George Osborne and the Tories are pushing for local councils to join together to form regional combined authorities, which will be given powers and responsibilities for budgets, investment…and for cuts. Darrall Cozens, President of the Coventry Trades Council, analyses the real interests that lie behind these latest Tory plans.
George Osborne and the Tories are pushing for local councils to join together to form regional combined authorities, which will be given powers and responsibilities for budgets, investment…and for cuts. Darrall Cozens, President of the Coventry Trades Council, examines the case of the West Midlands Combined Authority, and analyses the real interests that lie behind these Tory plans.
By April 2016, seven local councils – Coventry, Birmingham, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton – will have joined together to form the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). This super-regional body will have responsibility for transport, housing development, skills updating, public service reform and economic regeneration. We are told it will create an “economic powerhouse” in the heart of the country.
Why is it happening?
The government has told local authorities that it will withhold a lot of funding unless they work more closely together. This is blackmail. Do what I say or I won’t give you the money! It also fits into the agenda of public spending cuts, where ordinary citizens are paying for a crisis they did not cause. Streamlining services should be more cost effective, they say. The responsibility for cuts is therefore shifted to the WMCA and away from the government. When your local public service is cut, you will blame your local council or the WMCA, not the government, which is forcing through the cuts. They call this “devolution of powers”.
What will it mean for us?
A lot of local services will still be provided by Coventry City Council; but as the cuts bite deeper, the services will be reduced, or disappear, or be privatised. However, the WMCA will take over responsibility for delivering economic growth in the region by trying to attract more investment in jobs and skills.
However, there is a problem. Economic growth comes from people having more money in their pockets that they are willing to spend, or businesses with money they want to invest, or local and central government also spending more money.
In the present economic crisis of capitalism, our living standards have been drastically cut back, so we have less to spend; or, if we decide to buy things, we take out credit and therefore rack up debt. Investment by businesses has also fallen dramatically as they cannot get bank loans, or it is cheaper to take on workers on short-term, minimum wage, zero-hour contracts; and there is no point in investing if they have no market for their goods. Locally, and nationally too, public spending is being slashed and is falling, not rising. Merely by creating a WMCA on its own will not create a “Midlands Engine” of economic regeneration.
Far from creating jobs, it could mean that the streamlining of services, combined with further massive cuts in public spending, will lead to even more job losses in local authorities. One thousand have already gone in Coventry, with at least another one thousands to go.
Who has decided that we must have a WMCA?
The Tory government has forced this initiative on local authorities; but, to be frank, the local authorities have not opposed it. One thing is for certain: we as ordinary citizens have had no say.
For example, the new WMCA will have an elected mayor with super powers. In Coventry, in 2012, we had a referendum over a local mayor and we rejected it by a margin of two-to-one. Birmingham also rejected it. Now it is forced on us without any vote.
If we take the example of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, which is a model for the WMCA, the mayor is elected for four years, with no way of getting rid of him or her. This mayor has power over devolved services and any decisions by the post holder can only be overturned by a two-thirds majority, not a simple majority.
In the WMCA there will be a “cabinet” of the seven leaders of the local councils, with each one having one vote, but they are not directly elected. There is no directly elected regional assembly, as in London, that can hold the cabinet or the mayor to account. It is also rumoured that these “cabinet” members will be on salaries of £40,000 and above, so the WMCA will be a gravy train for local politicians.
Finally, here in Coventry there is very limited public consultation on the WMCA. At one stage Coventry City Council said it would set up a “Citizens’ Panel”, a so-called representative body of Coventry residents. How do you decide who is representative? Is it on the basis of class, gender, ethnicity, economic interests or unelected people speaking for “communities”? Even worse, who selects these people? The Council? If it does, it will want a pliant panel that keeps quiet. This panel can also call “experts”. Who decides who is an “expert”? The Council?
One thing is for certain. There will not be any referendum. The Council has ruled it out on cost grounds. As democracy costs money, you do away with democracy. The Council has also said that a referendum will be too difficult to organise as it is “too complex”, information can’t be got out to the public to ensure a high turnout, and they are not sure if a referendum will have any legal standing. So democracy and the right of Coventry citizens to have a say is thrown out of the window. But the Council does have an ally. George Osborne has said that referendums are not necessary and not expected. The Labour Council in Coventry and the Tory Chancellor are singing from the same hymn sheet.
Where do we go from here?
We cannot stop the setting up of the WMCA. The government and the local authorities have seen to that. It is being imposed over our heads, so what can we do?
Firstly, we can campaign for more accountability and democracy. We should campaign for a democratically elected Regional Assembly that has powers over the Mayor and the Cabinet.
Secondly, this assembly should set up powerful scrutiny committees, with trade union representation to watch over the decisions of the mayor and the cabinet, and with devolved power from the regional assembly to be able to veto those decisions
Thirdly, we should be vigilant over any attempt to use this reorganisation to cut back on services and jobs and, when necessary, to oppose further privatisations.
Of one thing we can be sure. The WMCA is not being set up to benefit ordinary people. It is there to work with businesses, to farm out contracts to the private sector, and to make provision for further privatisations of public services. Why else would a Tory government set it up?
Coventry TUC is in favour of closer cooperation, locally and regionally, so that we can develop services and opportunities that meet people’s needs. However, with a capitalist system in crisis that demands cuts to be made for the 99% while the top 1% amass fortunes, this will not happen by a regional reorganisation. To meet peoples’ needs means campaigning for public ownership under democratic control of large companies and large landholdings, as well as banks and finance. Then we can build affordable public homes, create jobs, and provide education and training, especially for the youth. Any other “solution” is a chimera.