Why we need participation and democracy in the WMCA and what we can do about it

The word ‘business’ appears 34 times in the WMCA Agreement but there is not a single mention of the word ‘union’. Nor is there any place for community representatives. That is why the question of democratic participation and accountability is so vital, to ensure that workers’ and communities’ interests are heard and are influential in CA policy.

The West Midlands Combined Authority is a new regional structure of local government with a government-controlled business agenda to promote economic growth.  At the centre is economic and financial policy, but its remit goes much wider, covering post-16 education and training, skills, employment, transport, housing, and the police (replacing the failed elected Commissioner role). It also includes ‘public service reform’, which focuses initially on what it calls ‘troubled individuals’ but has much wider implications. It will have control over many of the present functions of the seven local councils in the CA.

Employers in power but no union or community representatives

The decision-making structure of the CA comprises the directly elected Mayor and a ‘Cabinet’ of the leaders of the seven councils, together with members of the three Local Enterprise Partnerships representing the interests of employers. But there is no counter-balancing representation of the trade unions. A graphic demonstration of where the power lies is that the word ‘business’ appears 34 times in the WMCA Agreement but there is not a single mention of the word ‘union’. (1)  Nor is there any place for community representatives. That is why the question of democratic participation and accountability is so vital, to ensure that workers’ and communities’ interests are heard and are influential in CA policy.

No mention of public participation or empowerment

The Agreement has a section on Governance but it says not a single word about public participation, let alone empowerment. Nor is it mentioned on the WMCA website. (2).  The Birmingham City Council website is also silent. (3).  In fact, it says virtually nothing at all about the WMCA, just a brief one page statement about the claimed funding benefits. This is either incompetence or a legacy of Albert Bore’s culture of secrecy keeping the citizens of Birmingham in the dark.  In contrast, Solihull Council’s website contains 20 informative Q&A pages about the WMCA. (4).

It is worth comparing the WMCA Agreement with what the Greater Manchester CA says about public involvement, empowerment and democratic accountability. Section 4 of its policy document on ‘Public Service Reform – Developing Our Approach’ is about ‘Our Principles and Values’ (5):

 ‘Building on the existing principles that have underpinned the reform programme to date, and with a continued challenging fiscal landscape, a broader set of principles is now proposed: making clear that a new relationship between citizens and the state (supporting the empowerment of local communities) is at the heart of our approach.’

It then details its ‘Proposed reform principles’, of which the first is:

‘A new relationship between public services and citizens, communities and businesses that enables shared decision making, democratic accountability and voice, genuine co-production and joint delivery of services. Do with, not to.’

Now we are not idealising the GMCA – as comments below will show it is no model of democracy. But at least these statements on paper open the door to public demands and pressure to put them into practice. In contrast the WMCA keeps the door firmly shut, with not a mention of shared decision-making and democratic accountability.

Democratic accountability: the West Midlands gets a monthly Scrutiny meeting, London gets an elected Assembly

The accountability of the WMCA is supposed to be ensured by an Overview and Scrutiny Committee. This is likely to follow the Greater Manchester Combined Authority model of a group of councillors meeting monthly. This is hopelessly inadequate to exercise effective critical scrutiny over the wide range of complex issues that the CA will be dealing with. After all, Birmingham alone, even after the recent culling of Scrutiny Committees, still needs three. But the revealing comparison is with London.

The London Assembly website says this: ‘As the most powerful directly-elected politician in the UK, it is important the Mayor is held publicly and democratically accountable.’  (5).  We would say that the directly elected Mayor of the WMCA will be the second most powerful directly-elected politician in the UK (though Manchester may disagree) and what is right for London should be right for the West Midlands. So how is the London Mayor held accountable?

‘That is the job of the 25 London Assembly Members, who you elect at the same time as the Mayor. The Assembly holds the Mayor and Mayoral advisers to account by publicly examining policies and programmes through committee meetings, plenary sessions, site visits and investigations. The Mayor should respond to Assembly motions and formal recommendations. In addition, the Assembly questions the Mayor ten times a year at Mayor’s Question Time. The Mayor must also consult Assembly Members before producing statutory strategies and the multi-billion pound budget for the GLA Group.  The Assembly can reject the Mayor’s strategies and amend the draft budget if a majority of two-thirds agree to do so. Assembly meetings are open to the public so Londoners can stay informed about the activities of the Mayor and the Assembly can publicly review their performance.’ (6)

These Assembly members are not just existing councillors drafted onto a Scrutiny Committee, they are elected by citizens who vote for them specifically because they are going to fight for their interests. And they aren’t just reactive to policy, they act as champions for Londoners proactively investigating concerns through not just one but 15 issue-based committees and raising their findings and their policy demands with the Mayor and with the government itself.

That is why we argue for an elected West Midlands Assembly to play a similar role. Again we say, if it’s right for London why isn’t it right for the West Midlands with its population of around 4 million?

We want participation where policy is made, not just where it is implemented

It has been argued that there will be representation of trade unions on some of the lower-level committees that the WMCA will set up, and this is sufficient. So far no such committees have been announced, but three ‘Commissions’ have been: on Productivity, on Land, and on Mental Health. It is not known who will be on these Commissions. There is little information on the WMCA website (and none on the Birmingham Council one) and again you have to go to the Solihull website to find out a bit more. Take one example:

‘The Productivity Commission is based on 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. The Commission aims to establish the true extent of the productivity challenge in the West Midlands by looking to:

  • Understand the component causes of the productivity challenge and the inter-relationships between them

  • Make recommendations as to how these individual causes can be addressed

  • Ensure appropriate plans are developed for the implementation of these recommendations and monitoring systems exist to review their effectiveness.’ (4)

This is obviously a key issue for the trade unions and for local communities, and they should be fully involved, both as a democratic right to express their views and because they have knowledge and expertise which the Commission needs. But there is a danger that they will be marginalised or excluded. Greater Manchester, as the model which the WMCA may well follow, provides a warning:

‘There are two high level groups who currently have oversight of the skills agenda in GM. They are the:

  1. Skills and Employment Strategy Group, and the
  2. Skills and Employment Programme Board.

The Strategy Group is accountable to the GMCA and the GM LEP. Its role is to agree GM’s priorities and strategic direction around skills and employment.

The Programme Board is accountable to the Strategy Group and is responsible for implementation of the Partnership’s delivery plan.’ (7)

There is no trade union representative on the Strategy Group, but there is one – though only one – on the Programme Board. So there is union involvement, but it is only in the committee concerned with the implementation of policy decided elsewhere – there is no union involvement in the committee responsible for the making of policy itself.

Towards democratic participation in the WMCA

It has been argued by some in the union and third sector movements that the WMCA has been imposed by Osborne and therefore making demands for more democracy is pointless – we have to accept it as it is and simply aim to ‘engage’ with it to get the best deals out of it we can, and criticising the CA will make them less likely to listen to us.

We don’t agree. Of course we want to get the best benefits we can from the CA for workers and communities. We believe that pressing for more say, more participation, more influence, more power in its policy-making and practice will achieve more benefits for workers and communities,  and that the CA needs their support, their knowledge, their expertise, and their values based on social justice, in order to ensure that the CA meets social needs not just business profits. The final structure of WMCA committees and their membership is still in the process of being decided so there is still opportunity to open them up to participation. We also believe that as time passes more and more people will become aware of and dissatisfied with the powers the CA has over their lives and the lack of influence they have over it.

We have argued that the best answer is an elected assembly. But it is not a question of that or nothing – there are other democratic reforms which we can argue for as a step in the right direction.

For example, the CA Scrutiny Committee could be opened up to co-opted representatives from unions and community organisations, with voice and indicative vote. This is exactly what is permitted in the Greater Manchester CA Constitution. It says ‘A pool of elected members (the “Scrutiny Pool”) will be established which will comprise of 3 councillors from each of the Constituent Councils.’ But it also says ‘Non-voting members may be co-opted to participate in these arrangements from all or any of the associated authorities or from other organisations as the Scrutiny Pool members may decide.’ (8. Our emphasis). Why cannot the WMCA do the same? And come to that, why can’t there be union and community organisation co-opted onto the Cabinet itself on the same basis, alongside the employer representatives? The CA could go even further if the political will was there: if the Constitution of the WMCA excludes an elected Assembly, why can’t it set up an elected Forum with advisory powers?

‘Devolution is a chance to open up politics and renew our democracy’ say Labour’s shadow ministers for Local Government Jon Trickett and Steve Reed. (9).  The resolution on devolution passed at September’s TUC conference calls for devolution proposals to ‘have real democratic accountability at their heart’. Let’s make this real in the West Midlands.




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