20180112 Things to note from WMCA Board

2018 has arrived, and rejoice/woe, many things are as they ever were. If you needed an example, see the latest edition of ‘Lord Digby says or does something that makes everyone in Birmingham die from embarrassment’:

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That’s right, presenting a basket of goods of evidently multinational origin to make some sort of wider statement on the future of the British economy. Perhaps that it is — both in substance and inspiration — completely reliant on good relationships with all of the other nations? #coughs

ANYWAY. I digress. Another thing that is the same is the dawning of WMCA Board, which is a relief to us all. But — a twist — it is to be hosted at the Tally Ho conference centre — taking us, via different buses than usual, deep into the bowels of one of the Police & Crime Commissioner’s lairs. I daresay this probably comes with extra speaking rights, on which I will report back in the associated Twitter stream. Last Board, he was unhappy at the very notion of the Overview & Scrutiny committee having a modicum of influence over future governance arrangements of West Midlands Police, at which I can only shrug and say: that’s democracy, baby. Anyway, that is a long way away and a satisfactory compromise can be worked out. To the papers…!

The Cohesion and Integration Portfolio

Public service reform is an important but under-resourced piece of work — so, this element of it remains at a reasonably early point:

The priority at this stage is to bring some shape to this agenda and begin establishing momentum, led by the portfolio holder [Councillor Steve Eling, Sandwell].

The WMCA is undertaking two strands of work here. One is focused on bringing people together — using its position in the region to enhance efforts to boost cohesion and celebrate diversity in Councils and neighbourhoods across the region. The other, is about sharing economic growth — ensuring that people can shape and benefit from their local economy.

Under bringing people together, the following is planned:

  • Hold regular related activities: along Mayor’s Community Weekend, the Mayor and Faith Conference, the Mayor’s Cohesion Prize and Diwali on the Square;
  • Commission a piece of engagement/research work: this should bring together best practice on supporting cohesion at a city-region level, while unpicking wider debates on proactively addressing community cohesion issues, so as to recommend a course of action for the WMCA;
  • Identify a ‘cohesion champion’: this could be one person or a panel, but the idea would be that they advise and support the Mayor.
  • Develop a communications approach: this is about fostering a “meaningful dialogue” with citizens, which links cohesion to key parts of the WMCA agenda — housing, transport, the economy, etc.

Under sharing economic growth:

  • Push existing initiatives: …such as the Leadership Commission and the Mayor’s Mentors;
  • Establish an Inclusive Growth Unit: …within the WMCA. This would ideally be ‘sponsored’ (partly financed and through endorsement) by independent organisations such as Barrow Cadbury Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. “The Unit would be the umbrella under which existing initiatives are communicated, and would provide a means through which the WMCA can develop a strategy and delivery plan for inclusive growth linked to the Industrial Strategy, and a route in for civil society to this dialogue,” and will be directly accountable to the Mayor;
  • Create a ‘sharing economic growth blueprint’: the idea is that this would be co-designed and co-delivered with civil society, the social enterprise sector, etc. It will enable Councillor Eling with an evidence base that will augment the Strategic Economic Plan (SEP);
  • Establish links between inclusive growth and the wider WMCA agenda: inclusive growth should cut across everything that the WMCA does.

Some of this is genuinely exciting — inclusive growth has become a fashionable phrase, but there has been little in the way of a meaningful shift towards investing or measuring differently. If the above — particularly the Unit and the blueprint — can change how the WMCA, Councils and LEPs work, we could start entering a really interesting place.

This, unless I am very much mistaken, will mean (as a bare minimum) that the Performance Management systems will have to be enhanced or amended — but given that that has been the direction of travel, that is good and to be welcomed. It is this sort of work that needs to be done for the future — after all, our failure to empower regions to build strong economies involving their full populations outside of the south-east of England (arguably) gave us Brexit.

Page 23 of the pdf agenda pack shows a list of reasons why it is important to act — take this element, for example:

I’d be interested in looking at this dataset on Managers, Directors and Senior Officials properly — to see how it shakes out in gender and location terms. The City-REDI West Midlands databook shows, by area, the percentage of people employed at that level (in 2016), but it doesn’t state where that position is per se:

  • Birmingham: 42.6%
  • Coventry: 37.5%
  • Dudley: 37.2%
  • Sandwell: 28.4%
  • Solihull: 47.6%
  • Walsall: 37.4%
  • Wolverhampton: 32%

The results are reasonably predictable, but it does create the beginnings of a picture. It will be really important to build and interrogate that whole picture — where are the good jobs based, who gets to do them, what does their pathway to those jobs look like, where, etc.

The paper makes it clear (and I hope I have too) that this agenda is not a ‘nice to have’ — it is “fundamental to achieving the goals of a more productive economy and society set out in the SEP and the Mayor’s manifesto”. However, the aspiration for this portfolio to attract investment to Cohesion and Integration is worth noting. The WMCA has a handful of staff working on Public Service Reform (£200,000 is allocated in the budget), and Henry Kippin, although brilliant, is only recently in post. Even getting to the stage where WMCA/Mayor Andy Street can ask for something via a future devolution deal requires people, and there are not many of them at the moment.

WMCA Draft Budget and Mayoral Council Tax Precept for 2018/19

[Note: this is a few months old now, but I have previously written on how the WMCA’s money works:]

Exciting times — the budget is ready to be scrutinised. We have worked hard on the WMCA Overview & Scrutiny Committee to come up with a timetable for the budget that involves scrutiny (including a learning visit to the London Assembly, which has a robust, well resourced process)— and we will be considering it between now and the next Board meeting on February 9th. I’ll write a separate piece on this, but a few thoughts are as follows.

So, first off — it is worth noting that the WMCA is relatively small, budget-wise, compared to the Constituent Councils:

The combined gross revenue budget of the seven Constituent Members in 2017/18 was £4.7 billion and set against this is a proposal to establish a 2018/19 Gross Revenue Budget for the West Midlands Combined Authority of £177.8 million.

The operational budget of the WMCA (£11.8m) is funded via a combination of local and national — £6.1m to £5.7m respectively.

The revenue budget for 17/18 was underspent by £6m, and those savings will accrue into the General Reserve in this financial year, along with the planned £4.8m.

Here is a table that shows the revenue budget income and expenditure — note that roughly a quarter is spent on financing capital expenditure (mostly transport):

Speaking of the precept (to raise £7.5m). Let’s be absolutely clear: how places are funded is absolutely nonsensical. Council Tax — upon which the precept is placed — is regressive (with people on lower incomes spending a greater percentage of their household budgets on it), based on property values in 1991, and inflexible, with central Government exerting a huge amount of control over it.

Neither of these reasons are enough to say that the Mayor should not use the precept (which can only be used for exercising the Mayor’s powers under Devo 1 and funding his office). Specifically, it will cover this:

He did, as we know, promise to explore alternatives in his Renewal Plan:

This is more cleverly worded than I gave him credit for at the time — the panel of experts isn’t expected to report before the precept is raised, but you would assume that if you didn’t read it closely.

That aside, with local government cuts the heaviest in the public sector, I cannot countenance the idea of not pulling every fiscal lever available to us — although it does make democratic engagement (and decent Council Tax support schemes at Council level) extremely important. I had a debate on Twitter about this — people need to know that they are investing in something that they want, that they benefit from. Are politicians in Wolverhampton championing that the WMCA is funding their new station? Do we ever mention WMCA on the doorsteps? If we aren’t (and most of us aren’t), then we are preventing it from being useful and viable — the people of the region won’t want to pay for it. Well, more than they already are:

The table includes the transport levy payments (which are scaled by population) — but note that all Members pay a membership rate, and are also contributing in other ways to the various commissions. “When taken together, the Constituent Authority funding mechanism for the West Midlands Combined Authority Budget is now based on a 63% fixed membership fee and a 37 % population based split.”(p47 of agenda pack).

The marketing/promotion/engagement budget for the WMCA sits at around £200,000 — that’s not a lot for the size of this task.

WMCA Borrowing Powers and Amendments to Key Route Network

This is exciting — the WMCA is to (finally) get borrowing powers that extend beyond transport, to cover all of its functions. These include housing, economic regeneration, public sector reform and air quality. It will (finally) bring an end to the interim arrangement of the Constituent Councils borrowing on the WMCA’s behalf.

Getting this agreement from Treasury requires the WMCA to design a borrowing cap for itself, which it has done:

This has clearly come from the Treasury negotiations led by Julia Goldsworthy (Director of Strategy), so it has clearly paid off (so to speak).

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