A ‘CITIZENS’ Panel’ supposedly intended to give Coventry people a say in whether the city should join a West Midlands Combined Authority has been branded a waste of taxpayers’ money.
It comes as council leaders are ploughing ahead towards creating the new regional body.
The independent non-profit organisation Democratic Society has been commissioned by the council to stage the ‘Citizen’s Panel’ for one day at a cost of £21,500, the Observer has learned.
Coventry City Council will incur additional costs, including paying 40 panelists – a representative sample of Coventry people – £60 each to attend the all-day event at the Welcome Centre, Parkside, Coventry on September 9.
Eight so-called ‘expert witnesses’ will inform the panel.
Staging the citizen’s panel was agreed by Labour council leaders in June in a package of measures to ‘consult’ the public and develop the combined authority proposals – costing up to £250,000.
The Democratic Society says it has been commissioned to enable citizens to have a “meaningful impact” on whether Coventry should join a combined authority.
The Coventry Observer reported yesterday how West Midlands council leaders including Coventry leader Ann Lucas have in private created a “combined authority shadow board” without democratic councils’ approval – billed as an interim precursor to establishing the combined authority next April.
Coventry’s Labour council leaders – who have repeatedly expressed their determination to persuade people Coventry must join the combined authority – claimed the public consultation measures were a cost-effective alternative to staging a referendum – which might have allowed Coventry people to decide.
More than 4,000 people have signed a petition calling for a referendum. Widespread public concern has been expressed about Coventry losing identity and powers to its larger neighbours.
Chancellor George Osborne has also insisted the combined authority must he headed by a regional elected mayor to get the “full suite of powers”.
Coventry voters voted two-to-one against introducing an elected mayor to run the council just three years ago – when Labour councillors also campaigned against.
The Democratic Society has selected members of the Citizen’s Panel from people who took part in another independently commissioned survey in July – which suggested 31 per cent were negative about the combined authority, 25 per cent felt positive, and the rest were undecided – while nearly half of them previously new nothing about it.
It has sought to pick two people from each Coventry ward, but there has been a shortfall in participants, particularly among young people aged 18 to 25.
So the organisers have used Twitter and the council to approach individuals and organisations such as colleges in search of additional panelists.
The ‘expert witnesses’ include the enthusiastic combined authority advocate Labour councillor Kevin Maton – who will deputise on the new shadow board seeking to win new spending powers for the combined authority from government. He opposed elected mayors in 2012.
Others are lead referendum petitioner and Coventry resident Rachel Bermingham, and Louise Bennett from the cautiously pro-combined authority Chamber of Commerce.
Conservative opposition leader, councillor John Blundell, said: “Many Coventry people will feel this is a waste of city taxpayers’ money as the Labour executive of the council has already decided there will be a combined authority.
“Why not allow all Coventry people to have their say in a referendum, rather than having 40 hand-picked people?
“I question whether the eight so-called expert witnesses will be balanced as a whole, and it’s important their evidence is published.”
The Democratic Society website states:
“The panel will explore the combined authority proposals and consider what Coventry City Council could do with greater devolved powers.. For there to be an informed debate on devolution, there needs to be good information for participants and the public.”
The Coventry Observer asked the Democratic Society whether the debate could be misleadingly framed around an assumption that regions would be handed real power at a time of unprecedented government funding cuts to council, and around council leaders’ repeated assertions that a sceptical public was being misinformed by the media.
Anthony Zacharzewski of the Democratic Society indicated the panel would be presented with a broad range of questions, adding: “Experts and participants will have every opportunity at the event to say that they don’t trust devolution promises.”
He said the event aimed to, among other things, “enable informed citizens to have a meaningful impact on public policy by creating recommendations to inform the debate and decision whether to proceed with Coventry joining a combined authority scheme – not to make a decision on whether to join or not.”
He said the project also seeks to “gain a deeper understanding of non-political public concern”, and to “raise the level of debate” about devolution and a combined authority.
He added: “We selected the experts to get a range of views in the room about Coventry’s identity. Although this panel is in the context of the combined authority decision, our commission asks us to go wider and look at all issues of identity.”
The expert witnesses are:
Louise Bennett, Chamber of Commerce chief executive
Stephen Banbury, Voluntary Action Centre chief executive
David Williams, Community Cathedral programme director – local reconciliation
Rachael Bermingham, resident campaigner
Colin Copus, Leicester De Montfort University professor of local politics
Kevin Maton, city councillor
Clare Wightman, Grapevine charity director