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Mayoral Mayhem? A challenging year begins…

Mayoral Mayhem? A challenging year begins…

🕔24.May 2019

The Board of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) meets this morning for the first time this civic year. It promises to be the start of Mayor Andy Street’s most challenging 12 months – and possibly his last year in office, writes Kevin Johnson.

It might also be the day that Mayor Street’s Conservative colleague, Theresa May, eventually sets out her departure timetable.

I should underline might and eventually.

Mr Street has been steadfastly loyal to a PM that will go down in history as someone who failed to deliver on her principal policy objective.

This week, Mr Street has been defending the benefits of HS2. The project, which underpins much of the region’s future economic strategy, has come in for renewed criticism by a think tank and a House of Lords select committee.

Many of the likely candidates for Conservative leader are publicly opposed to HS2 – either in whole, or in respect of the next phase to the North.

There are many with a close understanding of the project who believe the major infrastructure endeavour has no chance of meeting its 2026 deadline or £56Bn budget.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Games faces its own challenge to be ready for 2022 and find ways to cover the costs.

Last week, the Mayor was able to the launch the Local Industrial Strategy. It had twice been postponed due to the continuing #BrexitShambles.

The launch took place at the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry just as the challenges at JLR and the possibility of its sale by Tata seemed to be on the rise. JLR has been a flagship success for the region in recent years, especially its export performance.

The transition to electric and driverless cars is a major plank of the Local Industrial Strategy.

Mr Street will kick off today’s meeting in a very different political environment.

Gone, or going, are two politicians who were at the heart of putting together a Combined Authority in a region traditionally split down geographical and political lines.

Bob Sleigh (Con) and Roger Lawrence (Lab) will no longer be there to share their wisdom or capacity to navigate reasonable compromises. Arguably, Mr Street failed to fully utilise their talents whilst they were in post.

Two other politicians will still be there. Following his success at the local elections, when hundreds of his Tory counterparts across the country fell by the wayside, Mike Bird (Con, Walsall) remains on the Board.

Continuing as an Observer Member is Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson (Lab). Fresh from his victory over Mr Street’s botched attempt to roll the PCC powers into the Mayoralty, we can rely on Mr Jamieson to make his voice heard.

Cllr Bird strikes me as a man who could start a row in an empty room. Commissioner Jamieson will never use 100 words when 1,000 are available.

Together, Mike and Dave have a habit of making sparks fly in what can otherwise be a very vanilla chamber.

The Conservatives are back in charge in Dudley, just, with Cllr Patrick Harley returned to the leader’s chair. Sandwell always has a Labour leader, but for the second meeting running is sending a new postholder to the WMCA Board.

Beyond the Chamber, Mr Street faces a more robust challenge as he counts down to the next Mayoral election in just under a year from now.

Liam Byrne, the Labour MP for Hodge Hill, has already announced his hope to be Labour’s candidate. His campaign already displays more energy and focus than that of Siôn Simon last time around.

Waiting in the wings is Pete Lowe, the former Dudley Council leader, who has been developing his campaign for months. Lyndo Waltho, a former MP, is also intending to be on the selection list which must include women.

Whilst Cllr Lowe does not have the recognition of Mr Byrne, he is a formidable campaigner as is demonstrated by his efforts to save Stourbridge College.

The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury may be hoping his notorious note left for his successor may be ancient history. At this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Mrs May – of all people – managed to bring it up again.

Mr Street may be hoping the spirit of ‘Team West Midlands’ takes hold again. But with battlelines hardening ready for the next Mayoral election and the chances of a General Election being called by a new Tory PM to break the Brexit deadlock rising, these are not going to be quiet political times.

Mr Street will need to engage leaders on his Board in a far more effective manner than has been the case over the last two years.

Today’s business will include a financial update which yet again underlines the fact that with the Devolution Deal Grant effectively exhausted, new funding sources need to be found to maintain the agreed Investment Programme.

If such funds are not forthcoming, some politicians may form the view that the very reasons for forming a Combined Authority – and agreeing to a directly elected Mayor – have fundamentally changed.

Also on today’s agenda is an update on the Combined Authority’s Inclusive Growth strategy. Alongside the Local Industrial Strategy, we can expect the Inclusive Growth strategy to be a major feature in the Conservative Mayor’s election campaign.

Another brief item on the agenda is the appointment of a Returning Officer for the 7 May 2020 Mayoral election. The Board will appoint Coventry city council chief executive Martin Reeves for the role again.

It will be another small reminder to the Mayor, as if needed, that the clock is ticking.

Pic: Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street, George Hull lead engineer at UK Battery Industrialisation Centre, Eve Wheeler-Jones PhD student at WMG and Minister for Business and Industry Andrew Stephenson at the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre under construction in Coventry

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