COVENTRY people are set to vote in 2017 on who should become an all-powerful elected mayor to run the West Midlands.
The region’s council leaders, including Coventry leader Ann Lucas, on the interim “shadow board” of a new West Midlands Combined Authority have struck a provisional £1billion devolution deal with government – to support what they claim will be an overall £8billion investment package.
The deal includes agreeing to the government’s preference that the combined authority should be chaired by an elected mayor.
Only three years ago, two-thirds of Coventry voters in a government-imposed referendum said ‘No’ to having an elected mayor to run Coventry City Council.
Coventry’s ruling Labour councillors also campaigned against at the time, saying elected mayoral systems placed too much power in the hands of one individual.
Councillor Lucas had said this year there should be no need for an elected mayor, although chancellor George Osborne had insisted combined authorities must have an elected mayor to have the “full suite of powers” on offer handed down from government.
Mr Osborne was in Coventry today to talk about the proposed deal, which city council leaders claimed would include a £150million investment for the flagging Coventry city centre.
Secret WMCA proposals were leaked to the Coventry Observer in September, and revealed plans for an elected mayor with wide-ranging powers, particularly over transport and economic development.
The draft plan also stated the mayor would have powers to raise an additional levy from business rates.
Those powers were confirmed today, in addition to others such as over housing targets and planning – which will interest green belt campaigners.
A document outlining the agreed deal also gifts the combined authority the right to retain additional business rates revenue, at the expense of councils – one clear indication that power is partly transferring from councils to the region.
It is unclear whether the elected mayor will be able to raise Council Tax bills with an additional ‘precept’. This was in the leaked draft agreement, but has been left out of this week’s ‘deal’ document.
A spokesman for shadow combined authority leader Bob Sleigh, leader of Solihull council, told the Observer that aspect of the deal was still being considered nationally.
A Coventry council statement said the mayor would also take on the role of overseeing West Midlands Police from the elected Police and Crime Commissioner.
The combined authority – made up of the seven participating councils including Birmingham, Solihull and the black country councils – might only be able to veto some elected mayor policies with a two-thirds majority.
Conservative opposition leader, councillor John Blundell, today repeated his group’s position that Coventry people should be given a referendum on whether they want to join wih the Birmingham and the black country metropolitan councils.
Coventry Conservatives prefer going in with Warwickshire. Coun Blundell said: “Coventry people should have a choice. They’ve not had a say.”
Coventry City Council and the other councils involved are now set to vote on the devolution offer from government, provisionally backed by Coun Lucas, in January.
Council leaders across the West Midlands will spend the next few weeks working through the detail of the offer from government.
The council claims the £150million bonus for the city centre would help deliver ahead of delay schedules the stalled ‘city centre south’ regeneration, and the Friargate office development around Coventry station – with the council itself set to be the first tenant.
Coun Lucas said: “I’ve always been absolutely clear that the offer from government had to be good enough for Coventry – or we would walk away.
“I think, after some tough negotiations over the past few weeks, this offer now has some huge benefits for Coventry residents that mean it’s worth us signing up to the deal.”
The deal includes the transfer by government of some funding pots for the West Midlands to have more control over its own affairs.
The government would make an annual contribution of around £40million over 30 years.
It says in return for more powers, a single figure as elected mayor should be directly accountable to voters at the ballot box.
But while the numbers sound high, they are set in the context of the £90million of annual funding which Coventry City Council alone claims the government has removed from its power since 2010.
A strategic transport plan as part of the deal emphasises Birmingham Airport expansion and HS2 – although detail is awaited on links between Coventry and the new HS2 interchange near the NEC.