A CLAIM by a leading Labour Coventry councillor that the West Midlands Combined Authority is the “biggest smokescreen going” – months after he and colleagues voted to join it – has been branded “absolutely astonishing”.
That is Tory group leader councillor John Blundell’s response to Labour cabinet member Ed Ruane’s criticism of the WMCA, after it was reported in last week’s Coventry Observer.
Coun Blundell also called on Labour leaders to “make up their minds” about the combined authority – and finally allow Coventry people to decide in a referendum if the city wants to join it.
Coventry City Council’s Labour leaders under leader Ann Lucas repeatedly publicly insisted joining the WMCA was crucial for future investment in the city and wider region – and to win new powers and funds from central government.
Coun Ruane said last week: “We all know that the combined authority is the biggest smokescreen going, as we all continue to receive less funding from central government.”
They offered no such public criticisms of the government’s proposals for combined authorities last year as they sought to persuade a sceptical public in Coventry.
Coun Blundell said: “Ed Ruane’s remarks are absolutely astonishing.
“He’s got to make up his mind, and they’ve got to make their minds up.
“On the one hand, they’re telling us it’s the best thing since sliced bread, and we have to be part of it because of all the additional money it’s going to attract.
“On the other hand, they’ve telling us it’s a diversionary devise from the reduction in funding.
“And still they’re not going to give people the opportunity to vote. I want them to take the arguments to the people of Coventry and see if they will be supported in a citywide referendum.”
Several ruling Labour councillors including Coun Lucas had repeatedly attacked media scrutiny of the proposal, and opponents.
Thousands of petitioners, supported by the council’s Tory opposition, had called for a referendum to allow Coventry people to decide, amid widespread fears that powers and funds could shift towards the Birmingham conurbation away from Coventry, not just from London as Coventry’s leaders insisted.
Labour leaders last year also accepted in principle joining a WMCA to be headed by an elected mayor. It came despite their opposition to such a mayoral system in Coventry in 2012, when Coventrians voted two-to-one against an elected mayor in a referendum.
Tory chancellor George Osborne had said having an all-powerful single mayoral figure directly accountable to the people in elections every four years was necessary if councils in regional combination were to receive the “full suite of powers”.
Under the WMCA’s own leaked proposals to government, the West Midlands elected mayor – or metro mayor – will have considerable powers in areas of council tax, business rates, transport and economic policy.
Coventry City Council has said it will hold a separate vote – expected within months – on whether to accept the final devolution deal offered by government to the WMCA. An interim “shadow” WMCA board of leaders from seven West Midlands and Solihull councils, including Coun Lucas, has already been established.