COVENTRY council’s Labour leaders have voted ‘Yes’ to a ‘devolution deal’ with Tory chancellor George Osborne which will see an all-powerful new West Midlands elected mayor taking control of some major services.
New council leader George Duggins acknowledged at Tuesday’s (May 31) full council meeting he had campaigned for a ‘No’ vote in 2012, when Coventry voters by two-to-one rejected the government’s proposal of having an elected mayor to run Coventry City Council.
Tory opposition leader, councillor John Blundell, reminded Coun Duggins he and his Labour council colleagues had opposed an elected mayor system on the grounds they place too much power in one person’s hands.
Coun Blundell pointed out the devolution deal will grant massive powers to a West Midlands elected mayor after the first mayoral election next year – including the ability to raise extra Council Tax and business rates.
Some of the mayor’s powers in the devolution agreement – struck between Mr Osborne’s Treasury and the interim West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) of seven full-member councils including Coventry – will go unchecked – meaning the WMCA will have no power to vote down some of the mayor’s decisions, including on his or her Council Tax precept.
The region’s elected mayor – also called a ‘metro mayor’ will take change of some policy areas on transport and economic development, and can raise a business rate supplement in agreement with the WMCA.
Coun Duggins said: “I remain opposed to an elected mayor. I have not changed my opinion having played a major role in the ‘No’ campaign in 2012.”
But he added he now supported a regional mayor in return for an ‘£8billion’ 30-year investment package for the region, including an estimated £568million for Coventry.
The investment package – comprising pots of money passed down from Whitehall, taxraising and borrowing powers – is estimated to include £150million for Coventry city centre redevelopment and money for a link from Coventry to the HS2 high speed rail station near the NEC, Coun Duggins said.
He also placed on record the context of the government cutting an estimated £100mIllion from Coventry City Council’s annual budget since 2010.
Coun Duggins said his controlling Labour group did not intend to ‘undo’ the devolution agreement struck so far when his predecessor Ann Lucas had a place on the interim WMCA.
But he outlined his concerns about any futher devolution deal, saying he would not want more powers to be sucked up by the elected mayor, such as police, fire and rescue.
The Tory opposition tabled an amendment, rejected by Coun Duggins, which would have committed the council to blocking any direct transfer of power from the council to the mayoral combined authority.
Coun Duggins also rejected a Tory amendment which would have ensured the council’s opposition leader would be party to any minor amendments to the draft mayoral order, in addition to the council leader and chief executive Martin Reeves, who will carry on his part-time role for the WMCA while still being paid his £175,000 salary by Coventry taxpayers.
Tory councillors accused Coun Duggins of going back on his word when becoming leader that under his leadership the council would be more transparent.
Coun Duggins responded by saying he was committed to more openness by providing monthly updates to council on WMCA matters.
The Labour group also once more voted down the Tories’ renewed call for a referendum to allow Coventry people to decide whether they wanted the combined authority and elected mayor.
The Tories claimed a ‘greater Birmingham’ authority had been deeply unpopular with the majority of Coventry people. A petition calling for a referendum had attracted around 4,000 signatures.
Under criticism from Tories, Labour councillors passed the blame onto Mr Osborne’s claim last year that a referendum would not be suitable.
The Tories maintained they still preferred Coventry to join in a combined authority with Warwickshire.
But they would now take a ‘pragmatic’ approach towards the WMCA, particularly given that Conservative controlled Warwickshire became a non-constituent member last month with a view to full membership.
The WMCA is expected to be fully operational later this month and there will be further consultation before before the mayoral model is ratified.