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WMCA’s devolution bid – never mind the width, just hope for some quality

WMCA’s devolution bid – never mind the width, just hope for some quality

🕔24.Sep 2015

How do you justify spending your weekend in front of the box watching the Davis, Solheim and Rugby World Cups, the one-day cricket cup final, Singapore grand prix, and the odd Premier League football match, asks Chris Game?

Well, if you’re an academic still retaining traces of his puritanical upbringing, you count Combined Authority devolution bids. Or, more precisely, you reassemble other people’s counting.

In some cases, of course, counting and categorising is about all you can do with these things. As Paul Dale reported last week, even most Birmingham City councillors hadn’t seen the bid document submitted by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).

And even Chamberlain Files editor Kevin Johnson, who each week attends more Insider Powerhouse Breakfasts than I’ve had in my life, admits “the devolution deal is shrouded in more secrecy than a meeting of the National Security Council” (does he attend those as well?).

More seriously, Kevin’s surely dead right in his concluding words:

If political, business and other stakeholders are to make [any devolution] settlement work, there needs to be a whole new approach to transparency and engagement.

And he might have thrown in WM residents and electors too – partly as a gesture to the pretence that we live in some kind of democracy, but particularly as we’re likely to be asked to elect a metro-mayor about whose creation none of us have yet been consulted.

Kevin seems to feel that there must be some point behind all this irritating secrecy, and indeed that it must be a pretty darned big one. I hope very much that he’s right. However, that wasn’t the conclusion I could possibly have formed from the evidence available during my weekend TV marathon.

That evidence comprised the little we knew about the substance of the WMCA bid, and others’ assessments of how it compared with the 30-plus documents or summaries of documents that they had seen and sifted.

On that basis, the WMCA’s effort could only be judged pretty limited or, as those involved would probably call it, highly focused. Although, as Paul Dale noted with a pleasing oxymoron, the CA released only the “broadest details” of its plans, they mainly comprised “taking control of transport, economic development and skills through a ten-year investment fund worth £10 billion”.

And you don’t get much more from the CA’s own website. Its media release added the obligatory references to HS2, but not a word about making the M6 Toll free at the point of use, controlling Air Passenger Duty at Birmingham Airport, and all the other goodies in the ‘Highly Confidential’ wish-list document revealed excitedly by BBC Midlands Today yesterday (9.22 mins in).

Which seems rather odd, though scarcely more so than the other proposal the media release did mention: “transformation of public services for ‘troubled individuals’, including support for people with mental health and reforms to the criminal justice system” (don’t we all have mental health?).

Hopefully, that presumably unchecked half-sentence wasn’t taken direct from the bid document itself. Either way, it seemed to epitomise the visible haste in which this whole exercise had been undertaken, and in the West Midlands case not simply due to the compressed summer holiday timetable imposed late in the day by George Osborne and the Treasury. Most – albeit certainly not all – of the other CAs at least knew, before deciding on a game-plan, who was in their team.

Anyway, partly bending over backwards to be fair, and partly because I suspected some of the other bids must also contain some fairly ‘broad details’, I gave the ‘troubled individuals’ idea a lower-case x in my table, bringing the WMCA submission’s total policy areas up to 3½ – or exactly half the overall average.

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The first thing to emphasise about this table is that it’s a kind of IKEA flatpack job. I assembled it, but, in this case, the Local Government Chronicle (LGC) did the serious work of collecting, reading and categorising the bid documents – 26 in all, having excluded those from Scotland and Welsh authorities and those amounting to little more than a letter of intent.

LGC coded the documents’ content under 18 headings: 16 policy areas, ‘fiscal powers’ – of which more shortly – and whether there was an expressed readiness, as in the WMCA bid, though unnecessary in those of Greater London and Greater Manchester, at least to consider the adoption of a directly elected mayor.

The second column shows the numbers of CAs whose bids made some reasonably substantive reference to the policy area: all to economic development, most (though not WM) to housing, and a select few to broadband and flood defence funding, where WM’s absence is perhaps less surprising. ‘Public Estate’, by the way, is the term used for government/council-owned real property assets.

The top row shows the numbers of policy areas addressed in the bids of this selected group of CAs – an average of 7 across all 26; 3 (or 3½ with my inclusion of welfare) for WMCA.

As this blog’s title suggests, sheer numbers aren’t everything. Quality obviously matters, and economic development, transport and skills are all hugely important topics.

Even so, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed that a CA covering even at present the largest metropolitan county area in the country doesn’t apparently have anything collectively relevant to say about quite so many of the policy areas for which its unitary councils are individually responsible.

Nothing about greater integration of health and social care services, the acceleration of housing delivery, the establishment of a joint housing and regeneration fund, like Leeds City Region, or indeed proposals to takeover the whole area’s public estate.

OK, better not to bite off more than you can chew, to try to run before you can walk, and all that stuff. Even so, I felt it was sufficiently regrettable to be highlighted in red that – at least in the documentation seen by LGC, as opposed to that leaked to BBC West Midlands – there was nothing of substance regarding additional fiscal powers. If this is the case, then it is worrying.

One of Greg Clark’s arguably few backward steps in his first few months as Communities Secretary was his telling the Local Government Association conference in Harrogate that he was “not persuaded” that fiscal devolution – such as powers to raise local taxes or set council tax or business rates – was “necessary or desirable”.

It sounded like Treasury-speak, and certainly the great majority of councils – senior officers and councillors alike – would disagree. They know from personal experience, as surely does Clark, that the local finance system is sclerotic, unfit for purpose, unpredictable and largely outside their control.

They know too that, if they are genuinely to reform local services and grow their local economies, they can’t do it just by managing, let alone reducing, budgets more or less grudgingly devolved from Whitehall – with, effectively, one hand tied behind their backs.

They need the ability, like local governments in virtually all developed democratic polities, to raise a significant proportion of the money they spend and are held to account for locally.

That’s why over half the bid documents – and pretty well all of those from the big city region CAs – contained something about fiscal powers.

In Greater Manchester’s case, naturally, it’s a biggish something – powers to raise air passenger and stamp duties. In others it will be freedoms to vary local council tax bands and undertake their own revaluations.

The absence of a X in the WMCA box implies its bid had nothing to say about such matters, or even about business rates retention – this despite the leaks over the summer about seeking 100% retention and the fact that this is one fiscal concession on which we know Clark is open to persuasion. My simple question is: Why?

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