A COVENTRY MP has called on the government to “come clean” over its insistence a combined authority with Birmingham and the Black Country must have an elected mayor – an idea rejected by Coventry voters just three years ago.
Geoffrey Robinson also questioned whether ministers are serious about handing down powers from Westminster to the proposed regional combined authority.
The Labour Coventry North West MP supports the Labour Coventry City Council leadership’s position of agreeing “in principle” to joining a combined authority with Birmingham, the Black Country, and potentially councils in Warwickshire and Solihull.
Coventry’s Conservatives favour joining a combined authority with Warwickshire councils to bid for powers from government, expressing widespread public concern that Coventry could be subservient to its larger Birmingham conurbation neighbours.
The council’s Tory group is calling for Coventry people to decide in a referendum, a call now supported by nearly 4,000 people who have signed a petition.
There is also concern over Conservative chancellor George Osborne’s insistence that the combined authority must be headed by a ‘metro mayor’ to get the “full suite of powers” over transport, regeneration and other policy areas.
Voters in Coventry and Birmingham voted in referenda in 2012 against the government’s proposals of elected mayors to run their councils.
Mr Robinson challenged Conservative business secretary Sajid Javid in the Commons, stating: “We in the West Midlands look forward to the greater devolution the government are promising, but these are just fine words.
“The reality is that the government refused to sanction the multimillion pound gateway project. It was supported fully by our (Coventry and Warwickshire) Local Enterprise Partnership, and would have created jobs and growth in Coventry and the West Midlands. Can the Secretary of State reconcile the two in his own mind?”
Mr Javid responded: “The honourable gentleman claims that these are just words, but it is partly because of the devolution measures we have already taken… that he has seen a more than 50 per cent decline in unemployment in his constituency.
“This work started in the previous Parliament with the creation of 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships, chaired by business leaders and covering the whole of England, and 27 City Deals revitalising the English regions by enabling private sector-led growth.
“The Chancellor has taken the work of economic rebalancing to the next stage by outlining his vision for a northern powerhouse.
“The cornerstone is the devolution deal already reached with the elected leaders of Greater Manchester.
“They will elect their own mayor, who will be responsible and accountable for making Greater Manchester greater still.”
Mr Robinson said: “We need to know why the government are obsessed with the idea of metro mayors. The minister.. refused to answer or was incapable of answering the question of what the real position of metro mayor will be.
“What are their powers? We need a clear description of those powers. We need to know what the alternatives to those powers are.
“Coventry is in an invidious position. It is already linked to, and has developed limited strategic arrangements with, Warwickshire, most notably through the Local Enterprise Partnership, which the government set up by way of an inadequate substitute for Advantage West Midlands.
“.. We nevertheless have that LEP, but it will be cut in half, because half of its responsibilities are in Warwickshire and half in Coventry. Where does it stand? What are the alternatives?
“… What are the chances of having a Coventry and Warwickshire strategic or combined authority? …Does it need a mayor?
“…most notably in Birmingham and Coventry, the idea was resoundingly rejected by the electorate. Now it has been put to us again, quite insidiously, by the government.
“… The danger is that we have another top-down reorganisation inflicted on the region, which will create an even bigger mess. Clearly, the Government must come clean on what they are offering.
“Clearly, the government must come clean on what they are offering.”
Those questions were not answered in the debate, although Mr Javid said an elected mayor would chair the Manchester combined authority.
Meriden Conservative MP Caroline Spelman said: “I am not totally convinced about the establishment of a ‘metro mayor’ for the Midlands powerhouse. Rivalries between the towns and cities are intense, not least on the football pitch.”