New WMCA documents and new consultation – why is Birmingham Council keeping it secret?

 

  • Why hasn’t Birmingham Council published the latest WMCA documents on its website?
  • Why aren’t they on the Council agenda for voting before the WMCA launch on 10 June?
    • Coventry Council has put them on its website and is voting on them at its meeting on 31 May – why is Birmingham keeping it secret?
  • Why are no public meeting planned as part of the so-called consultation process?
  • And will Councillor Claire Spencer, newly appointed as the Birmingham representative on the WMCA Overview and Scrutiny committee, be demanding that Scrutiny be radically opened up to make the CA Mayor and Cabinet more democratically accountable?

The agendas of Coventry Cabinet and Council meetings on 31 May 2016 contains a “Public Document Pack” which contains five documents which are the basis for the approval of the WMCA prior to its launch on 10 June, together with an introductory document by Coventry Council headed “Public report Council Report” (pp3-16). The website link to the pack of documents, totalling 140 pages, is http://democraticservices.coventry.gov.uk/documents/b33905/Additional%20Document%20-%20Implementing%20the%20Devolution%20Agreement%20-%20Provision%20for%20Mayoral%20West%20Midlands%20Co.pdf?T=9

Four of the WMCA documents are new (the other one is the original Agreement):

  • Consenting to the Combined Authority and Approving the Devolution Deal. Assurance report by PWC 29 February 2016. (Pp39-98)
  • The West Midlands Combined Authority (Election of Mayor) Order 2016. This is a two-page government statutory order. (Pp99-100)
  • Governance Review (Pp101-127)
  • Draft Scheme for the establishment of a Mayoral West Midlands Combined Authority (Pp129-142)

None of these four have appeared on the agendas of Birmingham City Council meetings, and the next meeting is on 14 June, after the WMCA is officially launched on 10 June. Nor are they on the WMCA website. This is completely typical of the undemocratic way in which the WMCA is being set up and the way Birmingham Council has kept decisions behind closed doors with no public discussion.

The powers and responsibilities of the WMCA

The latest versions of these are in two documents: Governance Review and Draft Scheme for the establishment of a Mayoral West Midlands Combined Authority. They also explain which are the powers of the Mayor, which are the powers of the WMCA, and which are joint powers. (See p111 onwards.)

Public Consultation

Coventry Council’s “Public report Council Report” explains that a new Public Consultation process is required across the West Midlands:

2.4.2 Consultation requirements

It is a requirement that a public consultation be undertaken in most cases where additional functions are to be conferred upon a Combined Authority. The consultation will relate to the proposals contained in the Mayoral WMCA ‘functions’ Scheme (appendix 5). It is proposed that, subject to agreement of the Scheme by the Constituent Councils in May and the WMCA in June 2016, the public consultation is launched on towards the end of June, for an eight week period.

2.4.3 Consultation approach

The consultation is intended to seek views from the public and stakeholders on the additional functions proposed to be conferred on WMCA, following the devolution agreement, as set out in the Scheme.

Every resident, business and stakeholder in the West Midlands will have the opportunity to respond if they wish to do so. A number of organisations will also be contacted directly to invite them to make a response to the consultation.

The consultation will be led by the WMCA and the Constituent Councils and include key partners to raise awareness of the WMCA, the ambitions of the West Midlands and the benefits of devolution to Wolverhampton, the West Midlands and its residents.

The draft Scheme will be accompanied by a plain English summary of what the proposed legal changes mean in practice. Key messages to be reflected during the consultation include:

  • that the proposed changes are not about taking powers from the individual Constituent Councils (all local authority powers would be exercised concurrently/jointly with the Councils) but gaining additional powers for the WMCA from central government;
  • that the process of transferring / providing additional powers is being carried out in partnership with central government departments and agencies; and
  • that the proposed changes are the first in a series of changes to powers for the West Midlands and that local people will have opportunities to comment on those future proposed changes.
  • The consultation will be conducted primarily through digital channels with consultation feedback gathered via the WMCA website. Proposed channels include:
    • pro-active media releases and pro-active engagement of regional and local media throughout the consultation
    • web content for the WMCA website, including a feedback form
    • similar, but locally adapted content for local authority and partner websites
    • social media using WMCA channels
    • staff messaging.

Respondents will also be able to submit responses by letter or email should they wish to do so. Consultation documents and publicity materials will be made available in key local authority buildings.

This raises a number of questions:

  • “Every resident, business and stakeholder”

Why are businesses given privileged status? Who is a “stakeholder”? Do stakeholders include trade unions? And trades councils? And the WMTUC? And do they include community organisations? If so, which ones? Or are communities subsumed under the WM Voluntary and Community Sector, an organisation set up in February as a lobby of the WMCA? See wmvcs.org.uk.

  • “A number of organisations will also be contacted directly to invite them to make a response to the consultation.”

Again, which ones will have this privileged status in the consultation? Will they include trade union organisations? And will they community organisations, and if so which ones?

  • Why are there no public meetings planned, where genuine discussion can take place?

The Membership of the WMCA

The document Draft Scheme for the establishment of a Mayoral West Midlands Combined Authority explains the Membership of the WMCA. It comprises

  • 2 elected Members from each of the 7 Constituent Councils, one of which must include the Leader of each Constituent Council. That totals 14.
  • 1 elected Member from each of the Non-Constituent Councils. At present there are 5: Cannock, Nuneaton/Bedworth, Redditch, Tamworth, Telford. Stratford-on-Avon District Council and Shropshire Council are joining shortly. That totals 7. But apparently Warwickshire county council is close to signing up to join the WMCA and that could put pressure on Rugby, Warwick and North Warwickshire district councils. That would make a total of 11 representatives of Non-Constituent Councils.
  • 1 representative from each of the three LEPs.
  • The elected Mayor.

That makes a grand total of 29 Members of the “Mayoral WMCA.”

Who gets to vote?

 “The voting mechanism and exercise of functions in the Mayoral WMCA is dependent on who is exercising the function, the Mayor or the Mayoral WMCA” (p111). “Any questions that are to be decided by the Mayoral WMCA, unless otherwise specified in the Mayoral WMCA ‘functions’ Scheme or the Mayoral WMCA Constitution, are to be decided by way of two-thirds majority of Constituent Members, and overall majority of all Members present and voting.” (p111 and p131).

What is significant here is that on some issues all the Members have a vote – including the 3 LEP business  representatives. But there is of course no representation there at all, where the strategic decisions are taken – let alone a vote – from either the unions or community organisations.

The vital importance of opening up Scrutiny to lay members

 That is why the question of opening up Scrutiny to lay representatives from unions and community organisations is so vital to introduce at least some element of independent and democratic  public participation and accountability into this otherwise entirely top-down and exclusive over-arching tier of local government.

But in all 140 pages of the documents there are only a few passing token references to Scrutiny.

In contrast, the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee report Devolution: the next five years and beyond, published on 3 February 2016, makes a sustained critique of the lack of democracy in the Combined Authorities policy. This is what it says about 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.”

The WMCA has a huge range of powers and responsibilities. There is no way that a single Scrutiny committee could even begin to address them. It would be a purely token body. What is needed is a powerful and participative Scrutiny committee for each of the issues, or at least for each of the Cabinet portfolios.

One way of opening up the WMCA Scrutiny arrangements to public participation would be to co-opt onto it representatives from unions and community organisations, with voice and indicative vote. It would also help redress the largely male-dominated and white composition of the Members of the WMCA.

The WMCA document “Scheme for the establishment of a Combined Authority for the West Midlands” actually allows this.

 “23. The Combined Authority may co-opt additional non-voting representatives to the joint overview and scrutiny arrangements as necessary.“

All that is stopping it is the lack of political will. That is why we ask Councillor Claire Spencer,  the newly appointed Birmingham representative on the WMCA Overview and Scrutiny committee: will she be demanding that Scrutiny be radically redesigned with “residents”, i.e. the citizens of the West Midlands, and opened up through co-options of lay members elected to make the CA Mayor and Cabinet democratically accountable? And will the CA Members support this?

Richard Hatcher

28 May 2016

 

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