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We need a Combined Conversation

We need a Combined Conversation

🕔14.Nov 2014

A week is a long time in politics, so they say. Kevin Johnson reflects on developments following last week’s ‘historic’ agreement and suggests we need a wider conversation. 

There is no doubt the agreement for Birmingham and Black Country councils to co-operate through a Combined Authority is great news.

Many questions remain – not least the position of Solihull, with it seemingly “some time away” from a decision.

It seems possible, at least, that a Combined Authority could include Coventry and the Staffordshire and Worcestershire districts in GBSLEP, but not the Borough of Knowle, Dorridge et al. The Council would be part of an economic prosperity board with Birmingham, in the LEP, a member of the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority and covered by the West Midlands PCC, but not the new Authority that will seek strategic powers starting with strategic planning, skills and transport.

Whilst ministers and mandarins looking on from London are likely to think, ‘about time,’ they must be bemused by just how hard we make life for ourselves in these parts.

We now learn we’ll have some kind of super LEP sitting above GBSLEP, the Black Country and possibly the Coventry and Warwickshire Partnerships. Even as someone who’s followed the world of LEPs since they were a twinkle in the eye of the political marriage that is Vince Cable/Eric Pickles, even I found that astonishing.

Time will tell whether recent political manoeuvres – trying to bring in Coventry (when arguably the travel to work area criteria underpinning economic geography does not support such a move) and forcing Solihull’s hand by publishing an outline deal without them – are worth the risks. Should Coventry be in when they’ve flirted with different economic orientations? Should Solihull have been given a few more weeks to work through its own political process and is there a danger it will have ‘Jonny come lately’ status?

Geography and structure have been the focus of recent debate. Also on the agenda are the issues of an elected mayor, what name should be used and what can this Combined Authority actually achieve that Councils, AWM, city region partnerships and LEPs have not been able to do until now?

On the matters of an elected mayor and name, I have form. I’m unlikely to change my view on either, not least as they’re based on evidence. However, I’m not ideologically hell-bent on them and I think the most important conversation now is about what real devolution and the proposed new governance structures can achieve.

With reference to an elected mayor, beyond the benefits many studies articulate (including the Warwick Commission which RJF acted as Secretariat for) it is clear both major parties (current polling trends may need a change to that phrase soon) believe an elected mayor is a pre-requisite for devolving more powers. That, in the end, will mean council leaders will have to budge. Look carefully at the Greater Manchester Agreement and it’s clear why those leaders eventually reached a working compromise about a mayor with Government.

On the name, it can be parked for a while. When I’ve discussed the use of (Greater) Birmingham with politicians and senior officers across the region over the last ten years, the vast majority recognise that Birmingham has to be central to any effort in projecting the city region nationally or internationally. The problem has been a combination of political (not party) and personal clashes, a lack of political leadership and the perception of arrogance by Birmingham and its council. Add the perception and reputational issues attached to Birmingham and there is certain degree of toxicity in the name which appears unattractive to regional leaders.

All these issues can be addressed. Political leaders and many others need to work through them carefully– and it will require more sensitivity and maturity on the part of Birmingham. It is difficult to see, however, how I would come to a different conclusion to that of eight years ago when posed a similar challenge by the city region partnership. This blog from City Metric (New Statesman/Timetric) certainly doesn’t pull any punches.

The work being undertaken by Heavenly for Marketing Birmingham/GBSLEP on developing the positioning and narrative of Greater Birmingham may help inform debate to a higher level than some of the heavily parochial comment to date. Just as I concluded in that report, “A clear and compelling narrative for the City Region needs to be developed. There is a ‘huge sell job’ to be done.” Let’s see what drops from Heavenly. Just one request at this point though: let’s throw out ‘powerhouse’, find our own language and leave the northerners to their own.

The real issue remains what can the Combined Authority deliver, hopefully with the rest of the GBSLEP councils on board? After all, the purpose of devolution supported by new governance models is making lives better, communities stronger and the economy more prosperous.

The wider public now needs to be involved in a conversation about what this new tier will do – how it will assemble real powers and new budgets from Whitehall. Plus, it needs to strongly underline the point it will not change the identities of towns, boroughs and cities or obliterate their councils. In fact, in keeping with Sir Albert Bore’s triple devolution model, those councils and their neighbourhoods could see them become even more relevant to their communities.

Once we really start talking about priorities and policies, rather than arcane structures, resolving debates over governance and the name might come more easily. Now is the time for political leadership and listening to the public.

Kevin Johnson is editor of the Chamberlain Files, Partner at its publisher RJF Public Affairs and ‘city lead’ for the ThinkBirmingham campaign.

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