Challenge these claims that the WMCA will be controlled by a presidential executive Mayor

Why it is important to challenge these attempts to assign monopoly power to the Mayor is that it is exactly what the government wants: to marginalise the role of elected councillors in the WMCA and to create an all-powerful executive presidential model of mayoral leadership.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report Inclusive growth in the West Midlands: an agenda for the new Mayor, was published on 24 January. Its theme of inclusion and the issues it raises are important. But the report is fundamentally flawed because its claim is that the solution is solely in the hands of the elected Mayor. (It is symptomatic that the words ‘councillor’ or ‘council’ do not appear once in the report.)

This claim is simply not true, and it repeats an identical message in the Resolution Foundation’s 2016 report ‘Midlands engine trouble: The challenges facing the West Midlands Combined Authority’, published on 12 December. It repeatedly claims throughout that the responsibility for solving the problem of the WM economy lies with the WMCA Mayor to be elected in May. This is typical: “If together the mayor and central government can turn around the city’s long-term employment problem, the benefits of devolution will be obvious.” (p41).

Why it is important to challenge these attempts to assign monopoly power to the Mayor is that it is exactly what the government wants: to marginalise the role of elected councillors in the WMCA and to create an all-powerful executive presidential model of mayoral leadership. Even if the Board of councillors have some powers to constrain the Mayor, the government, and no doubt some of the candidates for Mayor too, want to promote the view to the public that what the West Midlands need is strong one-person leadership, the job of councillors is to do the Mayor’s bidding, and if councillors don’t they are defying the democratic will of the WM electorate. This is a deeply ideological trap that the media will eagerly fall into – as the Guardian showed in its report of the Resolution Foundation report: “Turning the region’s economic prospects around will be a huge task for the new mayor” (13 December 2016).

That is why it is vital to challenge the ‘all-powerful Mayor’ message every time it appears by countering it with what the documents of the WMCA actually say. First, here are some extracts which exemplify the claims the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) report makes:

…it is clear that the West Midlands Mayor needs to focus on investment and enterprise in order to drive job creation

The Mayor will have a number of tools at their disposal. The creation of a £36.5million per year city regional Investment Fund will provide freedom to direct spending according to locally determined success measures; these should be set to drive inclusive growth. The devolution of business support services also presents a resource to further the goal of inclusive growth.

Training and skills will be a crucial tool for promoting inclusive growth and solving poverty. This is an area where the Mayor will have some significant powers with the devolution of adult skills funding.

These claims contradict the allocation of powers in the document ‘West Midlands Combined Authority Devolution Agreement’ published on 17 November 2015.

Summary of the proposed devolution deal agreed by the government and the West Midlands Combined Authority Shadow Board supported by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull, Black Country and Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnerships.

A new, directly elected Mayor for the West Midlands will act as Chair to the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and will exercise the following powers and functions devolved from central government:

  • Responsibility for a consolidated, devolved transport budget, with a multi-year settlement to be agreed at the Spending Review.
  • Responsibility for franchised bus services, which will support the WMCA’s delivery of smart and integrated ticketing across the Combined Authority’s constituent councils.
  • Responsibility for a new Key Route Network of local authority roads that will be managed and maintained at the Metropolitan level by the WMCA on behalf of the Mayor.
  • Planning powers will be conferred on the Mayor, to drive housing delivery and improvements in housing stock, and give the same competencies as the HCA. The government will also work with the WMCA Land Commission.

The WMCA will receive the following powers:

  • Control of a new additional £36.5 million a year funding allocation over 30 years, to be invested to drive growth.
  • Devolved 19+ adult skills funding from 2018/19, with the Shadow Board responsible for chairing Area Based reviews of 16+ skills provision.
  • Joint responsibility with the government to co-design employment support for the hardest-to-help claimants.
  • Responsibility to work with the government to develop and implement a devolved approach to the delivery of business support programmes from 2017 and deliver more integrated working together on investment and trade. (p6)

The Devolution Agreement is quite specific: the Mayor’s powers are over transport and housing. The WMCA (ie the Board with the 7 council leaders) is responsible for investment to drive growth, adult skills and business support.

There is no evidence that this allocation of powers has altered since 2015. The most recent version seems to be the document ‘Implementing the Devolution Agreement – Provision for Mayoral West Midlands Combined Authority’ which was approved by the WMCA Board meeting on 10 June 2016. (It’s on pages 119-120 of the Public Reports Pack on the WMCA website. Emphases in original.) The WMCA’s governance powers are now divided into 3 categories, but those allocated solely to the Mayor do not support the JRF report’s claims:

4.10 The Scheme details those functions that will be a Mayoral function, a joint Mayoral WMCA/Mayoral function and a Mayoral WMCA function, in summary:

  • A Mayoral Function

Exercised by the Mayor, WMCA Cabinet does not have a vote or limitation on these functions unless explicitly stated.

HCA CPO powers (with the consent of the appropriate authority(ies)

Grants to Bus Service Operators (Secretary of State to consult the Mayor)

Devolved, consolidated transport budget

Reporting on the West Midlands Key Route Network (WMKRN) (in consultation with the authorities)

Mayoral precept

Raising of a business rate supplement (in agreement with the relevant LEP Board(s) and the Mayoral WMCA)

Functional power of competence

  •  A Joint WMCA/Mayor Function

The responsibility of the Mayor but, for example, is maintained/managed by the Mayoral WMCA. These functions are the responsibility of the Mayor therefore matters in relation to the exercise of these functions by the Mayoral WMCA would be subject to the Mayor’s vote in favour:

The West Midlands Key Route Network – The WMKRN is the responsibility of the Mayor but maintained and managed by the WMCA, powers and functions sought to achieve this are outlined in the Scheme (appendix C).

Further joint WMCA/Mayoral transport functions sought are regarding bus re franchising and enhanced quality contracts.

Low emissions and clean air zones – the Mayor and the Mayoral WMCA will have the power, subject to proposals being brought forwards, to create low emissions and clean air zones, with the affected highway authority(ies) consent.

Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) objectives and functions – Mayoral WMCA to exercise functions concurrently with the HCA to drive housing delivery.

– Arrangements, exercised jointly/concurrently with the Secretary of State, for the purpose of assisting persons to train for, obtain and retain suitable employment, and enter into agreement for the provision of ancillary goods and services.

  • A Mayoral WMCA Function

Exercised by the Mayoral WMCA and not subject to the Mayor’s vote in favour, the Mayor votes as a member.

Current WMCA powers and functions – contained within the WMCA establishment Order – i.e. transport functions currently undertaken by the Passenger Transport Executive (PTE), and economic development and regeneration functions. It is not appropriate that the Mayor is required to vote in favour as such functions are Local Authority functions, exercised concurrently/in parallel and with the Local Authorities.

HS2 Growth: Development Corporations – The WMCA to have the ability to designate any area of land, with the consent of the local planning authority(ies) for the area(s) in the Mayoral WMCA Area, as a development area leading to the establishment, by Order, of WMCA development corporations. As per the devolution agreement, this would be a Combined Authority-led development corporation to deliver local growth.

Matters reserved to unanimous Constituent Member voting – contained within the WMCA establishment Order and WMCA Constitution, agreement of such matters are subject to a unanimous vote of the Constituent Member.

So, to quote the most relevant section, “Arrangements, exercised jointly/concurrently with the Secretary of State, for the purpose of assisting persons to train for, obtain and retain suitable employment” is a Joint WMCA/Mayor Function, the responsibility of the Mayor and “subject to the Mayor’s vote in favour” but “maintained/managed by the Mayoral WMCA”, i.e. implemented by the WMCA Board.

Far from the Mayor having the majority of power, the response from advocates of a more powerful Mayor was expressed by the region’s police commissioner, David Jamieson, who warned that “The proposed powers of the West Midlands metro mayor are ‘totally inadequate’ to oversee the new combined authority” (Express & Star 23 July 2016.) Since then, according to Kevin Johnson in the Chamberlain Files, council leaders on the Board have been ensuring that the Mayor’s powers are not allowed to extend:

The key drivers for political leaders in the West Midlands have been to ensure that the Combined Authority and, in turn, the Mayor do not take away any of the current powers and responsibilities of their local authorities and to ensure the Mayor only makes decisions on the small number of policy areas which have been directly devolved to them. The leaders want to have the ability to check mayoral prerogative when they feel necessary.

The key issue is the insistence by WMCA leaders on requiring unanimity of voting on a large number of matters and excluding the Mayor from such votes.  […]

On a connected issue, there is also an ongoing debate about the Mayor’s power of veto. The WMCA leaders do not want the Mayor to be able to veto or in any way affect unanimous voting by Constituent Members on matters which are reserved for them, as opposed to those which are for the Mayor and WMCA together or the Mayor alone.

(Kevin Johnson (2016) ‘Order order: the mayoral power play’. Chamberlain Files, 9 December. )

Richard Hatcher


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