Osborne’s WMCA trap: give up democracy if you want funding

To those who say you can’t challenge the CA’s lack of democracy if you want them to listen to you, we say you can do both – and the more pressure for an assembly elected by the citizens of the West Midlands to hold the CA to account the more likely you are to get funding for the services we need.

The 7 West Mids councils submitted their bid to Osborne in September but no official response yet. In Birmingham (unlike Solihull) there has still been no public discussion, let alone public consultation about the bid – in fact it’s still officially secret. (See this website October 13 for our analysis of the leaked bid.)

But behind closed doors members of the West Midlands Civil Society Forum – a group of senior officials of organisations in the Community and Voluntary Sector (CVS) – are already seeking to negotiate deals with the shadow WMCA board. At the Forum’s open meeting on 5 November they included ex-local authority officers, planning consultants, and a couple of Birmingham Labour councillors (Karen McCarthy and Phil Davis). Also present was Lee Barron, regional secretary of the Midlands TUC.

Their aim is to get the CA to ‘engage’ with ‘civil society’, but they define civil society not as the citizens of the West Midlands but as just themselves and similar CVS organisations.

In their view the pre-condition of gaining some influence over WMCA policy and getting hold of some of the funding available is to accept and not challenge the basis of the CA as imposed by Osborne, i.e. a directly elected mayor and no elected West Midlands assembly.

When BATC supporters made the case for every citizen to have a say through an elected assembly and distributed a draft resolution for trades councils (see below) they were invited to leave.

BATC says: they have walked straight into Osborne’s trap. They have abandoned the principle of democratic accountability of the CA – run by the cabal of the 7 council leaders, the directly elected mayor, and the business leaders of the 3 Local Enterprise Partnerships – for the hope of some influence and funding. They say the two are incompatible.

BATC says the opposite is the case. It is perfectly possible to both negotiate funding and at the same time demand democratic accountability through an elected assembly. In fact the more pressure there is on the CA from the citizens of the West Midlands for genuine democratic accountability the more likely it is to give way to demands for proper funding for CVS services.  BATC supports any organisation representing public interests getting as much benefit from the CA as it can, though by doing so collectively, not in competition with each other, and publicly, not behind closed doors.

It is surprising that Lee Barron opposes BATC’s position since it is completely in line with the policy passed at this September’s TUC conference. Resolution 33, ‘English decentralisation and trade unions’ said this:

“Congress … notes that when proposals do not include pre-conditions over the design of public services, or elected mayors, and have real democratic accountability at their heart, devolution can also contain benefits. With properly funded public services, extra investment powers, a responsibility to secure good jobs and stronger communities and, most importantly, a mandate from the public through the ballot box, combined authorities could usher in a new era of public service delivery in England that is more responsive to local need.”

…”real democratic accountability…a mandate from the public through the ballot box” – this can only be achieved through an elected assembly. Councillors supporting the CA – which seems to means all of them – will deny this, claiming that CA ‘Cabinet’ decisions will have to go back to the 7 councils to be approved, but no-one believes it. Already in Birmingham it’s Cabinet that controls policy, not the councillors, and under the CA even the local Cabinets will be down-graded, as Paul Dale pointed out ironically in his Chamberlain Files column on 24 August:

“…it is with sadness I have to report the downsizing of Birmingham city council cabinet meetings.

The Monday afternoon sessions, cult viewing for many, will in future be held only once a month. It was not unusual to have two or even three meetings a month when the cabinet began life in 2001, but as time has passed it’s become clear there simply isn’t enough business to transact. And with a West Midlands combined authority likely to be up and running next year, the cabinets of all seven metropolitan authorities will be of less importance.”

There is of course a precedent for devolution with a regional elected assembly: London. Yes, a directly elected mayor, but also a London Assembly of 25 members directly elected by proportional representation. If it’s good enough for London why isn’t it good enough for Birmingham? (Not to mention Wales, with a smaller population and a smaller economy than the West Midlands, and a Welsh Assembly of 60.)

One of the Board members of the West Midlands Civil Society Forum is Chris Crean, West Midlands campaigns organiser for Friends of the Earth. In his letter in the Birmingham Post on 30 July he said this about the WMCA:

“What will the combined authority look like and what will its future hold? Could we have a similar set-up as London where not only is there a mayor but also an assembly to hold the mayor to account?

… These issues are far too important to be left to a closed room with a few players, important as they may be. We need to encourage wider engagement and the open and welcome involvement of us all.”

BATC agrees. That is why we are campaigning for an elected West Midlands assembly and supporting the resolution to Trades Councils below.

TUC conference resolution on devolution: https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Congress_2015_Final_Agenda_All_LR.pdf

West Midlands Civil Society Forum: http://www.localisewestmidlands.org.uk/wmca-civilsociety/

Draft resolution on the proposed West Midlands Combined Authority

(An initial resolution was passed unanimously by Birmingham Trades Union Council on 14 May, before the bid details were made public)

XXX notes the proposal to establish in the near future a West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), comprising Birmingham, Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton, Solihull and Coventry.

XXX notes that:

  1. The seven West Midlands metropolitan councils submitted their bid for a Combined Authority on 4 September, that it has not been discussed by any of the councils in a public meeting, that it is supposedly secret, that there has been no public consultation, but that a leaked copy was published in the Coventry Telegraph.
  1. Under the proposed agreement some powers would be in the hands of a directly elected Mayor, who would chair the WMCA, and some in the hands of the CA ‘Cabinet’ comprising the seven council leaders, with the Mayor as Chair.
  1. The principal attraction of a WMCA for the council leaders and the business representatives in the three West Midlands Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) is the control of the additional funding it would attract. These powers are very largely about investment for business for economic growth. They include direct investment in business development, investment in improving the regional infrastructure that business needs, and increased control over the formation of the workforce. These are key policy priorities of central government which will be devolved to the WMCA to implement.
  1. In addition the bid includes a section on ‘Transforming public services and closing the public funding gap’. This section remains largely undeveloped, but it clearly opens the door to future cuts and privatisations.

XXX resolves that the WMCA represents a fundamental change in the model of local government in England, represents a threat to public services, their users and workers, and further undermines local democracy. The WMCA destroys the system of local government based on local councils democratically accountable to local citizens through elected councillors. It does this in two ways. One is by imposing a directly elected Mayor with significant personal powers, accountable only in direct elections every four years with no right of removal and no control by local councils. The other is by creating a WMCA ‘Cabinet’ composed only of the 7 council leaders, with no WMCA-wide elected assembly capable of holding the council leaders and the Mayor to account. Nor will there be WMCA-wide Scrutiny Committees.

XXX therefore calls for opposition to the proposal as it stands and for a democratic alternative to safeguard services and jobs, based on the following principles:

  1. No to a directly elected Mayor.
  1. The creation of an elected WMCA Assembly, comprising either directly elected members or councillors from the constituent councils, in either case to be on the basis of proportional representation. The creation of an elected WMCA ‘cabinet’ based on the above.
  1. If a directly elected Mayor is imposed, the Mayor to be subject to the decisions of the Assembly and ‘cabinet’.
  1. The establishment of powerful Scrutiny Committees at the WMCA level, comprising Assembly members together with lay members including trade union representatives.
  1. No transfer of public services such as to put at risk equality of provision on a national basis.

XXX calls for a period of full and democratic consultation on the current or future proposals for a WMCA, with alternative proposals included, and for a referendum on the proposal for a directly elected mayor.

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