20170512 Things to note at WMCA Board

Well, well, well. We’ve only bloody gone and got ourselves a Metro Mayor. So, first and foremost: congratulations to Andy Street, who now has one of the most important jobs in politics (note: I am biased, both towards this place and anything that gives us a chance to do things for ourselves, better) for the next three years. For the avoidance of doubt, we are not in the same party, but both appear to like the West Midlands, so perhaps we will find some things in common as we go.

Just in case you live in an area of the region which didn’t get enough leaflets from Mayor Andy Street to redecorate their house, this is what he looks like, presumably saying something about having just won:

Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

I’d call him Mayor Andy, but there are more Metro Mayors called Andy than female Metro Mayors, so that’s not going to work.

Obviously, this changes things a bit. The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), under the collective leadership of the region’s council Leaders, officers, businesses, trade unions, universities, third sector, and any other fine groups that I may have forgotten, has already developed plans and Commissions in line with the first devolution deal. But now, Mayor Andy Street has his own plan to deliver, and we already have a sense of his priorities for the first 100 days. While I daresay he can achieve some of it with a spring in his step and a firm handshake (not least because not everything in the Renewal Plan is measurable), other elements — as he well knows — will require collaboration with all of the partners above, including Labour council leaders, six of whom will be in his Cabinet.

All of which is to say, these summaries will have to have cognisance of Mayor Andy Street’s plans, inasmuch as they may diverge or add to existing WMCA plans.

OK, right — to the main event.

Investment Board Minutes — February 27th, 2017

Having spent a few hours trying to finish a blog on how the WMCA is funded (it’s substantially written, I just need to get a clever person to check it), the reference to the potential use of the Collective Investment Fund (now £60m invested by each of the Constituent Authorities except Sandwell, to accompany the Land Remediation Fund) to unlock two brownfield development schemes, jumped out at me. How the CIF is used will be interesting, as it is intended that this should be paid back after ten years.

Anyway, this is the outline of what was agreed on that item:

If you have read Mayor Andy Street’s Renewal Plan, you will see that this is in line with the ‘Brownfield First’ promise (p17). Ultimately, as anyone who can do Maths and Physics will tell you, there is no meeting our housing needs without building on the Green Belt as well. Try to look surprised.

Transport Delivery Committee Minutes — April 3rd, 2017

I just wanted to highlight the bit that makes reference to the Stations Alliance — something which could be useful, both in terms of improvements to the environment around local stations and to the economic centres they are a part of. Both, theoretically, increasing patronage of the trains, which is worthwhile.

So, this is from the WMCA/Transport for West Midlands 2017 plan, rather than the minutes themselves:

Working together with Network Rail, West Midlands Rail (WMR) is developing an innovative ‘Stations Alliance’ which, together with the West Midlands franchise operator, is hoped to bring about substantial improvements to rail stations in the West Midlands.
The Alliance recognises that the current arrangements for the management of stations are not designed to deliver the level of sustained improvement that is needed to support the development and growth of the region. The focus of the Alliance is aimed at addressing this issue and creating a long-term sustainable solution that delivers stations that are better for passengers and better for the lives and economies of the communities they serve.
The proposal for this formal alliance arrangement take account of the current structure for managing stations in the UK, which has responsibilities for operation, maintenance and renewal split between the operator and Network
Rail, and brings in WMR, as a local body, to drive forward a long-term vision.
It is this ‘vision’ that is missing from the current structure. Network Rail have already indicated strong support to the alliance, and it is hoped that the West Midlands franchisee will join the alliance after franchise award in June, creating a powerful tripartite arrangement.

Inasmuch as something which connected the WMCA to the everyday lives of people in our places, this could be one such thing.

As an aside, remember the WMCA Board when they were instructed to welcome the new Swift branding? Well, NO-ONE TOLD THE TRANSPORT DELIVERY COMMITTEE (p24). There is over a page of minuted ire, a sign that the discussion was anything but…swift (#thighslap).

Gosh, that has cheered me up.

Responding to the Government’s Consultation on Increasing the Regional Impact of Channel 4 Corporation

I am keen to see how Mayor Andy Street reacts to this one:

It doesn’t say a lot about the Mayor, does it? I think this may well lead to an onset of willy-waving, which I am sure will entice Channel 4 north of the M4.

In all seriousness though — while Mayor Andy Street’s Renewal Plan does not mention Channel 4 by name (p25), it will have escaped no-one’s notice during his campaign that his intention is to bring it to Birmingham:

Of course, relocation of Channel 4’s headquarters is not a foregone conclusion of the consultation — the question is, would relocation strengthen its offer to regions, both in how they are reflected and involved in its outputs, and on local creative economies? I suspect the answer is yes, for all sorts of reasons. The leadership of the WMCA is certainly keen on it, with Friarsgate (Coventry), UK Central (Solihull) and central Birmingham touted as potential locations (p29).

That said, I will eat my hat if Mayor Andy Street has not had some advanced assurance on this one. Watch this space. Heck, watch the media, I am certain this will be among the more visible manifestations of the influence of the Metro Mayor.

Financial Monitoring 2016/17

So — the WMCA’s General Fund balance sat at a rather low £1.825m as of March 31st. The report notes that this is “significantly below recommended levels” (p32).

If you want to get a sense of how the WMCA’s Audit, Risk and Assurance Committee feels about the balance, and some of the other risk areas relating to timescales on capital works (and why wouldn’t you?), they meet on June 16th, with a view to achieving sign-off from the WMCA Board by July.

As well as noting this, the WMCA Board is also being asked to:

Approve the 3 year advance payment of the Pension Fund employers superannuation contribution given the discount available from the Pension Fund.

This should reap a three-year saving of £0.421m, which I think we can all agree is needed, looking at that balance. At the March Board, they previously agreed to pay the full three year deregulated pension fund deficit in advance, which also came with a discount.

I note from p36, the appendices to this report, that the budget for the Mental Health Commission is slightly overspent. We could probably do with the £7m Government promised us in the Midlands Engine Strategy, non? Look it up — p15 of the linked document.

This is also worth seeing — a neat summary of investment programmes that the WMCA has or will undertake, also from the appendices (p40):

Joint response — Government Consultation Business Rates Retention

The WMCA Board is being asked to endorse the collective response that the WMCA and the seven metropolitan authorities have made to the Business Rates Retention consultation — which is available to read as part of the papers. There is interesting potential here, from an economic perspective, but it is fair to say that this is a bit of a nightmare.

Participation in this is worth over £10m to Birmingham, so it is rather important that this works out — otherwise, we will be making yet more cuts to things that people need and cherish. The delay (which I think is meant to say 2019, not 2029, p42) is troubling, and due in no small part to this bloody election we are all embroiled in. Just one of the reasons why the notion that this is a ‘pro-business’ Government is laughable. The ability to conduct robust financial planning is the bread and butter of business, why treat local government any differently?

Collective Investment Fund Update

This is interesting, and a bit worrying — what was formerly a £70m investment fund is now £60m, as Sandwell has now backed out (p49). This means, until such a time as the WMCA can borrow for itself, CIF investment cannot occur in Sandwell.

Treasury Management Out-turn 2016 / 2017

Worth noting that no borrowing occurred in 2016/17, despite a theoretical need of £10.6m. Bear in mind that a lot of what the WMCA does, its investment potential of £8bn, will be substantially funded by borrowing based on the gainshare revenue in future years.

Productivity & Skills Portfolio Update

This is a useful refresher on the skills elements of the devolution deal, as well as the aims of the associated Skills & Productivity Commission, which is currently gathering evidence:

The Adult Education Budget is estimated to be in the region of £100m, and only applies to the Constituent areas of the WMCA (i.e. the seven metropolitan authorities). I don’t think this makes a lot of sense really, given the ‘economic containment’ of the whole area, but applying logic to devolution in this country will only make us all miserable, so let’s have that fight another day.

The thrust of the papers is that the timescales for this are slipping — partly, again, because of the General Election, but not wholly. The Department for Education has been dragging its heels on key responses, another indicator that the enthusiasm for devolution is currently contained within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Or wherever Greg Clark happens to be at the time.

It’s a shame, because some good collaborative working has emerged around this agenda (e.g. p67):

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