the bottom, they should go to the bottom—local authorities—and not do it through the region.
This deal is totally undermining local authorities. In other words, this is phase two of a long-term programme of the Conservative party, and this Government have picked up where previous Conservative Governments left off.
I cannot think of any local authority in the West Midlands that really wants this deal, but the authorities know that if they do not go ahead with it, they could be subject to certain sanctions—for example, a reduction in any grants they may get from central Government.
I find this deal very difficult to support, to say the least, but local authorities have agreed to go down this road.
Local Government Minister James Wharton (Con) insisted the West Midlands devolution plan had been agreed with local authorities “in a bottom-up way, rather than as a top-down deal”.
He quoted from a letter written to the Minister by Cllr Bob Sleigh, the Conservative leader of Solihull council and chair of the shadow WMCA:
A combined authority would help maximise growth in output and jobs. A region-wide focus on productivity, competitiveness and raising skill levels would put the region in the best position to achieve its economic vision and economic goals.
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