There are now three Labour candidates for West Midlands Metro Mayor – Liam Byrne, Pete Lowe and Salma Yaqoob. Their manifestos are emerging: at the time of writing Liam’s draft is 48 pages with dozens of policies , Pete’s is much shorter , and Salma has so far just produced a video . They say what they will do – but what powers would a Labour WMCA Mayor actually have to put policies into practice?
This paper argues that a Labour Mayor cannot simply take over the driving seat and steer the WMCA in a new socialist direction. The WMCA runs on rails laid down by the combination of Conservative government policy, a limited budget, the dominance of local business interests and a culture of uncritical consensus. Of course a Labour Mayor could use their position as a platform to speak out publicly opposing Tory policies and arguing for Labour ones. That would be welcome, but it wouldn’t change the policy direction and culture of the WMCA. Changing that is a very different matter. It could only be done through mobilising popular pressure outside and inside the WMCA.
The powers of the Mayor and the WMCA
The WMCA is run by a Board with 32 members. 26 are local councillors. They include the leaders of 10 local councils from across the wider West Midlands region. But only 10 members of the Board – the Constituent Members – have full voting powers: the elected Mayor, the Deputy Mayor (appointed by the Mayor) and the leaders of the eight constituent councils which are full members of the WMCA. (Birmingham is represented by the deputy leader, Brigid Jones.) Four of the councils are Conservative – Dudley, Solihull, Walsall, Warwickshire – and four are Labour – Birmingham, Coventry, Sandwell, Wolverhampton.
The powers of the WMCA are shared out between the Mayor and the Council leaders. Some are in the hands of the Mayor, some are in the hands of the 10 Constituent Members (with the Mayor having just one vote) and some are shared between the Mayor and the Council leaders.
This allocation of powers was laid down in the 2015 founding document ‘West Midlands Combined Authority Devolution Agreement’.  A follow-up document ‘Implementing the Devolution Agreement – Provision for Mayoral West Midlands Combined Authority’, approved by the WMCA Board meeting on 10 June 2016,  lists the powers allocated in the three categories: ‘A Mayoral Function’, ‘A Joint WMCA/Mayor Function’, and ‘A Mayoral WMCA Function’. The ‘Mayoral WMCA’ means the 10 Constituent members of the WMCA Board (ie the 8 Constituent council leaders, the Mayor and the deputy Mayor – each with one vote.
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.
[Note: CPO = Compulsory Purchase Order. HCA = Homes and Communities Agency, a government agency replaced in January 2018 by Homes England and the Regulator of Social Housing.]
The most recent summary of the powers which are solely in the hands of the Mayor is contained in a 2017 WMCA document.  It lists them as follows – but note that only the first four are actual powers to implement policies:
responsibility for a consolidated, devolved transport budget, with a multi-year settlement to be agreed at the Spending Review;
responsibility for franchised bus services, including support for WMCA’s delivery of smart and integrated ticketing across the city region;
responsibility for co-ordinating a new Key Route Network of local authority roads, which will be managed and maintained by the WMCA;
compulsory purchase powers to drive housing delivery and improvements in the housing stock;
champion West Midland’s priorities with government and other stakeholders and act as a credible case-maker for the West Midlands;
provide strong and visible leadership, while promoting the West Midlands to local and national audience;
maintaining strategic oversight across WMCA, ensuring that the region’s residents and businesses are able to share in the benefits of increased prosperity.
In short, what all this means is that the Mayor has sole executive powers only over two areas. One is Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) of land for housing. The other is transport, though it does not include responsibilities currently undertaken by the Passenger Transport Executive (PTE). From 1 September 2019 the £126m Adult Training Budget is delegated to the WMCA but it is not clear who has the responsibility. Most importantly, the whole area of economic development is not the sole responsibility of the Mayor, it is the collective responsibility of the Constituent members of the WMCA Board, ie the 8 Constituent council leaders, plus the Mayor and the deputy Mayor, all with one vote each.
These limits to the powers of the Mayor were imposed by the council leaders, according to the Chamberlain Files (9 December 2016) :
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 […]. The leaders want to have the ability to check mayoral prerogative when they feel necessary.
The Constituent council leaders on the Board, plus the deputy leader of Birmingham council, are each allocated a Portfolio by the Mayor. These are currently (since May this year) as follows: 
|Finance||Cllr Bob Sleigh (Cons)||Solihull|
|Transport||Cllr Ian Ward (Lab)||Birmingham|
|Housing and Land||Cllr Mike Bird (Cons)||Walsall|
|Skills and Productivity||Cllr George Duggins (Lab)||Coventry|
|Economy and Innovation||Cllr Ian Brookfield (Lab)||Wolverhampton|
|Environment, Energy and HS2||Cllr Ian Courts (Cons)||Solihull|
|Public Service Reform and Social Economy||Cllr Yvonne Davies (Lab)||Sandwell|
|Culture and Digital||Cllr Patrick Harley (Cons)||Dudley|
|Wellbeing||Cllr Izzi Seccombe (Cons)||Warwickshire|
|Inclusive Communities||Cllr Brigid Jones (Lab)||Birmingham|
So the key Portfolios of Finance, Housing and Land, Environment, Energy and HS2, Culture and Digital, and Wellbeing are all held by Tories who may well not be supportive of a Labour Mayor’s policies.
Local councils are not the only bodies represented on the Board. The representatives of employers participate directly in the WMCA’s strategic decision-making structure: the three leaders of the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are seated as members of the CA Board:
- Tim Pile, Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP
- Stewart Towe, Black Country LEP
- Jonathan Browning, Coventry & Warwickshire LEP
There is just one trade union representative: the secretary of the WMTUC.
The Non-Constituent Councils represented on the Board do not have a full vote but they do have a vote on many vital issues – and so do the LEPs, which are also regarded as Non-Constituent Councils. According to the Constitution of the WMCA :
Members appointed by Non-Constituent Councils may vote on the following matters:-
(i) adoption of growth plan and investment strategy and allocation of funding by the Authority;
(ii) the super Strategic Economic Plan strategy along with its implementation plans and associated investment activity being undertaken using funding provided to the Authority;
(iii) the grant of further powers from central government and/or local public bodies that impacts on the area of a Non Constituent Council;
(iv) land and/or spatial activity undertaken by the Authority within the area of a Non-Constituent Council;
(v) public Service reform which affects the areas of Non-Constituent Councils;
(vi) areas of LEP activity relevant to the Non Constituent Councils through geographical location or as part of a joint committee;
(vii) all Authority matters concerned with education, employment and skills, enterprise and business support, access to finance, inward investment, business regulation, innovation, transport, environmental sustainability, housing, economic intelligence, digital connectivity and regeneration;
(viii) future use of business rate retention funding generated beyond that retained within new and existing Enterprise Zones;
(ix) specific decisions to bid for and allocate revenue and capital funding provided to the Authority for use in economic development activities; and
(x) investment activity related to transport and connectivity, not funded by the transport levy and current Maintenance and Integrated Transport blocks.
This gives the LEP business representatives a direct role in WMCA policy-making. But their influence is far greater than their numbers. The WMCA was established as a partnership between government, local councils and business from the beginning. The 2015 founding ‘Devolution Agreement’ has 13 signatories: government ministers and officials, WM council leaders and the chairs of the 3 LEPs. (The chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP at the time was of course Andy Street.)
The LEPs also have representatives on other key strategic decision-making committees, with full voting rights, including the Strategic Investment Board and even the Scrutiny Committee, where they are supposedly holding to account the decisions which their own LEP representatives on the Board and other committees have been influential in formulating, with major potential conflicts of interest. There are no trade union representatives on these committees.
The reality is that the LEPs have in effect a veto over the decisions of the WMCA. An example is the West Midlands Local Industrial Strategy published in May this year by HM Government in the names of Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Business, Mayor Andy Street, Ian Ward (then the Portfolio Holder for Economic Growth) and Jonathan Browning, Chair of the Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership and Chair of the West Midlands Combined Authority’s Strategic Economic Development Board.  It contains lots of concessions towards inclusive growth but there is not a single mention in its 84 pages either of trade unions or of a commitment to the Living Wage, two of the pre-conditions of inclusion.
That context shapes not only the WMCA’s policy agenda but its organisational culture, in which the interests and policies of the LEPs and their representatives tend to become normalised as identical with those of the WMCA itself. The culture of the WMCA is based on consensus, codified in its procedures: ‘Any matters that are to be decided by the Combined Authority Board are to be decided by consensus of the Board where possible.’ 
Labour councillors have accepted this culture and the result is a depoliticised problem-solving discourse, as the minutes of meetings demonstrate, which excludes party political debate. There is no challenge to Tory polices from Labour members. One indicative symptom is that reports of meetings don’t even record party affiliations of members. Policies are often approved with little or no discussion. For example, the Chamberlain Files (14 September 2019) reports the September 13 September Board meeting under the headline ‘WMCA: Nothing to see here…move along’: 
Business was done in 34 minutes. That it took so long was largely down to the Police and Crime Commissioner taking three opportunities to elaborately express his support for a proposal or tell us the police are already working hard on it.
At least he made a contribution. The Financial Monitoring Report, which set out a predicted overspend of more than half a million pounds at year end, went without comment from Board members.
As for the Scrutiny Committee holding the WMCA to account, its capacity is completely inadequate to the task – in fact almost all its meetings this year have not even been quorate.
Finally, it needs to be remembered that the financial muscle of the WMCA is actually quite limited. The WMCA operates within a framework dominated by a business agenda locked in place by the Conservative government which holds the WMCA closely to account and controls the funding purse-strings. The WMCA was set up in 2016 with a 30-year £8 billion investment package and powers devolved from Government over strategic transport, housing, skills, digital technology and more. A further £1.7 billion investment has been secured since then. In June 2016 the WMCA published Making Our Mark, its Strategic Economic Plan.  This details the funding the WMCA will receive and how it has been allocated:
Annual amount £36.5 million for 30 years
– to be invested to drive growth
Lever £8bn 30 year Investment Programme:
- £4.4bn HS2 Growth Package
- £1.7bn Transport and Roads Package
- £1.1bn Real Estate
- £500m Housing
- £200m Land Remediation
- £50m Business Innovation
- £30m Employment, Education and Skills
(The figure for Employment, Education and Skills does not include the adult skills budget.) Over 30 years £8 billion is equivalent to £267 million a year. Together with the £36.5 million a year the annual total is around £300 million a year, a relatively modest sum with, for example, only £17 million a year for Housing.
What does this mean for the manifesto plans of the three Labour candidates for Mayor?
First let’s look at which of their policies would be within the power of the Mayor to implement. Which would require the Mayor to get the support of the other 9 Constituent Member council leaders. And which are beyond the power of the WMCA to implement until there is a Labour government.
Pete Lowe’s draft manifesto focuses on Homelessness, Housing, and Transport – issues which do come within the Mayor’s areas of responsibility. But the economy does not. The manifesto says ‘Pete will establish a People’s Bank for the west midlands’. But as Mayor he would require the support of council leaders to do so. He says more:
Pete will challenge the public, third and private sectors to understand and act upon the positive impact their own spending power can have on the local economy.
These are policies which as Mayor Pete can lobby for, but he would have few powers to implement beyond the procurement spending of the WMCA, and that would require the majority support of Constituent Members and could well face opposition from Tory council leaders and the LEPs.
Liam Byrne’s Draft Manifesto for WMCA Mayor 2020 has 48 pages. There are policies where as Mayor he would have some powers, for example over compulsory purchase of land for housing. But many of his policies are for campaigning on using his position as Mayor but without the capacity of the WMCA to implement. For example, ‘To campaign with our Councillors and MPs to …Reverse local government cuts’ or to ‘Become the first Real Living Wage Region – a pay rise for 571,000 workers’. Others apply at the level and scale of local councils, not the WMCA, such as ‘we will blaze a trial for Labour’s Green New Deal delivered by rebuilding a 21st Century municipal socialism’ – a policy that the 4 WM Conservative councils may be less enthusiastic about. And other policies would require a Labour government to deliver. For example, ‘we need a new devolution deal’.
Salma has, at the time of writing, only just announced her candidacy for WM Mayor and so far has only released a short video. In it she says:
‘What the West Midlands needs is job security for all, more affordable housing, better public transport, and a bold Green New Deal.’
‘We don’t need some tinkering, we need a major transformation.’
‘And we can do it now, it just takes political courage. A West Midlands for the Many is possible.’
Again, there are specific policies here that are part of the Mayor’s brief: housing and transport. But ‘a major transformation’, a ‘West Midlands for the Many’, is far beyond the powers of the WMCA Mayor and requires more than ‘political courage’, it requires a radical Labour government which would transform both the economy and local government in the West Midlands, and with it transform and democratise the WMCA.
So it is not the case that a Labour Mayor can simply take over the driving seat and steer the WMCA in a new socialist direction. The WMCA runs on rails laid down by the combination of Conservative government policy, a limited budget, the dominance of local business interests and a culture of uncritical consensus. Of course a Labour Mayor could use their position as a platform to speak out publicly opposing Tory policies and arguing for Labour ones. That would be welcome, but it wouldn’t change the policy direction and culture of the WMCA. Changing that is a very different matter. It could only be done through mobilising popular pressure outside and inside the WMCA. So a Labour Mayor should have two strategies that go hand in hand.
One is to meet with, speak to and collaborate with all the organisations in the West Midlands that want to see radical policies for social justice – the trade unions, community organisations, campaigns on every issue including pay, living conditions, public services and climate change – so they can bring pressure to bear from outside.
The other is to seize every opportunity to democratise the WMCA by inviting those organisations into it so they can influence policy from inside. At present the WMCA is deeply undemocratic. It is not accountable to an elected assembly (unlike the London Mayor.) The council leaders on the Board are not elected to that position by the citizens of their local authorities. Ian Ward and the others have never published any manifestos stating what policies they would be promoting in the WMCA. And there are no citizens or community representatives, apart from a single WMTUC representative, on any of the committees. A Labour Mayor should begin by inviting community and campaign organisations and unions to contribute to policy discussions in writing and in person.
This approach is in line with recent Labour Party policy documents. Democratic Public Ownership, commissioned by John McDonnell and published in September 2018, establishes some principles and arguments which have fundamental implications not only for Council public services but for Councils’ governance regimes too, including the WMCA. The core argument of the report is that:
An organisation, and indeed sector, should be run by the people who have the experience, skills, knowledge, and competence to do this. However, this is always a collective learning process and is done best where the considerable diverse knowledges of the workforce and citizenry are brought together to inform the decision-making process.
In June this year the Labour Party developed the policy of participation further in the report From Paternalism to Participation: Putting civil society at the heart of national renewal.
Labour wants people to have a bigger say over the public decisions and the public services that affect them, with more direct accountability to service users where possible.
We will promote collaborative decision making, encouraging public service providers to involve their service users in taking decisions about how those services are run, the outcomes they are working towards, and the support they offer. This cannot be limited to consultation alone – people need the power to assert their voice when those in power refuse to listen […]. This will mark a radical change from top-down approach to public services and put services users and front-line workers in the driving seat.
It is a problem that not one of the three Labour candidates for Mayor – Liam, Pete or Salma – has so far said a single word about the urgent need to democratise the WMCA and open its doors to direct public participation. It is the precondition for any transformation of the WMCA into a body that serves the needs of the many in the West Midlands, not just the few.
At the time of writing a General Election is expected in the very near future. Its outcome will transform the context of the election for WM Mayor. A Labour government could change all the rules of the game, enabling the WMCA to be transformed into a real democratic body with radical left policies. A Tory victory would be likely to shift the politics of the WMCA further to the right, and make mobilising against it even more urgent, whether or not a Labour Mayor is elected.
Birmingham Against the Cuts
26 September 2019
- Liam Byrne’s ‘Draft Manifesto for WMCA Mayor 2020’. https://liambyrnemp.co.uk/file/196
- ‘Pete Lowe Standing as Metro Mayor’. http://unisondudleygeneral.org.uk/index.php?mact=News,cntnt01,default,0&cntnt01articleid=5&cntnt01category_id=3&cntnt01pagelimit=4&cntnt01returnid=15&cntnt01returnid=15
- Salma Yaqoob’s video is at https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/mayor-hopeful-salma-yaqoob-copycat-16948423
- ‘West Midlands Combined Authority Devolution Agreement’, 2015. https://www.wmca.org.uk/media/1375/westmidlandsdealdocument.pdf
- ‘Implementing the Devolution Agreement – Provision for Mayoral West Midlands Combined Authority’, 2016. https://edemocracy.coventry.gov.uk/documents/b33906/Additional%20document%20-%20Implementing%20the%20Devolution%20Agreement%20-%20Provision%20for%20Mayoral%20West%20Midlands%20Co.pdf?T=9
- Appendix A of the report ‘Independent Review Panel – Mayoral Remuneration’, approved at the 3 March 2017 meeting of the WMCA Board. https://wolverhampton.moderngov.co.uk/documents/s37987/Item%202.1%20-%20WMCA%20Board%20Report%20030317%20-%20Mayoral%20Remuneration%20Final%202%202.pdf
- Chamberlain Files, 9 December 2016. http://www.thechamberlainfiles.com/order-order-the-mayoral-power-play/
- Constitution of the WMCA. https://www.wmca.org.uk/media/1576/constitution-master-module-2642017.pdf
- West Midlands Local Industrial Strategy, May 2019. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/802091/west-midlands-local-industrial-strategy-single-page.pdf
- Councillor and LEP Governance Arrangements. Strategic Economic Plan Board Meeting, 10 June 2016, p39. https://wolverhampton.moderngov.co.uk/documents/g6338/Public%20reports%20pack%2010th-Jun-2016%2011.00%20West%20Midlands%20Combined%20Authority%20Board.pdf?T=10