The first 100 days – what should be at the top of the West Midlands mayor’s in-tray? We say: democratise the Combined Authority!

Centre for Cities is holding a policy discussion about the top priorities for the new West Midlands mayor on Thursday 21 July at 5.30pm in the Library of Birmingham. On the panel are:

  • Gisela Stuart MP Member of Parliament for Birmingham Edgbaston
  • Paul Faulkner Chief Executive, Greater Birmingham and Solihull Chamber of Commerce
  • Marc Reeves Editor, Birmingham Mail

This is an opportunity to publicly challenge the completely undemocratic power structure of the WM Combined Authority, with no WM elected Assembly to hold the Mayor and Council leaders to account.

You will need to book now to be sure of a place. Go to http://www.centreforcities.org/event/first-100-days-top-west-midlands-mayors-tray/ and register on Eventbrite.

Below are the alternative policies BATC is arguing for to open up the Combined Authority to public participation in its decision-making. Top of the list is a WM elected Assembly but there are other demands we can make as steps towards democratising the Combined Authority.

Why government – and employers – want a directly-elected mayor

A directly-elected mayor is a presidential form of local government, accountable only in direct elections every four years with no right of removal.  It means the government can deal with a single leader and one not tied to local political parties as a council leader is – an arrangement that suits the private sector too. Directly-elected mayors offer the possibility of a Tory mayor, or at least an independent, being elected in Labour-dominated urban areas. And they are ideally suited to the media’s fondness for reducing politics to personalities.

The mayor is elected for four years by the Combined Authority area’s electorate and is not recallable by them or removable by the Combined Authority Cabinet. The Cabinet members are elected, but by their local authority electorates to serve on the local council; they are not elected specifically to govern the Combined Authority, and they are not accountable to voters in that capacity.

London has an elected Assembly – why not the West Midlands?

There is a precedent: the scrutiny arrangements in London. There ongoing public accountability of the directly elected mayor and the Greater London Authority is ensured by a directly elected London Assembly.  The London Assembly has 25 elected members. They 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.  (39).

The Constitution of the WMCA doesn’t exclude the option of an elected Assembly.  If it’s right for London why isn’t it right for the West Midlands? This is the position adopted in resolutions passed by Birmingham Trades Union Council. It taps into the strong popular desire for local democracy and influence in the decisions that shape people’s lives. As a demand it is likely to become more urgent and popular as the democratic deficit of the WMCA becomes more evident in practice.

Democratising the WMCA: 1

A WMCA Elected Assembly

But it is not a question of an elected Assembly or nothing – there are other democratic reforms which we can argue for as a step in the right direction.  They Include opportunities to counter the male-dominated and exclusively white composition of the current WMCA Cabinet and the likely contenders for mayor and ensure that the WMCA power structure represents the gender and ethnic make-up of the West Midlands.

Democratising the WMCA: 2

A WMCA elected Forum of representatives of local communities, trade unions, and users of services, with at least advisory powers

A forum along these lines, with at least advisory powers, would enable direct public participation and input.

The current plan is that the ongoing accountability of the mayor and Cabinet is the responsibility of whatever scrutiny arrangements they choose to put in place.  The WMCA seems likely to follow the Greater Manchester Combined Authority model of a single Scrutiny Committee comprising a group of councillors drawn from all the participating councils and 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.

However, the Devolution: the next five years and beyond report notes:

Scrutiny

“77. As the DCLG says, the overview and scrutiny requirements in the Bill are an initial framework to be used as a basis for more robust provisions […]. These should be developed […] as a result of deliberate efforts to hold active discussions at local level, with residents involved in designing new and more open methods of scrutiny.”

(Devolution: the next five years and beyond)

Will residents – citizens – have that opportunity in the WM?

Democratising the WMCA: 3

Hold “discussions at local level, with residents involved in designing new and more open methods of scrutiny.”

A way of opening up the WMCA Scrutiny Committee to public participation would be to co-opt onto it representatives from unions and community organisations, with voice and indicative vote. The Scheme for the establishment of a Combined Authority for the West Midlands actually allows this.

Democratising the WMCA: 4

“23. The Combined Authority may co-opt additional non-voting representatives to the joint overview and scrutiny arrangements as necessary.“ (Scheme for the establishment of a Combined Authority for the West Midlands)

Co-opt elected delegates from union, community and user bodies on to WMCA Scrutiny committees

And come to that, why can’t there be union and community organisation delegates co-opted onto the Cabinet itself on the same basis, alongside the employer representatives?

Democratising the WMCA: 5

“9. The Combined Authority may co-opt additional non-voting representatives to the Combined Authority.” (Scheme)

Co-opt elected delegates from union, community and service user bodies on to the WMCA Board, alongside LEP representatives

Again, this is actually already permitted by the WMCA constitution. But is there any intention to enact it, unless there is strong public pressure?

Open up the closed Commissions

Another means of opening up the governance of the WMCA to public participation is through the membership of its committees. So far 3 committees – called Commissions – have been set up, on Productivity, Land use, and Mental Health. Their membership is unknown. There is little information on the WMCA website, and we know of no union or user participation. All are obviously key issues for the trade unions and for local communities, and they should be fully involved. But there is a danger that they will be marginalised or excluded, or else involved after the strategic decisions have been taken. Of course unions will be involved in negotiations with the Combined Authorities and agreements over pay and conditions. But there is no sign of the unions being involved at the level where the key strategic decisions are taken.

Democratising the WMCA: 6

Co-opt elected delegates from union, community and service user bodies on to the Productivity, Land and Mental Health Commissions

The final structure of WMCA committees and their membership is still in the process of being decided so there is still opportunity to create more committees and to open them up to popular participation.

Democratising the WMCA: 7

“43. The Combined Authority may establish further joint committees or sub-committees and delegate powers and functions as considered by it to be appropriate.” (Scheme)

Establish committees for each of the WMCA’s areas of responsibility with elected delegates from union, community and service user bodies

There is an opportunity here to establish a series of inclusive and powerful committees, one for each of the main issues that are the remit of the WMCA – employment and ‘skills’, transport, housing, etc – made up of representatives of all the relevant stakeholders and with strong public and trade union participation, perhaps themselves as delegates from wider forums.

The Combined Authorities are a neoliberal project – it’s time to challenge it

Combined Authorities are a further stage in the Tories’ neoliberal transformation of England. They need to be understood and their key policies challenged and opposed. Up till now the organisations of the labour and community movements have been largely silent. Knowledge about what Combined Authorities mean is not widespread. But as they spread and their undemocratic character becomes increasingly apparent public opposition will increase.

The following three principles provide a way forward:

3 principles for the reform of the WMCA

 1. An alternative economic strategy for the WMCA based on meeting social priorities and the promotion of the green economy, and primed by government investment.

2. Defence and improvement of public services, the protection and improvement of jobs and conditions and the involvement of workers and service users in policy decisions.

3. A thoroughgoing democratisation of its deeply undemocratic power structure with the full participation of communities, employees and citizens in its decision-making.

What we can do next

 Raise these issues

  •  in unions and community organisations
  •  in public meetings of and about the WMCA
  • with your local councillors and demand their support
  • with candidates for the elected mayor and demand their support

Invite a speaker from BATC.

All of these issues need to be put on the agendas of trade union bodies, community organisations, local Labour parties, etc, and resolutions passed to build pressure for change. We need public meetings to spread awareness of the Combined Authorities among users of services and local communities and how they can be challenged and democratised.  And the candidates for mayors of the Combined Authorities need to be challenged to give their support to policies for their radical reform.

 

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