Liverpool city region mayor Steve Rotheram (Lab) has defended the performance of the combined authority after evidence emerged of infighting and claims a lack of capacity had hindered progress.
Last month Mr Rotheram and Liverpool City Council mayor Joe Anderson (Lab) traded verbal blows after Mr Anderson was accused of trying to arrange a private meeting with combined authority interim chief executive Frank Rodgers to discuss the city region’s capital programme.
Mr Anderson sent an email to Mr Rodgers after he turned down the request which stated that the decision “will have damaging consequences that won’t be reversed”.
Mr Rotheram then described the email as “disappointing and unacceptable” in a radio interview.
Liverpool City Council subsequently withdrew an unspecified number of staff from the combined authority and Mr Anderson is no longer attending city region meetings, sending his deputy Anne O’Byrne to some meetings instead.
The row follows the combined authority’s failure to agree on the appointment of a deputy mayor as required under under the Cities & Local Government Devolution Act 2016. Last month LGC reported this was due to a disagreement over who, and how many, people would be co-opted to the combined authority in a non-voting, advisory capacity.
Richard Kemp, leader of the city council’s opposition Liberal Democrat group, said the row, a failure to appoint a permanent chief executive and deputy mayor for the city region, and a current lack of staff capacity at the combined authority was “worse than an embarrassment”.
Cllr Kemp added: “If you genuinely believe as I do that we should be operating across the city region, punching our weight in the world and working with Greater Manchester, with Northern Ireland and North Wales - then having no one who can do it and no one in the office to answer the phone is not the way to do it.”
But in a statement provided to LGC Mr Rotheram responded by saying devolution had offered a “massive opportunity to deliver a step-change in ambition and performance [that] we all intend to grasp”.
He added that the combined authority had “set some big challenges” and “quite radical new policy directions”. These include commissioning former treasury minister Lord O’Neill to review the city region’s economic strategies and setting out an intention to become a zero carbon region by 2040.
Mr Rotheram added: “It’s clear from our early discussions with government that there are big expectations invested in the devolution agenda, and we have wasted no time in setting out our priorities and identifying the projects where we want their buy-in and backing.
“There is huge enthusiasm and confidence in the future of the city region and that extends beyond and across politics. It’s all too easy to become narrowly focused and introspective, but mayoral governance is about being more deeply engaged and more broadly connected.”
Mr Rotheram admitted the city region had “a long way to go” but insisted substantial progress had been made in the two months since the mayoral election.
Mr Anderson also disputed the claims. He said Cllr Byrne would attend combined authority meetings in his place for the foreseeable future as he had taken on extra responsibilities since Liverpool chief executive Ged Fitzgerald stepped aside following his arrest on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the cause of justice and witness intimidation.
He added that the establishment of budget and staffing arrangements at the combined authority had enabled Liverpool staff to return to their council posts.
Mr Anderson added: “As a founding member of the city region who has passionately fought for devolution, none of these arrangements change Liverpool’s commitment to the city region which has an important role to play in growing our economy.”
Leader of Halton MBC Rob Polhill (Lab) admitted that the combined authority had initially been handicapped by limited resources, but said the process of making key appointments was underway.
Cllr Polhill, who is the combined authority’s cabinet member for energy and renewables, said there had been “a bit of a personality clash” between Mr Rotheram and Mr Anderson, but added: “I am confident there is a desire between all of us to make it work. With austerity we can’t do things on our own, we have got to work together.”
Michael Parkinson, executive director of the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy and Practice at the University of Liverpool, said many areas in England and abroad had faced initial challenges when working at combined authority level.
He added: “My sense is there is an appetite to make this work. I do believe we have made progress and the mood around Liverpool is the best I have ever known it.”