COUNCIL leaders have been accused of ‘misinforming’ the public over plans for Coventry to join with Birmingham, Solihull and black country councils in a West Midlands Combined Authority – following the leak of a secret confidential document.
The confidential Draft West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) Agreement document – first leaked to the Coventry Observer three weeks ago following our enquiries – spells out to government a wish list of new powers for the region to run its own affairs.
Coventry City Council leader Ann Lucas and other leading councillors have repeatedly stated powers would solely transfer from Westminster and Whitehall – not from Coventry to the region. Those claims were made amid widespread public concern and demands for a referendum signed by 4,000 petitioners, which would have allowed Coventry people to decide on whether to join the combined authority.
But the leaked document reveals council leaders were secretly drawing up plans for wide-ranging new powers for the combined authority and an elected mayor, which would have a major impact on local council powers and local people.
Council leaders had refused to state publicly for months whether they were planning for the new combined authority to be headed by an elected mayor – a system rejected by two-thirds of Coventry voters in a referendum just three years ago when ruling Coventry Labour councillors campaigned against an elected mayor to head the council, claiming it would place too much power in the hands of one person.
The leaked document – an early negotiating position of the interim (“shadow”) WMCA submitted to government last month – proposes sweeping new powers for an elected ‘metro’ mayor – directly elected ever four years by voters throughout the Birmingham, Coventry and West Midlands.
Crucially, it proposes the elected mayor would have significant tax-raising powers, affecting Coventry households’ Council Tax bills and business rates paid by Coventry firms.
The elected mayor, who would chair the WMCA, would have powers to set an additional Council Tax ‘precept’, levy an additional business rate, and take sole control of some investment funds, notably over transport.
Rachel Bermingham, lead petitioner earlier this year for a referendum in Coventry, said: “There’s been very little transparency and the leaked document is clear evidence that they’ve tried to keep things under wraps.
“The information we’ve had has been incorrect. We were told there would be no increase in Council Tax.. and the fact is they are talking about an elected mayor. We’ve had complete misinformation.”
She added that “some of the economic arguments for entering a combined authority seemed to be evaporating” with chancellor George Osborne’s latest devolution plans to individual local councils announced on Monday.
He said a so-called “devolution revolution” which enable local councils to retain 100 per cent of revenue they collect in business rates from firms – rather than currently sending half of it back to central government. Government grant to councils, already being cut to unprecedented levels, would reduce further time, leaving councils to rely on Council Tax and business rate income to support their jobs and services.
The leaked document reveals proposals for the West Midlands combined authority to retain 100 per cent of business rate growth, with that money passing from councils.
It reveals the WMCA wants to negotiate with government over giving councils more power to set Council Tax and borrow money as they see fit, as well as the future governance of police, fire and rescue services.
The WMCA also wants at least 30,000 more new homes above current targets, which will raise fears about greenbelt surrounding Coventry and Solihull.
The WMCA aim is to secure an £8billion investment package to help grow the West Midlands economy and improve transport, including through HS2 and Birmingham Airport expansion.
The shadow WMCA claims every £1million of business rate growth could be used to finance £13million of capital investment in new enterprise zones.
Coventry council’s huge Labour majority is expected to next week ensure a full council meeting votes to join the combined authority. Conservative councillors prefer joining with Warwickshire, where county councillors have voted against joining WMCA.
Leading Tory Coventry councillor John Blundell called on council leaders to make more secret WMCA documents public.
Coventry council chief executive Martin Reeves states ultimate decisions about the devolution deal and an elected mayor would come back to full council at a later date.
Council leaders insist the leaked document represents an early stage negotiating position with government, which is insisting combined authorities must have an elected mayor to qualify for the “full suite of powers” on offer.
As the Coventry Observer has previously reported, a public consultation, including a ‘citizen’s panel’ to explore public views, has been widely criticised as a waste of taxpayers’ money over a “fait accompli”. Leading Labour councillors have for months been talking up the importance of joining the WMCA and council leader, Coun Lucas, is already a member of the interim “shadow” WMCA.
A Coventry City Council spokesman, responding to this article, said: “Since the council’s decision in principle to join a West Midlands Combined Authority in May a widespread engagement programme across the city has encouraged residents to talk to councillors about some of the issues around joining a West Midlands Combined Authority including the potential for a future devolution deal with government.
“Throughout the programme councillors have been clear that in order to get the maximum powers and responsibilities available through a devolution deal the government would expect the West Midlands to have a metro mayor.
“One of the key concerns expressed by residents has been the lack of information around what a devolution deal could mean and the council is committed to sharing the information it can when it can – but the Treasury want negotiations to remain confidential.
“It will be up to all leaders of the seven councils to agree unanimously to this if they consider the offer from government is worth it, and following debates and decisions held in all councils by all councillors. At the moment negotiations are continuing with the Treasury.”