COVENTRY Conservatives are to launch a campaign and petition for a referendum on the Labour council’s plans to enter a combined authority with Birmingham and the Black Country, the Observer has learned.
Coventry City Council opposition leader John Blundell also accused leader Ann Lucas’s party of “guillotining” and seeking to rail-road the decision through with “undue haste” and with little public debate.
There is widespread public concern that Coventry could end up playing second fiddle to the second city in a new West Midlands Combined Authority headed by an elected mayor.
It comes just three years after Coventry voters overwhelmingly said ‘No’ in a referendum to having an elected mayor to head Coventry City Council. Ruling Coventry Labour councillors had campaigned for a ‘No’ vote, claiming the government’s proposals for elected mayors were undemocratic.
Tory chancellor George Osborne does not plan to give the public a vote this time round. He said last week ‘city-regions’ must have an elected mayor to head up their combined authorities if regions are to receive some new powers over funding for jobs, transport and other policy areas.
The referendum proposed by Coventry Conservatives would enable Coventry people to decide in a vote whether to join the West Midlands combined authority.
The Observer understands local Conservatives’ call for a referendum will be accompanied by a petition imminently.
Councillor Blundell said he feared the council’s Labour-run cabinet had behind closed doors already made arrangements to prevent a scrutiny committee “calling in” the decision for further examination and public debate after next Thursday’s meeting.
That cabinet meeting at the Council House – open to the public – will discuss going ahead with joining the West Midlands combined authority “in principle”. That decision is then expected to be forced through at a full council meeting by the Labour majority of councillors.
Coventry Conservatives argue Coventry as a large city should instead lead a smaller ‘city region’ with Warwickshire. Arrangements already exist via Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to complete for government funds and powers.
Conservative leaders at Coventry council’s partners in the LEP – at Warwickshire County Council and Warwick District Council – would prefer remaining as a distinct Coventry and Warwickshire ‘city region’.
Nuneaton MP and Tory local government minister Marcus Jones has contested Coventry Labour leaders’ claims that entering a large West Midlands authority is the only offer on the table from government.
Coun Lucas and some of her Labour colleagues are angry at repeated suggestions the proposal would create a ‘Greater Birmingham’.
They claim it would instead see powers devolved to the West Midlands from Westminster, not transferred from Coventry – which would retain its council, and send a member to the new regional authority.
But many Coventry people having their say on internet forums are not convinced it is necessary or a good idea. May argue an elected mayor heading the new authority would likely be a Birmingham conurbation figure, as most voters reside there.
Some commentators including the respected pro-devolution and Birmingham-based Chamberlain Files have called on chancellor Osborne to withdraw his insistence on having an elected mayor – through fear local objections could scupper the entire project.
Critics since 2010 have argued the government’s so-called ‘localism’ agenda – of handing more powers to local communities – actually granted more than 100 more powers to government ministers and Whitehall.
Conservative ministers now say calls for greater devolution to Scotland – and the SNP’s landslide election victory north of the border – has triggered a need for more self-determining powers to the English regions to run their own affairs.
But that rhetoric is contradicted by ministers dictating that regions must have the s0-called “metro mayor” to get powers.
The government continues to overwhelmingly control local government budgets and councils’ tax-raising powers, despite new freedoms for councils to retain business rates.
The government also intends to continue disproportionate public funding cuts to local councils in their attempt to elimiate the national deficit.
Coventry council estimates those government funding cuts since 2010 have removed around £100million for the local economy.