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WMCA’s ‘mates club’ reputation does little for openness and public engagement

WMCA’s ‘mates club’ reputation does little for openness and public engagement

🕔03.Mar 2016

The leaders of the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils like to stress that they have come a long way in the past year, having agreed to form a combined authority and sealed a devolution deal with the Government.

It is undeniable that these are remarkable achievements coming from a group of local authorities who, not so long ago, were rivals and in certain cases bitter rivals at that.

However, the head knocking and tough talking necessary to kick WMCA into shape has sometimes been at the expense of openness, leaving the council leaders facing accusations of clouding their deliberations with undue secrecy, or even of heading up a ‘mates’ club’.

This time last year the councils embarked on a ludicrous exercise designed to convince people that the West Midlands wouldn’t necessarily be required to have a metro mayor in order to get a decent devolution deal.

A form of words was concocted to suggest that the Chancellor, George Osborne, would be offered two alternative devolution deals by the councils, one with a mayor and one without in order to see which deal would be the best. This was far-fetched to say the least, since Mr Osborne was at pains in the run up to the General Election to point out that city regions wanting full devolution, like Greater Manchester, would have to have an elected mayor.

By September 2015, with the last lingering prospect of metro mayors being kicked off the political agenda having disappeared following Labour’s crushing General Election defeat, the then leader of Birmingham city council, Sir Albert Bore, was still keeping up the pretence that the West Midlands had options.

Asked by a scrutiny committee what the council leaders would say to Mr Osborne, Sir Albert replied:

Will we have a metro mayor? Discussions will take place in the weeks to come.

The seven Met leaders have said to the Government we haven’t ruled it in and we haven’t ruled it out.

The issue sits on the table. What’s the colour of your money?

This even then was palpable nonsense. Mr Osborne’s money, which turned out to be £365 million a year for 30 years, was only available if the West Midlands agreed to have an elected metro mayor.

It no doubt suited the council leaders, given the general public suspicion of mayors, to pretend that the West Midlands had options, but as events began to pan out this strategy also gave the impression that there was something ever so slightly shifty about the combined authority.

There then followed a period of several weeks during which some of the West Midlands councils, particularly Birmingham, insisted that details of a draft devolution agreement had to remain secret at the behest of the Treasury. Sir Albert even went so far as to state that the whole deal would be scrapped by Mr Osborne if any of it leaked out in advance. He even failed to share details of the proposals with his cabinet, or his deputy leader.

The Treasury denied insisting on secrecy and said councils were free to discuss openly the devolution proposals. A draft copy of the West Midlands proposal was leaked to the Coventry Telegraph and published, and unsurprisingly the deal did not fall apart and was eventually approved by Mr Osborne.

Last month, the shadow combined authority ran a consultation exercise on its ‘Scheme’ of governance, required as part of the legal process to establish such a body. The consultation generated an impressive response in terms of volume and, overall, saw positive feedback. But the questions would be unlikely to pass a Code of Practice test of impartiality or balance. The exercise still leaves questions about WMCA, not least how the board will work and make decisions as a question over LEPs as the voice of business.

This week, the shadow combined authority announced the appointment of two officials who will run WMCA when it begins operating on June 1. Martin Reeves, chief executive at Coventry council will be the interim chief executive while Jan Britton, the chief executive at Sandwell council, will be interim chief operating officer.

Both posts are part-time and Mr Reeves and Mr Britton will continue in their chief executive roles at their own authorities. Neither man will receive any additional pay for their extra responsibilities, a decision said to reflect public concern about administrative costs attached to the combined authority.

This is all very well as far as it goes, but as is the way with WMCA the announcement leaves open more questions than it answers.

Why, for example, are two chief officers required? Is it really a job share with Mr Reeves the senior partner? How will Reeves and Britton find the time to pilot WMCA on top of their already highly demanding council jobs? And the biggest question of all, what happens in May 2017 when a metro mayor is elected? Presumably, Mr Reeves and Mr Britton will bow out, although this has not been made clear.

The choice of Mr Reeves to head up the organisation on an interim basis is interesting. He may be the best person for the job, and by all accounts has impressed as the lead officer on economic strategy, but he comes from Coventry where opposition to the combined authority and metro mayor is the greatest in the West Midlands.

Conservatives on Coventry council have already questioned the amount of time Mr Reeves will be expected to give to the combined authority and the impact this may have on his performance as council chief executive.

The appointment of Mr Reeves may also stir up disquiet among the council’s ruling Labour group, and there are suggestions that council leader Ann Lucas, whose support for the combined authority and metro mayor has not impressed all of her colleagues, may face a leadership challenge in May.

With three months to go before the West Midlands Combined Authority is up and running, the council leaders must improve communications and start to be a bit more open about exactly how this organisation will operate.

What arrangements will be made for effective scrutiny by committees with cross-party representation? To what extent will WMCA cabinet meetings be held in public?

It has emerged that each of the seven council leaders will have a portfolio in the WMCA cabinet. What are the portfolios? What, apart from secrecy for the sake of secrecy, could be stopping the shadow WMCA from revealing how its cabinet will work?

Council bosses are keen to stress that engagement with business will now increase. 

Yes, the West Midlands has come a long way in a year. But there is still a very long way to go before WMCA can say it is meeting the requirements of openness and public engagement.

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