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Influential committees at every turn, but the search for answers continues

Influential committees at every turn, but the search for answers continues

🕔31.Oct 2016

Birmingham and the region are on the rise. Not only did the governing political party enjoy the city’s delights a few weeks ago, but a series of influential committees have visited the patch to take evidence. What are we to make of all this? Chris Game dons a ushanka-hat to find the answers but returns from Wolverhampton a frustrated observer. 

At the recent Conservative Conference, the Midlands Engine reception was attended (possibly not simultaneously) by three ‘celebrities’ – Communities Secretary Sajid Javid AND Business Secretary Greg Clark AND party chairman Patrick McLoughlin. It was interpreted, just as Kremlinologists would use such signs to decipher Soviet politics, not as ministers being thirsty for free drinkies, but as a “significant show of support” for the region.

Since then, of course, the need for such conjecture has lessened. Devolution is definitely back on the Government’s agenda, and, while the PM herself can seem hazy about the really rather big distinction between the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), comprising three Local Enterprise Partnerships, and the 11-LEP Midlands Engine, some version of our region is definitely in the ascendancy.

An impression that was kind of reinforced by last week’s odd coincidence of two important London-based bodies both choosing to hold ‘away day’ meetings in the West Midlands on the third Friday in October. Then followed a meeting of the Business Select Committee just a few days later. 

It was, though, just that: a coincidence of dates, more significant only if that meant mildly irritating the Chamberlain Files and other politically minded West Midlanders who might otherwise have attended both gatherings.

As it was, Kevin opted for an oral evidence session of the London Finance Commission (LFC) in Birmingham’s Council House.

The LFC was appointed by Mayor Boris Johnson and reappointed by his Labour successor, Sadiq Khan, to make recommendations to extend the devolution of powers, and particularly fiscal powers, to the capital.

It’s chaired by LSE Professor Tony Travers, probably the country’s most authoritative voice on local finance reform, and the approach, analysis and far-reaching recommendations of its 2013 report – Raising the Capital – were consciously designed to have “the potential to benefit other cities in England as well”.

Hence the LFC’s purposeful trip to Birmingham, following an earlier one to Manchester, and leaders of our region’s councils as well as the WMCA can be expected to study with interest last week’s evidence session and the Commission’s eventual report. Kevin will be posting a summary here soon.

Meanwhile, I tripped over to Wolverhampton Civic Centre to attend something billed as a House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts (PAC)Discussion Event’ on “the impact of devolution and how it relates to regeneration, economic growth and central-local relations” – with, obviously, particular reference to the West Midlands.

In Parliamentary terms, the PAC is a big deal: the oldest select (investigative) committee, responsible for overseeing all government expenditures and safeguarding taxpayers’ interests. It has numerous concurrent work streams, Friday’s visit being linked to its interest in the Government’s evolving devolution policy, with particular emphasis on issues of transparency, scrutiny, value for money, and accountability, and also to its work on the local government’s financial sustainability, on which it will be reporting before Christmas.

Suppose, say, the Communities & Local Government Committee (CLGC) was severely critical of the Cameron/Osborne Government’s approach to devolution: “lack of public consultation and engagement at all stages”; lack of “rigour as to process”; “no clear, measurable objectives”; “timetable rushed”; no “efforts to inject openness or transparency into the deal negotiations” – as indeed it was in its February 2016 report, from which these quotes are taken.

Though it’s the more specialist body, the CLGC’s criticisms lack the political weight, plus the crucial backing of ‘taxpayers’ interests’, they would have if made by the PAC – which as it happens they were, in an equally severe savaging of the devo deal process in the Committee’s July report on Cities and Local Growth.

Well before last Friday, then, the PAC was already on record, as being, among other things:

  • concerned “that plans for proper accountability to taxpayers at a central, local and parliamentary level are not yet in place”;
  • “not confident that existing local arrangements for scrutinising devolved functions are adequate”;
  • “concerned by a lack of transparency over [variations in per capita] funding for different areas;
  • alarmed “that LEPs [all three of which are represented on the WMCA Board] are not meeting basic standards of governance and transparency, such as disclosing conflicts of interest to the public”; and
  • insistent that the Government be “far clearer about what these deals are intended to achieve and where accountability for areas of spending will lie”.

Accountability, scrutiny, transparency, equity: these are some of the biggest questions for all Combined Authorities, and so I was half-hoping they’d be addressed head-on in Friday’s Discussion Event and that there might even be news of some progress.

My mistake. I should have realised from the programme that it was actually more a Presentation Event – 13 of them, if you include Committee Chair Meg Hillier’s intro and round-up as one, squeezed into 3½ hours, and so averaging 13 minutes each, ‘discussion’ included.

It was necessarily highly organised: four panels of three or four speakers each on ‘The Economics of Devolution and Growth’, ‘Regeneration and Devolution’, ‘HS2 and Devolution’, and ‘The Changing Nature of Central-Local Relations’.

All speakers were expert, authoritative, perfectly gender-balanced, and commendably obedient time-keepers. Disappointingly (to me), there was just one, largely illegible, PowerPoint presentation, but I made plenty of notes – which my undergrad students used to regard as the mark of a decent lecture.

But there was also unmistakable frustration. In her closing remarks Hillier tried rallying us:

This is about politics. You’re the ones who’ll be selling it. Your voice is vital if this is going to work.

And she was right, for the great bulk of invitations had been to all West Midlands councillors and MPs.

The latter, understandably on a Friday, mainly sent their apologies, but the bulk of the audience/’discussants’ were indeed councillors, giving up their own time, as they will be again next Spring – exhorting us to elect someone unknown to most of us, to a completely new and quite powerful office at the head of a completely new and unelected institution we also know nothing about and haven’t voted for.  Quite an ask.

Yet not one elected member – chief host and Wolverhampton Council Leader Roger Lawrence excepted, on the virtues of HS2 – got anywhere near the stage, and their participation was restricted to the odd, inevitably brief, question or observation.

It seemed a careless way to treat a group who, in addition to being your devo salesforce, are (a) likely to feel most miffed and disempowered by a metro-mayoral executive system foisted on them by their leaders in cahoots with Tory ministers; and (b) the crucial part of any scrutiny system that’s going to come anywhere near justifying the name.

Clearly, there’s no satisfactory way of summarising 13 presentations, so the final section of this post is simply a small selection from my notes.

“We’ve travelled an incredible journey.” The original was a trek of two dogs and a cat across the wilder bits of Canada. This was WMCA Chief Operating Officer Jan Britton’s excited account of the sub-regional rivalries and negotiations behind the Combined Authority’s formation and devo bid – and part-excuse for the incredible secrecy surrounding them, that even he conceded may have been slightly overdone.

Oh yes, and an interesting euphemism: not ‘making it up’, but ‘exploring’, as we go along, which may be what’s happening with scrutiny. Jan Britton commented:

“Surely the local government model can’t just be extended in relation to a CA and mayor?”

It seemed rhetorical, but NO, it can’t.  However, as the Comptroller & Auditor General, Sir Amyas Morse, admitted, “We’ve no idea what it costs to provide effective scrutiny”.

“You’ve got the £36½ million”. The sum, you may recall from the summer, was the “landmark first payment” of the WMCA’s £1.1 billion, 30-year investment deal, but has apparently become the stock Whitehall response to any request for anything, including a separate funding line for scrutiny, the cost of running elections, and doubtless much else. It was unclear whether the PAC, in its taxpayer protection role, approved or not.







Here, at least, suspicion’s misplaced. The chart’s content may be familiar, but it was about the only legible bit of the only PowerPoint presentation, and it also contains a statistic that, in my experience, regularly goes unexplained or misunderstood.

Why isn’t the West Midlands investment pot a capital/revenue mix like most of the others? What happened to our capital bit?  My own, albeit very inexpert, understanding is that it’s advantageous. Capital simply gives you more options and allows for more borrowing: you can turn revenue into capital, but not capital into revenue.

There’s much more, but this blog’s already considerably longer than intended, and I doubt if I can find a more positive note on which to close.

Pic: Meg Hillier, Chair, House of Commons Public Accounts Committee

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