Wirral’s Liberal Democrat Councillors have voted for the next steps to create a new structure for our region, including a directly elected Mayor.
The Leaders and Chief Executives of the six Councils have spent months drawing up a list of ‘asks’. They’ve had to do this before the Government’s spending review. The list of items agreed with the Government reflects compromises between the Labour leaders of the Councils, where the personalities of the Leaders and the Mayor of Liverpool, and old rivalries have come into play.
Much effort had been directed to keeping St Helens on board where suspicion of Liverpool has long existed. Halton Council has remained on board but their arrangements for police and fire have stayed with Cheshire, so these services are not in the ‘devolution deal’.
A summary of the haggling says that ‘No existing powers will be taken from local authorities without their agreement’
Each Council has retained their individual role in Health and Social Care, getting an agreement about co-ordination across Merseyside was a step too far.
My political experience dates back as far as being a Member of the Merseyside County Council, abolished in the 1980s, with memories of the work that Michael Heseltine took on to support our economy.
In those days there was a feeling that we were on the wrong side of the country.There was a real a doubt about whether Liverpool was could ever recover. Even today there is still, as in Wirral, a core of deprived areas where jobs are scarce and the health of the people remains poor, with lower life expectancy.
It is the need to secure investment in the economy and re- develop run down areas that has driven this process. The ‘Single Investment Fund’ is promised an additional £30m a year over the next 30 years, equating to £900m of total investment.The City Region can use this to invest in projects to create jobs and drive forward economic growth. The Government had offered a lower figure but our region wanted the same funding as that being offered elsewhere.
For the last year or so Merseyside has had a ‘Combined Authority’, run by Labour with its own constitution, and Wirral’s Labour Leader as Chair.It has a ‘cabinet’ model and ‘scrutiny’ committee like each local Council.
As your Councillors we wanted to steer this body, and ensure the new structure, to be open and transparent. That’s why we challenged the draft constitution for the elected Mayor model.
The deal requires 2/3 of the Council Leaders, along with the Elected Mayor and the rep from the business community to agree for a proposal to go forward. Some proposals have a backstop, where the Leader of one Council can block an item. There are fudges, compromises and safeguards sprinkled throughout.
That’s why, at Wirral Council, we moved this…
Council needs to be assured that the existing provisions regarding Scrutiny in the Combined Authority, albeit in their infancy, can be strengthened to deal with the increased resources, responsibilities and momentum of the new structure.
The ‘asks’ from the six Councils produced an ‘agreement’ that runs to 17 pages. It includes greater control over the skills system, including full devolution of the Adult Skills Budget, so that the City Region can tackle the ‘mismatch’ between the supply of skills and the needs of employers.The colleges and eventually sixth form colleges can expect a review of what they’re providing, and why.
It is the area of land use and strategic planning (rather than smaller local planning applications) that has the potential to cause conflict.
The summary of the deal states…
’Strategic planning powers to accelerate economic growth and housing development and give clarity and certainty to potential developers’.
Lord Michael Heseltine has always enjoyed a measure of goodwill amongst the ranks of councillors for his opposition to centralisation and the draining of power to London. The drawback is the idea that there is a big figure who is the boss, who can say ‘yes, do it’, for a project. The document says that the Key Route Network of local roads which will be managed and maintained by the Combined Authority on behalf of the LCR Mayor, from May 2017. On the tunnels it says…
‘The Department for Transport will continue to work with the Liverpool City Region in the review of the tolls on the Mersey Tunnels being undertaken by the Combined Authority, which considers the options open to the Authority to reduce the cost of tunnel tolls and its impact on infrastructure and the ability to accelerate economic growth.’
For this reason we called for…
- the creation of an ‘assembly’, with practices similar to that operating in London, before which the elected Mayor Is expected to outline his or her priorities and proposed actions.
- a model that allows three members, chosen by the Councillors in each Parliamentary Constituency, from amongst their own number, to form the basis for such a body.
We put this forward at the Council meeting, but it was defeated.
Labour claimed it would cost money and introduce bureaucracy. Yes, there is a cost for democracy, there is a democratic deficit. but choosing local councillors to question and hold the elected Mayor and the Leaders to account is not costly. Something has to be done to hold them account.
….And, no, we don’t know what the ‘elected Mayor’ is going to be paid!
Phil Gilchrist 23 Nov 2015
You can read the Devolution Plan here.