COVENTRY council is set to spend an initial £250,000 of taxpayers’ money to work up controversial plans to join in an authority with Birmingham and the Black Country.
The money will come from council “reserves”, states a officers’ report published today to go before Coventry City Council’s Labour controlled cabinet next Thursday, in a pubic meeting.
The report recommends the cabinet joins a West Midlands combined authority “in principle” and allocates “a budget of up to £250,000 to facilitate engagement with residents, local businesses, the city’s universities and other key partners and undertake and strengthen the economic analysis required to inform the work on a devolution deal.”
The report, written by officers in council chief executive Martin Reeves’ department, also states Chancellor George Osborne had recently “re-iterated the government’s preferred option for an elected ‘metro mayor’ to form part of any future negotiations.”
In fact, Mr Osborne went much further, stating combined authorities MUST be headed by an elected mayor if they wanted to get the new powers devolved from government for jobs, transport and other policy areas.
He said last week: “With these new powers for cities must come new city-wide elected mayors who work with local councils. I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”
We revealed yesterday Coventry Conservatives are campaigning for a referendum to let Coventry people decide on whether to enter a combined authority with Birmingham and the Black Country. A petition against the plan has already been signed by more than 2,000 people in less than 24 hours.
There is widespread public concern that Coventry could end up playing second fiddle to the second city in a new West Midlands combined authority headed by an elected mayor.
It comes just three years after Coventry voters overwhelmingly said ‘No’ in a referendum to having an elected mayor to head Coventry City Council. Ruling Coventry Labour councillors had campaigned for a ‘No’ vote, claiming the government’s proposals for elected mayors were undemocratic.
Chancellor Osborne and the government do not plan to give the public a vote this time round.
The Coventry Observer asked leading Coventry Labour councillor Kevin Maton, who has taken to Twitter in an attempt to win over a sceptical public, why he was now in favour of a proposal on the basis set out by Mr Osborne, when he had campaigned against elected mayors three years ago ahead of the local referendum imposed by central government.
He said: “That mayor concept and the poll was imposed by central government. There’s no compulsion yet to have one, and details will be worked out locally.”
He said local government minister Marcus Jones had emphasised it was not “top down imposition” and “councils must shape it.”
But, invited to do so several times, Coun Maton did not state directly why he was apparently not opposing a devolution deal on the current terms set out by Mr Osborne – with powers being contingent on elected mayors without a referendum for people to decide.
Coventry Conservatives argue Coventry as a large city should instead lead a smaller ‘city region’ with Warwickshire. Arrangements already exist via Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to complete for government funds and powers.
Conservative leaders at Coventry council’s partners in the LEP – at Warwickshire County Council and Warwick District Council – would prefer remaining as a distinct Coventry and Warwickshire ‘city region’. Solihull leaders have now indicated they are in favour of joining.
Coun Lucas and some of her Labour colleagues are angry at repeated suggestions the proposal would create a ‘Greater Birmingham’.
They claim it would instead see powers devolved to the West Midlands from Westminster, not transferred from Coventry – which would retain its council, and send a member to the new regional authority.
But many Coventry people having their say on internet forums are not convinced it is necessary or a good idea. Many argue an elected mayor heading the new authority would likely be a Birmingham conurbation figure, as most voters reside there.
Critics since 2010 have argued the government’s so-called ‘localism’ agenda – of handing more powers to local communities – actually granted more than 100 more powers to government ministers and Whitehall.
Conservative ministers now say calls for greater devolution to Scotland – and the SNP’s landslide election victory north of the border – has triggered a need for more self-determining powers to the English regions to run their own affairs.
But that rhetoric is contradicted by ministers dictating that regions must have the so-called “metro mayor” to get powers.
The government continues to overwhelmingly control local government budgets and councils’ tax-raising powers, despite new freedoms for councils to retain business rates.
The government also intends to continue disproportionate public funding cuts to local councils in their attempt to elimiate the national deficit.
Coventry council estimates those government funding cuts since 2010 have removed around £100million for the local economy.
UPDATE: Kevin Maton has now added on Twitter: “Marcus Jones has stated the combined authority proposals are not about imposition and top down government. If that turns out to be wrong and government are imposing a model on us and rest of West Midlands them we will all consider that.”
Mr Jones is a junior local government minister. Mr Osborne’s remarks were given in a keynote speech about the government’s position on devolution last week.