SOLIHULL could be set to benefit from millions of pounds worth of devolved funding – as long as it accepts a metro-mayor.
That is the offer on the table from Westminster as leaders of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) Shadow Board met with Chancellor George Osborne to sign a provisional Devolution Agreement.
The region’s council leaders, including Solihull Council leader and Chair of the WMCA Shadow Board, Bob Sleigh, welcomed Mr Osborne in Coventry today to strike a devolution deal potentially worth £8 billion for the local economy.
The proposed agreement, which was signed by all present, would see Whitehall allocate £636 million over the next 30 years to the borough in a bid to drive growth and encourage inward investment.
Alongside the delivery of specific housing and business funds, the deal could also see the creation of a new employment and skills service, the scrapping of the M6 Toll, greater support to those suffering from mental health problems, and smart ticketing technology, akin to London’s Oyster Cards, across the region’s transport.
But, this would all come in return for a controversial elected metro-mayor.
The Chancellor has previously said the WMCA would only be granted the ‘full suite’ of devolved powers if it accepted an elected mayor.
Secret documents leaked to the Observer in September revealed this mayor 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.
He or she would also be granted powers to levy a Supplementary Business Rate on businesses – without the requirement for a referendum.
And, in a statement released by Coventry City Council, it was revealed today’s talks also confirmed the mayor would take on the role of overseeing West Midlands Police from the existing WMP Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) – causing the role to be abolished.
The WMCA – comprising Solihull, Coventry, Birmingham and Black Country councils – would only be able to veto some of the elected mayor’s policy if they formed a two-thirds majority.
Green Party councillor for Chelmsley Wood, Chris Williams, said the party, as official opposition in Solihull, welcomed the WMCA deal’s potential to return decisions and public transport management to local hands but still had concerns growth had been put ahead of human issues facing the region – including continued poverty and inequality.
Coun Williams also raised doubts over the accountability of the new metro mayor – arguing the people of Solihull and Green Party had not had the opportunity to have their say over the proposals.
He added: “Devolution needs to be transparent, open and accountable and should enable local people to have more say in their lives, not end up with power being held by a board of council leaders and a mayor imposed by central government.
“The Green Party doesn’t want an authority that is all about making it easier for big business with the people getting the crumbs.”
But councillor Bob Sleigh remained optimistic about the proposals, arguing the agreement was the ‘first stage in a continuing conversation’ with the Government and would allow the Shadow Board to turn its words into actions.
He added: “I recognise the imposition of a West Midlands metro-mayor is not to everyone’s taste, but I feel in light of the deal this is acceptable, particularly given the limited nature of such an elected mayor’s powers over the region.
“I promised my colleagues at Solihull Council that any devolution agreement will be put in front of Council so councillors can have a final say on whether or not Solihull should sign up.
“I look forward to the Agreement being scrutinised in detail and I hope you will agree with me that it is in Solihull’s best interests be part of this historic devolution of power and funding to our region.”