The Launch Statement of the forthcoming West Midlands Combined Authority, ‘Growing the UK Economy through a Midlands Engine’, was published on 6 July. Its agenda is private sector profit, public sector privatisation and the by-passing of local democracy.
The West Midlands refers to the area covered by the three Local Enterprise Partnerships: the Black Country LEP, the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP, and the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP. The WMCA comprises the 7 Metropolitan Councils: Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, and Wolverhampton. Negotiations under way with neighbouring County Councils and District Councils could bring the number up to 13.
Driven by private profit
The rationale for the creation of the Combined Authority is indisputable: ‘Cities are the principal drivers of the world’s economic growth’, ‘size will matter more than ever before’ and ‘the Northern and Midlands cities have not grown strongly enough. They are too small’ (p10). The West Midlands is a ‘Functional Economic Market Area’.
But what is contestable is the overriding aim of the CA: private profit. The launch statement is unequivocal: ‘Our objectives must be to amplify the competitiveness, productivity and profitability of private sector enterprise’ (p5). What about public services? ‘Our pursuit of growth will be accompanied by an agenda of innovation and public service reform that will reduce the overall level of public spending.’ (p13). In short, cuts and privatisation.
An economic strategy for business, by business
Several reasons are given for a decline in productivity in the West Midlands: a skills deficit, the legacy of worklessness, inadequate transport infrastructure. But there is no mention of the fundamental reason: lack of private sector investment, because it isn’t profitable enough, and the absence of a vigorous government investment strategy.
The three LEPs and the Metropolitan Authorities will ‘produce an overarching Strategic Economic Plan for the West Midlands’. ‘The intention is to create a Regeneration and Development Growth Board to lead this work. This Board will oversee a portfolio of major development projects, considered critical for the Combined Authority to achieve its GVA growth target…the Board will also build, and extend, existing relationships with investors, financiers and banks…’ (p14). But what evidence is there that it will generate sufficient investment to provide decent well-paid jobs for the thousands out of work or on poverty wages? And how much of this investment will be to meet the needs of workers and communities in the West Midlands, not those of stock-market gamblers?
What will the WMCA mean for public services?
There is no mention in the Launch Statement of the WMCA taking over the running of specific public services, as is happening in Manchester, but it is inevitable that that will be part of the deal with government. It does however speak of ‘undertaking necessary public sector reform’ (p6) and a ‘public service challenge’ due to ‘constrained’ budgets and demand’ (p11). In other words, the CA will take over some of the role that the local councils are currently playing in cutting budgets and privatising services. Merging services on a West Midlands-wide basis opens the door to job cuts.
The Statement spells out its priorities: adult care, care of the elderly, and mental health. ‘That means tackling the hard issues: complex dependency, mental health and the challenges of ageing well. We have established a Public Services Board, co-chaired with West Midlands Police, to drive reform and look at system changes that can reduce demand, such as targeting re-offending and criminality.’ (p11). A Mental Health and Public Services Commission will be set up and it will ‘Make recommendations on how the findings of the Commission can best be taken forward to reform public services in the West Midlands.’ (p17).
Deepening the democratic deficit in the West Midlands
The Launch Statement claims that ‘Combined Authorities do not take power away from local councillors or the individual communities they serve.’ (p13). The truth is the exact opposite: they are designed to destroy what remains of meaningful local democracy, in two ways. First, by giving overriding powers to directly elected mayors. There is no mention of a directly elected mayor in the Statement but it’s only a matter of months before the council leaders acquiesce.
Second, by handing over local authority powers to a cabal of council leaders – together with the mayor – who are not held accountable to an elected West Midlands assembly (as Boris Johnson is to the London Assembly with veto powers). In reality the WMCA will be run by 8 people – the 7 LA leaders and the mayor (perhaps together with a handful of other council leaders). Typically, of the 7, 6 are men and all are white.
Already decisions are being taken with no democratic consultation or even discussion
The Statement ends with a page on ‘the consultation process’. ‘The decision to proceed with the creation of a West Midlands Combined Authority is rightly in the hands of the elected leaders of the local authorities of the West Midlands. It is an important decision in which a variety of stakeholders have views which need to be fully taken into consideration. There will therefore be a process of consultation and engagement between now and the formal launch of the West Midlands Combined Authority in April 2016.’ (p18.). No indication is given of the nature of this consultation process. What seems certain is that they have no intention of holding a referendum on a directly elected mayor, as BTUC has called for. (The proposal is already being rubbished by media acolytes like Neil Elkes and Paul Dale.)
But already decisions are being taken with no democratic consultation or even public discussion. For example, the Public Services Board mentioned above has apparently already been set up. Who is on it? Are workers and users represented? How is it publicly accountable? And why on earth are the West Midlands Police given the power of co-chair? Another example: the Statement says that the three LEPs ‘will deliver a proposition to Government at the end of July 2015 outlining a model for radical reform of the whole skills system that will reduce unemployment, raise skills levels and make a significant contribution to raising productivity.’ (p15). By the end of July! And of course with no consultation with the trade unions.
Local democracy in the West Midlands is at stake – and with it public sector jobs and services
The implications of the WMCA for the users of services and the jobs and conditions of local authority workers are very serious. And events are moving fast. We need coordinated responses across the West Midlands. And we need to build support for two key democratic demands:
- No directly elected mayor without a referendum
- No West Midlands Combined Authority without being accountable to an elected and decision-making West Midlands Assembly.
The creation of the WMCA could be the opportunity for a powerful engine of economic growth and improved public services directly accountable to the people of the West Midlands through a powerful new elected assembly. (It would actually have a larger population than Wales, with its Assembly of 60 members with proportional representation.) But what is being planned is very different – an engine driven solely by business interests and run by a tiny and remote cabal of council leaders which the existing patchwork of local councils would be almost entirely incapable of controlling, and in which the people of the West Midlands would have no voice.