wmneg-coverOn Thursday the West Midlands New Economics Group heard a presentation about combined authorities, a new tier of local government based on city regions, which is transforming local government in England.

The invited speaker, Richard Hatcher, sees that coordinated planning of economic development, job creation, transport, post-16 education and training, environmental issues and housing ‘across a coherent urban conurbation on a larger scale’ could be in the public interest.

But as it currently stands, this radical transformation of the local state, driven by central government, involves massive cuts in council budgets and the commissioning of services from private providers.

All Combined Authorities to date have had economic growth as their primary purpose. They require a close partnership between local government and business, including the direct involvement of the Local Enterprise Partnerships – but distancing their political leadership from the pressure of popular opposition resulting from further massive cuts by excluding service users, community groups and union representatives.

Richard Hatcher brought along a copy of the strategic economic plan, ‘Making our Mark’ (above, left) published by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), showing diagrams and selected text passages from the report on PowerPoint.

This presented an aspirational, vision-led approach to transformation but its 57 pages offered no analysis of the status quo and no information on the way in which the stated targets would be achieved. ‘Making our Mark’ expresses high hopes (above) of increasing gross value added, creating further employment, enabling more people to achieve NVQ level 4 (HNC) and a reduction in the numbers of people with no qualifications.

wmneg-skills

The report, which used the term ‘business’ 181 times, ‘unions’ once and ‘equality’ twice, opens: “This strategic economic plan (SEP) sets out the vision, objectives, strategy and actions to improve the quality of life for everyone who lives and works in the West Midlands”, but though vision and objectives about, information about strategies and actions is not given.

Priority actions listed are actually aspirations, as Hatcher stresses. They include:

  • New manufacturing economy: harnessing the biggest concentrations of high value manufacturing businesses in Europe and their supply chains.
  • Creative and digital: further developing the area’s vibrant and flourishing sector.
  • Environmental technologies: securing transformational environmental improvements.
  • Medical and life sciences: enabling the further growth of the medical and life sciences sector and supporting other businesses to diversify and become part of the sector’s supply chain.
  • HS2 growth: maximising the benefits of the largest infrastructure project in Europe.
  • Skills for growth and employment for all: ensuring the skills needs of businesses are met and everybody can benefit from economic growth.
  • Housing: accelerating the delivery of current housing plans to increase the level of house building to support increased level of growth.

The minimal funding provided to work these miracles is predicted to lever millions and billions of pounds to realise these aspirations. All present were hazy about the term, leverage – associating it with a less reader-friendly process, borrowing.

levering

This impression was confirmed by a later search – and shows the need to exercise great caution in the choice of investments funded in this way so that other sectors will not incur the heavy debt burdening many of this country’s large new hospitals and schools. After noticing references to a police station, army barracks and laboratory a further search revealed the extent of the use made of this mechanism by government departments in Treasury figures listed here.

Democratic scrutiny

CAs require a directly elected mayor, but currently no elected assembly to hold the Mayor to account is envisaged. In London there is a directly elected assembly of 25 members, which has a two-thirds veto. Wales, with a population of 3 million, little more than the 2.7 million of the GMCA or the WMCA, has an elected Assembly of 60. Both these Assemblies also have an element of proportional representation.

Hatcher asked. “Who makes the decisions”?

There are 7 voting members of the board, three employers’ representatives from the LEPs but no workers, no community groups, no service users and no unions. It was said that if the three from the LEPs thought the board had got ‘off-message’ they would contact government giving them, in effect, a veto.

An assembly democratically elected by proportional representation and held accountable to their electorate, would provide a space in which radical alternatives could be advocated and developed: local policies for the economy, social provision and the environment that are geared to social need not profit.

The chairman’s review may be seen on the WMNEG website.

 

 

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