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2015: A Year of Devolution

2015: A Year of Devolution

🕔23.Dec 2015

Many people thought it would never happen. Some people thought it should never happen.

But a little more than fourteen months since the first serious steps began to be made towards signing up for the Government’s devolution agenda, the West Midlands Combined Authority exists in shadow form bringing together around the same table the leaders of the seven metropolitan councils and three local enterprise partnerships.

Paul Dale continues the Chamberlain Files review of a momentous year for regional governance and devolution. 

For the first time in over 30 years the councils of the West Midlands are working harmoniously together and there is no sign, at least for now, of discord over the perceived dominance of Birmingham.

The devolution pace has quickened remarkably since Darren Cooper, the leader of Sandwell council, told Chamberlain Files that he and the other Black Country councils were prepared to give Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry until Christmas 2014 to prove they were serious about forming a combined authority to take charge of transportation, economic development and skills.

Cooper laid down his deadline at the beginning of October 2014, warning that the Black Country would look to Staffordshire, Stoke and Telford to form a combined authority if Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry could not produce the goods.

Just over a year later, the combined authority is on course to begin work by June 2016 and the council leaders have signed an £8 billion devolution deal with the Government, which is dependent on WMCA being overseen by an elected metro mayor.

How on earth did this happen, and more to the point, how did it happen so quickly?

The seeds were sewn shortly before the 2015 General Election when the local government world was stunned by the announcement that the Greater Manchester combined authority had signed a highly lucrative devolution deal with the Government, based on the area being overseen by an elected mayor.

Not only did the deal involve devolved powers to run transport, economic development and skills, ministers also agreed to allow the combined authority to run some health services.

For Birmingham, in particular, the news came as a particularly blunt wake up call. That Manchester, of all places Birmingham’s greatest city rival, should broker such a ground-breaking deal, was a humiliating and entirely unforeseen development.

Other northern city regions – Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and Teesside – were quick to follow Manchester into the brave new mayoral world, adding to fears that Birmingham and the West Midlands were in danger of being left behind.

From the moment that David Cameron won the election it was obvious to most people that the West Midlands, led by the economic powerhouse of Birmingham, would dance to George Osborne’s devolution tune even if that meant having an elected metro mayor, which was something most council leaders and councillors were instinctively opposed to.

In November 2013 Sir Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham city council, invited the Black Country council leaders to a power-dinner at the ICC where they put in place the first building blocks towards closer working arrangements. Bore was careful to say it was too early to talk about a combined authority, but as things turned out the clock was already ticking in the race towards a WMCA.

The first six months of 2015 were marked by something of a cat and mouse game between the seven council leaders and Mr Osborne.

The Chancellor would make it clear again and again that a combined authority wishing to take advantage of maximum devolution would have to accept a mayor. The council leaders would respond publicly by insisting there was nothing pre-ordained to force the mayoral issue, when it was increasingly obvious to all that West Midlands devolution was going nowhere without a mayor.

Matters were complicated because only three years ago Birmingham and Coventry voted decisively in referendums against having elected city mayors. A metro mayor covering the region is a rather different prospect, but that didn’t stop anti-mayor campaigns from springing up demanding fresh referendums.

For the West Midlands, the pace of change in the past year has been remarkable, unprecedented perhaps in modern political history. Not only have the council leaders managed to get agreement on setting up a combined authority, they have also negotiated a devolution deal with the Government at the same time.

It would be unfair to single out individuals who have brought the most influence to bear on the devolution debate, but Chamberlain Files never shirks from controversy. Sir Albert Bore must be given credit for seizing the moment in 2013 and for paving the way with an economic development partnership between Birmingham and Solihull, and playing for time to get Coventry council on board; Bob Sleigh, the Tory leader of Solihull Council and leader of the shadow WMCA, played a crucial role in persuading his Conservative councillors that the benefits for Solihull from devolution would outweigh the difficulties of teaming up with Labour Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country; Mark Rogers, the chief executive of Birmingham city council and former chief executive of Solihull Council, turned out to be the calmest and best-equipped local government official to broker a deal, both locally and with Treasury civil servants.

And while arguments can be had about the scale and value of the devolution deal – £8 billion over 30 years spreads the jam pretty thinly – it is clear this is just the beginning of a much longer journey. The next step is to bring on board as full members of WMCA the shire district councils and county councils, and then the Midlands Engine will truly roar.

Part 3 of our 2015 review will be published on Tuesday 29th December 2015. From the Chamberlain Files and RJF Public Affairs team, we wish all our visitors a very Merry Christmas.

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