News from the Combined Authority AGM

The West Midlands Combined Authority intended to hold its inaugural AGM last Friday, 10 June, but a little local difficulty in the House of Commons meant that the legislation hadn’t been completed in time.  They went ahead with the planned business, intending to ratify it once the powers had been vested in them.

The meeting was held in Hall 4 at the ICC, around a huge table to accommodate the council leaders, chief execs, LEP and others.  There had been very little publicity for the event, but there were a number of interested people in the public seats.

Much of the agenda was formal acceptance of constitutional matters – the agenda and papers are here:

https://westmidlandscombinedauthority.org.uk/committee-papers/west-midlands-combined-authority-board/

Cllr Bob Sleigh from Solihull was elected chair and Cllr Pete Lowe from Dudley was vice-chair.

The reports pack does include the governance structure at p37, which is worth a look as it indicates the areas of future work. The portfolios were not allocated though: this was deferred/delayed to an unspecified future date.

There was an intervention from David Jamieson, the Police and Crime Commissioner about the powers of the mayor and the potential for the WMCA to veto the mayor’s decisions.  He felt he couldn’t support the transfer of police powers to the mayor on that basis.

The Strategic Economic Plan was not available in advance: despite being launched before the meeting, it was not handed out until the relevant item was reached on the agenda.  The online version is quite hard to find but this is the link:

https://westmidlandscombinedauthority.org.uk/about/strategic-economic-plan/

Some of the diagrams do require a measure of caution – see Ravi Subramanian’s take on one of them:

The idea was repeated that this was part of a nest or set of SEPs which incorporates the three LEP SEPs.  The versions shown for this were the 2014 ones, so no formal updating has yet taken place.

Martin Reeves, the “Head of Paid Service” and Chief Exec at Coventry CC, introducing the SEP, said that the dynamic economic impact model was the most exciting part of the strategy.

The Strategic Transport Plan was also presented – this was part of the papers circulated in advance, as above.   The chair of the transport delivery committee will be Cllr Richard Worrall from Walsall, but the decision on a vice-chair was deferred.

There were also updates from the three commissions:  Norman Lamb MP gave an interesting verbal update on the work of the Mental Health Commission.  While he did emphasise that their work was about reducing the cost of mental ill-health and addressing the impact on productivity, he talked about the West Midlands leading the way nationally and that it was not a one-off exercise but the start of a journey.  They have looked at the work of Thrive NYC, which is led by the Mayor of New York,and favour a similar concordat approach.  He also mentioned the criminal justice system and that they have identified that mental health treatment orders are not being used.  The full report from the commission will be launched in September, but there were no notes or slides from his update.

The Land Commission update really just identified that they are not under way yet.  The one which worried me was the Productivity and Skills Commission report.  Sarah Middleton, the chief executive of the Black Country Consortium, gave a brief report.  The chair of the commission would be announced shortly.  Desktop research had been done re mapping and research, and there would be a workshop on 4 July for regional and national experts to identify lines of enquiry. This would be business-led with support from the universities.    There seemed to be very little planned to involve local groups or to allow the voices of young people and seldom heard groups to be heard.  Nick Page, chief exec at Solihull MBC, seemed to be the lead on that, so organisations who feel they should be there should probably contact him.

Overall, it was difficult to tell if the less than inclusive approach was deliberate, or accidental given their timescales and resources.  We do need to keep reminding the Combined Authority that civil society expects them to make some of the effort to engage.

Karen McCarthy

Roundtable meeting: Shaping the Combined Authority’s economic agenda

We are organising a West Midlands Civil Society Forum roundtable meeting to discuss and influence how the Combined Authority’s economic agenda can best meet the needs of all communities and neighbourhoods. This will be on Thursday 9th June at 4pm in Birmingham. Venue to be confirmed. It is open to all interested civil society organisations in the area – although as a roundtable meeting there are limited places.

As background – we have been involved in establishing a West Midlands Civil Society Forum, to provide a voice for civil society into Combined Authority decision-making. We are at early stages – with positive noises from the Combined Authority about our role – and are seeking new organisational members. For more information and to join the wider Forum, click here.

Although still in embryonic form, the Forum is establishing working groups on issues that the Combined Authority will be addressing, and is aiming to engage as much of civil society as possible in these discussions. This roundtable is part of that process: as an immediate outcome its results will be summarised in a short statement and fed into the Combined Authority leadership to be taken into account in its decision-making. In the longer term we hope to establish an economics, training and development working group to continue engagement with the Combined Authority.

If you’re interested in attending, please email karen@localisewestmidlands.org.uk telling us what civil society organisation you represent and we will let you know if there are still spaces.

If you can’t make the meeting, but would like to contribute to our thinking, please send us an email with your thoughts and we will feed this in and keep you informed. And don’t forget you can join the wider forum as above.

Karen Leach (LWM) and Ted Ryan (RnR)

Political and economic devolution

The vision of Birmingham’s council leader

b'ham council house

The prospect of a powerful city region level of government administering economic development, transport, skills and housing across the West Midlands has been raised by city council leader Sir Albert Bore, who used his annual budget speech to set out his vision of a “new model for city government”.

‘Roadblocks’: Chris Game from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham commented in the Post:

“As Yes, Minister taught us, Whitehall bureaucracy trumps local democracy every time. You wonder whether the politicians who signed up to that 2010 decentralisation pledge ever really believed in it . . . Cities Minister, Greg Clark, at least tries to walk the localisation walk, with his City Deals policy of stimulating city-driven economic growth through negotiated packages of powers and discretions. However, doubling until recently as Treasury Financial Secretary, few knew better than Clark where the serious power in Britain resides, irrespective of who’s in government”.

The serious power in Britain resides in Whitehall departments and ultimately Her Majesty’s Treasury . . .

An Institute for Government study of the “obstacles to decentralisation” concluded that the most insurmountable obstacle is the in-built scepticism of a civil service whose worry is that local councils would “do something barmy” if handed additional powers and budgets.

It almost beggars belief, doesn’t it? The civil service folk who brought us the NHS IT programme, the poll tax, the Child Support Agency, and mothballed aircraft carriers sit around worrying about other people’s sanity and competence!


Contribution on devolution from LWM board members Cllr Phil Davis and former Director of the West Midlands Regional Forum of Local Authorities, George Morran: http://ourbirmingham.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/devolution-is-in-the-air-but-like-hinduism-has-diverse-traditions/

City Growth Commission hopes to enable Birmingham to succeed in the global race for urban growth


At the end of October, a City Growth Commissionsupported by Core Cities – was launched by the Royal Society (see video), aimed at recommending policies to boost economic growth and offer ideas for political parties to consider as part of their plans for the post-2015 government.

 

jim o'neillManchester-born economist Jim O’Neill, its chair, is the retiring chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Group. Business Desk reports at length that CGC is to develop a practical plan for enabling cities to succeed in the global race for urban growth.

He notes in the Financial Times that many ‘successful’ countries – he lists China, Germany and the US – have a number of vibrant cities but the UK is dominated by London. Research he values finds that cities are at the centre of their countries’ economic fortunes and his yardstick for success appears to be the amount of building taking place – he feels encouraged by an 89% increase in building outside London.

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Previous ideas to stimulate regional economic growth – special incentives for business and advantageous tax rates – are set aside in favour of other policies, including:

 

  • improved infrastructure – though not planning to take a stance on the merits of the High Speed 2 north-south rail link
  • ominously – labour market flexibility,
  • better education (as in London)
  • and greater involvement of local citizens – a nod to localism?

 

Brummie Bonds?

Part of CGC’s research will look at the pros and cons of giving core cities powers to determine and activate their own funding needs for growth through financing initiatives such as local authority bond issuance.

Signs of change include calls for substantial devolution, and the government’s “city deals”, beginning to deliver more freedom for cities.

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