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Council leaders reject their own plan for limited West Mids mayor powers….allegedly

Council leaders reject their own plan for limited West Mids mayor powers….allegedly

🕔06.Sep 2016

Siôn Simon is dead right to conclude that the West Midlands’ metro mayor will be a toothless animal under current plans, even if he is a bit late to the party.

Chamberlain Files has been highlighting for months the inconsistencies between what the Government is claiming – that the mayor will be a powerful leader with executive powers – and the reality that the post-holder will turn out to be no more than a glorified chair of the combined authority who can be outvoted by the West Midlands council leaders.

Mr Simon made his views clear recently when he told the Birmingham Post the mayoral scheme as currently drafted would not provide a mayor to be “the true champion for the West Midlands, with powers to advance the interests of our businesses and our communities”.

He rightly described the proposals as “an administrative attempt to weaken the mayor and minimise the possibilities for progress”.

Mr Simon has refined his views somewhat since July when he gave an interview to Chamberlain Files in which he said he was “OK with” limited powers for the mayor.

We have a bit of a dispute since Mr Simon now says his comments were misinterpreted by Chamberlain Files and he has not performed any kind of U-turn.

He has stated:

I certainly did not say that the Mayoral Scheme as originally drafted would facilitate the kind of balanced collaborative approach which we need. It’s too restrictive of the mayor, such that it won’t work.

Mr Simon says his remarks were conflated with two different issues – powers for the mayor and the £8 billion West Midlands devolution deal signed by the seven council leaders and the Government last year.

At the risk of boring visitors, my shorthand note of the interview with Mr Simon reads:

I agree that at day one it is a fairly minimalist prospectus. It is at the bottom end of what you might expect a mayor’s powers to be. But I am OK with that.

Perhaps Mr Simon didn’t explain himself very well, or possibly I misunderstood a subtle nuance. It might have been helpful if Mr Simon had contacted Chamberlain Files to point out that we had not respresentated his views accurately in the report of our interview or in several references to this view made in subsequent posts. It doesn’t really matter. What is far more interesting is something he was quoted as saying by the Birmingham Post.

Mr Simon said the mayoral scheme as proposed “doesn’t reflect the views of council leaders, to whom I speak all the time and I know share my vision of a strong mayor working side by side with council leaders in the best interests of the West Midlands”.

A sharp intake of breath is called for here. For if Mr Simon is correct and the seven West Midlands council leaders with whom he is on such intimate terms aren’t supportive of the mayoral scheme as it stands, then it is pertinent to ask who put the scheme together in the first place?

The answer of course is that the scheme setting out proposed powers for the mayor was devised by the officers of the West Midlands Combined Authority and approved by the seven council leaders, the leaders of adjoining district and shire councils, and the region’s three Local Enterprise Partnerships.

A period of public consultation on the scheme has just finished and the Government will eventually decide the powers to be handed to the mayor when a statutory order is laid before Parliament.

All of the public meetings held by WMCA since June have featured brief discussions about the mayoral powers, sparked by the strongly held view of Police Commissioner David Jamieson that the mayor will be shackled by the council leaders and that the whole enterprise is doomed to fail.

Chamberlain Files is aware that the WMCA has received other representations highlighting concerns over the limited nature of mayoral powers.

If Mr Simon is correct to state that the mayoral powers scheme does not reflect the views of the council leaders, then you might expect the council leaders to say so. They are after all hardly shrinking violets. In fact at no time, not even once, has a West Midlands council leader stood up and said ‘I’m not very happy with this because it doesn’t give the mayor enough power’.

Instead, the response has been left to Wolverhampton council leader Roger Lawrence who has said the mayor will simply be the chair of a team and won’t be an “autocratic figure”. This in any event is something that Mr Simon seems to accept: “I said I was relaxed and I am. I said it was all about consensus and collaboration and it is. I said I wouldn’t want the mayor to have draconian powers to ride roughshod over the leaders, which I don’t.”

I know of one council leader who believes that the mayor’s powers do not go far enough but this person has been unable to convince his colleagues and is yet to register his concerns publicly.

It is worth contrasting the differences between the way the Government has said the mayor will work and what is planned by WMCA.

In November 2015 the Treasury stated that the mayor would have:

  • Responsibility for a consolidated, devolved transport budget.
  • Powers over the franchising of bus services in the combined authority area.
  • Responsibility for an identified key route network of local authority roads that will be collaboratively managed and maintained at the metropolitan level by the combined authority on behalf of the mayor.

The mayor will oversee a devolution package whereby the Government will make an annual contribution worth about £40 million for 30 years to support an overall investment package worth £8 billion. That’s £1.2 billion that the West Midlands wouldn’t otherwise have been given to grow the economy and create jobs.

Here is what the West Midlands Combined Authority is actually proposing:

The WMCA cabinet will examine the mayor’s draft annual budget and the plans, policies and strategies and will be able to reject them if two-thirds of the WMCA cabinet agree to do so.

In the event that the WMCA rejects the proposed budget then the WMCA shall propose an alternative budget for acceptance by the cabinet, subject to a two-thirds majority of those present and voting. The mayor shall not be entitled to vote on the alternative WMCA proposed budget.

The mayor will have responsibility for a devolved and consolidated transport budget and for a franchised bus service. As part of the mayoral budget, the consolidated transport budget will be subject to the examination of the cabinet and can be rejected if two-thirds of the cabinet decide to do so.

All transport, economic development and regeneration functions already carried out by the combined authority, including functions of the former passenger transport authority Centro, will remain the sole responsibility of WMCA, not the mayor.

The draft scheme says “it is not appropriate that the mayor is required to vote in favour as such functions are local authority functions, exercised concurrently in parallel and with the local authorities”.

Similarly, proposals to set up HS2 Growth Development Corporations will be the responsibility of the combined authority. The mayor, as chair of the WMCA cabinet, gets a vote, but cannot overrule the council leaders.

The mayor will be entitled to put forward proposals to the WMCA cabinet, but two-thirds of members present and voting must vote in favour.

In theory, the mayor will have a handful of powers, but even then all is not straightforward.

  • The mayor will be able to use compulsory purchase powers to acquire land or buildings in consultation with the Homes and Communities Agency, but must obtain the consent of the appropriate council.
  • The mayor will have powers to distribute the devolved consolidated transport budget, but only if the cabinet agrees to approve the overall mayoral budget.
  • An additional business rate can be raised by the mayor, but only if the business-led LEPs agree.
  • The mayor can raise a precept from member councils, but only if the cabinet agrees. 

This over-cautious approach cannot, as Mr Simon has stated, provide a mayor with the powers to be “the true champion for the West Midlands”. But unless he can persuade the council leaders to change tack, or the Communities Secretary tells them to go back to the drawing board, that is exactly what we will get.

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