COUNCIL leaders are ploughing ahead towards creating a West Midlands Combined Authority by privately setting up an interim regional body – even though public views are still being sought in a costly consultation.
Leaders of the seven Coventry, Solihull, Birmingham and black country councils have created a “West Midlands Combined Authority Shadow Board” – with Solihull council’s Conservative leader Bob Sleigh appointed as its chairman, and Sandwell council Labour leader Darren Cooper as deputy.
The interim ‘shadow board’ is viewed as a precursor to creating the combined authority next April – which would see councils working in partnership to seek new spending powers from government.
Coun Cooper declared on Twitter: “Inaugural meeting of the shadow WMCA.. Historic day for our region.”
But democratically elected councils including Coventry and Solihull have not voted for the creation of a ‘shadow board’ – and have not even yet approved creating the combined authority.
Outraged opponents – concerned about Coventry losing identity and decision-making powers to its larger neighbours – also say the move makes a mockery of the ongoing public consultation.
The consultation in Coventry includes public meetings and creating a ‘citizen’s panel’ to feed back public views – and is costing city taxpayers up to £250,000.
Rachael Bermingham, who organised a petition signed by 4,000 people calling for a referendum to allow Coventry people to decide on whether to join the combined authority, said of the shadow board: “This is not what we were told would happen. It makes a sham of the public consultation.
“This clearly is a precursor to the combined authority definitely coming into play.
“It raises questions over whether it’s been a waste of public money in undertaking a public consultation which was never intended to illicit public opinion at all.
“People will see it as a cynical manipulation of what the council has been undertaking. I’m quite disgusted by the whole thing.
“They’re not even pretending now to take the views of the electorate into account. They’re just going to do their own thing regardless.”
Coventry Conservative opposition leader, councillor John Blundell, said: “The leaders of the seven metropolitan councils have decided themselves to call this a shadow board.
“Strictly speaking, they probably don’t have to take it through the council process, and it’s patently obvious the council’s (Labour) executive has made its mind up there will be a combined authority.
“This is an interim measure towards that. The public consulation is not a listening exercise. It’s a persuasion exercise.”
He raised questions over business cabinet member councillor Kevin Maton being selected to deputise for Ann Lucas when necessary on the shadow board – when people might expect council deputy leaders to take that role.
Coun Blundell also said there was no detail of the make-up of the ‘citizen’s panel’.
Conservative chancellor George Osborne has said combined authorities must be headed by elected mayors – so-called ‘metro mayors’ – to qualify for the “full suite of powers” offered by government.
It could include powers over the police and NHS, in addition to some powers over housing and planning, economic development and transport.
Critics point to Coventry and Birmingham voters – and Labour council leaders – opposing elected mayor systems in referenda just three years ago.
They also argue the coalition and Conservative governments are taking more power away from councils – which would remain as separate bodies – with unprecedented and disproportionate fundings cuts.
Coun Blundell added: “The leaders can think what they like, but we all know what’s going to happen – they’ll be a metro mayor who will have power over the council leaders, because the government says an elected mayor is necessary to get the full powers.”
Coventry Tories prefer creating a combined authority with Warwickshire councils, who will decide from next month whether to join the combined authority, but are thought to still be sceptical.
Coventry councillors at a full council meeting in May sanctioned leaders to work up proposals towards joining a combined authority ‘in principle’ – and possibly with the Warwickshire as well as West Midlands councils.
A Coventry City Council spokesperson said: “The leaders of the seven metropolitan councils have been meeting regularly on WMCA business for some time and the creation of a shadow board simply means there’s more clarity for people attending meetings.
“There is no need for any mandate because the board has no specific power or responsibility. The government has made it clear that it expects councils to work together and at pace in order to bid for devolved powers from Westminster, so it’s important that work continues to develop proposals for government to consider – this has always been the case throughout the consultation period.”