COVENTRY residents are being invited to more public meetings to have their say on the council joining a combined authority with other West Midlands councils.
But critics say the decision has effectively already been taken – despite widespread public opposition and a refusal to let people decide in a referendum.
Tory opposition leader, councillor John Blundell, said: “This appears to be a PR exercise rather than genuine public consultation. Many people feel it’s a fait accompli.”
‘Drop-in sessions’ – where the public can ‘informally’ discuss the matter with Coventry city councillors and council officers – take place in five venues across the city from tomorrow.
Council leader, Labour’s Ann Lucas, said: “We’ve already had some interesting discussions about combined authorities at ward forum meetings, but we know that some people can’t always get to evening meetings and would prefer just to pop into a local centre.
“These drop-in sessions will suit people who’d like to find out more by chatting to someone.
“There has been some confusion about what being part of a combined authority means. So it’s really important we explain to people what this is really about – moving power from Whitehall to the West Midlands, not from Coventry to Birmingham.”
Opponents say the real problem is not ‘confusion’ but the council’s Labour leaders’ determination to press ahead – despite much public concern of a loss of Coventry identity and power to the Birmingham conurbation.
A petition calling for a referendum which would enable Coventry people to decide has now been signed by more than 4,000 people.
Lead petitioner Rachel Bermingham believes ruling councillors had already made their mind up in June when they ruled out a referendum, despite the petition, which is continuing.
Of the latest public consultation meetings, she said: “It’s appears to be more about persuasion than consultation. The whole pitch is wrong. It’s a fait accompli”
The combined authority could be headed by an elected mayor – a system rejected by two thirds of Coventry voters in a referendum three years ago, when Labour councillors also campaigned against it.
Conservative councillors prefer Coventry joining a combined authority with Warwickshire, without Birmingham and the Black Country.
Coun Blundell said the Tory group would oppose the West Midlands Combined Authority if there was no referendum and the Tory-run Warwickshire County Council does not wish to join.
Despite Coun Lucas’s claims, opponents point out how some powers could transfer from existing bodies in Coventry and the West Midlands – including the local enterprise partnerships, passenger transport authority Centro, and potentially the police and NHS.
Other critics question whether the Conservative government’s promise of devolution of power to the English regions is as significant as ministers claim – given the government is ‘taking with the other hand’ by removing power from councils with disproportionate funding cuts.
Tory chancellor George Osborne says combined authorities will only get the ‘full suite of powers’ on offer from government if they agree to having an elected mayor – rather than allowing councils to decide without conditions imposed by government.
The council insists on-line discussions, meetings with specific groups, and leaflets and comments postcards will also help residents have their say.
The sessions will be held at the following venues between 11am and 3pm:
26 City Arcade (former Voluntary Action Coventry) Thursday 13 August, Friday 14 August and Saturday 15 August
Wyken Community Centre, Westmorland Road, Monday 17 August
Allesley Community Centre, Winsford Avenue, Wednesday 19 August
St Paul’s Church Hall, Foleshill Road, Tuesday 25 August
Xcel Leisure Centre, Mitchell Avenue, Wednesday 26 August