SOLIHULL COUNCIL has voted to accept a controversial metro mayor in the next step towards the formation of West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).
At a full council meeting last week, Council Leader and chair of the WMCA Shadow Board, Coun Bob Sleigh urged councillors to approve the metro mayor in order to unlock the ‘full suite’ of powers promised by Chancellor George Osborne and investment worth an estimated £8 million for the region.
The elected mayor would head up the new regional body, which will be formed of seven existing seven local authorities – Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton – as well as a number of ‘non-constituent’ members from across Warwickshire and the Black Country.
He or she, who would most-likely be from Birmingham or Solihull given their strength and position in the proposed new authority, would have the ability to affect local council taxes by imposing precepts to raise money for services in the new region, and be able to grant tax exemptions and discounts in order to support millions of pounds worth of development.
They would also control a five year transport budget and be responsible for for integrating transport across the region, and driving up productivity and economic growth.
But the idea of a metro mayor has not been welcomed in Coventry and Birmingham, who voted against elected mayors in referendums – leaving some residents feeling they have been ‘railroaded’ by the Chancellor into accepting one.
Encouraging councillors to vote to accept having a mayor head up the new body, Coun Sleigh told members a vote in favour was a vote in favour of ‘accepting money’ and investment in the region.
He added: “The Combined Authority has the prosperity and well-being on constituents at its heart as well as jobs, infrastructure and skills development – all of which are critical to the West Midlands.
“We did not have the chance to devolve power before the last general election, but now the Government is keen to balance the books.
“And we have been clear since day one that we need a metro mayor in order to receive the devolution we need.”
“We cannot turn our backs on this.”
But questions were raised over the accountability of the new mayor.
In documents leaked to the Observer last year, it was revealed the mayor would be granted powers to levy a Supplementary Business Rate on businesses – without the requirement for a referendum.
Current plans also suggesting the mayor would only be answerable to a panel of seven local authority leaders who would need to form a two-thirds majority to be able to veto some of the his or her policy.
The issue was raised by both leading Conservative coucillors and opposition Green Party councillors who expressed concerns over safeguards.
Coun Chris Williams, Green Party councillor for Chelmsley Wood said: “The minutes from previous council meetings prove we have not been keen on the idea of an elected mayor.
“I acknowledge that have no choice in that – we are having a mayor, but we need to ensure we can hold he or she to account.
“But the current scrutiny agreement will see a Labour majority scrutiny board with some Conservative members.
“We need more checks and balances so that the best decisions are made and to ensure there is greater scrutiny on those decisions.”
Accepting there was still ‘work to be done’ on the accountability of the mayor, Councillor Sleigh urged members to back what he described as a ‘historic decision’.
A two-month consultation on the proposals is expected to begin at the end of June, with an election for the mayor on 4 May 2017.