COVENTRY council’s Labour leaders are set to rule out staging a referendum which would let city people decide on whether to join a combined authority with Birmingham and the Black Country.
It is despite more than 4000 people in just three weeks signing petitions calling for a referendum, and widespread public concern that would lose out to its larger neighbours in the Birmingham conurbation.
Opponents including Coventry’s Conservatives say Coventry should instead form a combined authority solely with Warwickshire councils, with Coventry taking the lead in a ‘city region’ lobbying the government for greater spending powers.
Conservative chancellor George Osborne favours a West Midlands combined authority. He has insisted to get the full range of powers over transport, regeneration and other policy areas it must have an elected mayor heading it.
Just three years ago, Coventry voters voted two-to-one in a referendum against having an elected mayor to run the council, whose Labour leaders campaigned against an elected mayor system, saying it was less democratic.
Coventry City Council’s ruling Labour cabinet on May 28 heard from lead petitioner Rachael Bermingham and agreed to conduct a feasibility study into holding a referendum.
That feasibility study by council officers has now already concluded against staging a referendum.
The results have been published in a report on the council’s website to be discussed by cabinet next Wednesday, which is expected to formally rule out a referendum.
The report says a full public consultation sould instead examine all the “pros” and “cons” of joining a combined authority.
Yet the public report itself – authored by Jenni Venn and council PR boss Fran Collingham in chief executive Martin Reeves’ department – does not balance the pros and cons of staging a referendum, instead presenting solely the case against.
A “Citizen’s Panel” with input from “independent” experts would examine the issue and report to the council by September.
The feasibilty study concludes the £500,000 cost of a referendum – without government funds – would be too expensive and there was not enough time to organise it.
Half that amount has already been allocated to stage a public consultation and work up the proposals.
The report also argues a straight ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ question on a referendum ballot paper would be too difficult, given the complexities of the combined authorities debate, where several options were possible.
The report adds: “A wider consultation exercise is seen as a more effective way of ensuring a balanced debate and proper engagement on the issue.
“The West Midlands has been advised by ministers that there is a need to respond to the government’s offer on devolution to cities with speed as this is a key priority for them and would look to see the whole statutory process completed in time for a
combined authority to be set up by April 2016.
“In addition the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made it clear that referendums are not required.”
It adds: “The complexity of the issues involved in establishing a combined authority has led to misunderstandings about the role and power of a combined authority.
“In particular a widespread misconception that a combined authority could, in some way, mean Birmingham ‘takes over’ Coventry has led to widespread concern.”
Yet Coventry Labour MPs including Geoffrey Robinson and Jim Cunningham say the government has provided no information about what power an elected mayor – who could well come from the greater Birmingham area – would wield over a combined authority with one member from each participating local council.
Mr Cunningham told the Coventry Observer he “did not see the need for an elected mayor”. Mr Robinson accused the government of being obsessed with elected mayors rather than letting regions decide the structure of their own combined authority.
Critics also fear more decisions in time would transfer to the regional super-authority from Coventry City Council and the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership.