Catherine Staite & Jason Lowther
With the dust nowhere near settling from the fallout of last month’s national referendum on membership of the EU, some English regions are following Scotland’s lead in demanding greater autonomy. London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, is looking for the devolution of fiscal responsibility, including tax raising powers, as well as more control over business and skills, housing and planning, transport, health and policing and criminal justice.
West Midlands residents are now being asked for their views on a new elected mayor for the region’s Combined Authority.
Wisely perhaps, this is not a referendum. Residents of Birmingham and Coventry were asked in 2012 to decide whether to introduce directly elected city mayors and voted against the idea, with “no” votes of 64% in Coventry and 58% in Birmingham – albeit on turnouts of under 30%.
Four years on, local councils are forming the West Midlands Combined Authority and central government’s offer of extra funding and responsibilities comes with the “strings attached” of a directly elected regional mayor.
So America’s Independence Day, 4th July, kicked off a seven-week consultation with the West Midland’s four million residents on how this should work, rather than whether there should be a mayor at all. As WMCA puts it: “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”.
Of the six existing Combined Authorities in England, five (Greater Manchester, Sheffield, North-East, Liverpool and West Midlands) have agreed to establish a directly-elected mayor as part of their Devolution Deals. West Yorkshire has so far held out against the idea. The new Combined Authority proposed for Tees Valley and the draft ‘North Midlands’ deal also include provision for an elected mayor. The Government anticipates all seven mayoralties holding their first elections in 2017.
Are existing city mayors working?
Gains (2015[i]) concludes that the evidence base for improved performance under mayoral governance is weak. However, reviewing evidence on the introduction of the first city mayors she notes that “compared to areas operating a leader/cabinet model where the leader was indirectly elected, respondents to surveys of councillors, officer and local stakeholders in mayoral authorities agreed more strongly that there was quicker decision-making, that the mayor had a higher public profile, that decision-making was more transparent, that the council was better at dealing with cross cutting issues that relationships with partners improved and disagreed more strongly with the statement that political parties dominated decision-making”.
So how is the WMCA proposing to run the Mayorality?
The WMCA consultation focusses on the councils’ proposals for the “Scheme for the establishment of a Mayoral West Midlands Combined Authority” and in particular the new areas including: transport, air quality, High Speed 2 growth, skills and employment, the housing strategy and business rates.
The WMCA proposes that most decisions are to be decided by way of two-thirds majority of the seven “Constituent Members”. In practice this means agreement of five out of the seven council leaders or, in some cases, agreement of all seven is required.
The WM Mayor will not be able to do much without the council leaders’ agreement. Raising business rates would require agreement with all three Local Enterprise Partnerships and the WMCA. Councils are looking to devolve central government’s powers to the mayor, not their own powers!
Of course, the Mayor is not yet in post. The constituency will include thirty times as many people as those who can elect the average MP. Over time they may feel the desire to flex their decision making muscles more than council leaders would like…
[i] Gains, Francesca. “Metro mayors: devolution, democracy and the importance of getting the ‘Devo Manc’design right.” Representation 51.4 (2015): 425-437.
Professor Catherine Staite is Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.
Before his secondment to Inlogov, Jason led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function since 2004. Previously he has worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther