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All systems go for combined authority to transform West Midlands’ economy

All systems go for combined authority to transform West Midlands’ economy

🕔28.Apr 2016

The West Midlands Combined Authority is on course to start operating in a little over a month’s time and will deliver the “best opportunity for economic regeneration that this region has ever had”, the new body’s chief executive has told Chamberlain Files.

Martin Reeves said the Government was likely to confirm shortly the actual starting date but there was every reason to believe a date shortly a few days after the June 1 target would be met. “It is very doable”, he added.

The necessary legislative paperwork in the form of a Statutory Instrument has been prepared and is awaiting a slot to be debated and approved by both MPs and Lords.

And in a sign of growing confidence among the WMCA’s 12 councils and three Local Enterprise Partnerships, arrangements are in hand for a major presentation of opportunities to institutional investors at the Vox conference centre, Resorts World Birmingham, on June 28.

A public AGM of the combined authority will also be held at which further details of how the body will actually work, including the division of responsibilities among the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils, district council members and the LEPs will be confirmed.

Chamberlain Files understands that Warwickshire county council is close to signing up to join WMCA. Such a decision by the Conservative-controlled authority would be significant and could put pressure on Rugby, Warwick and North Warwickshire district councils to join the combined authority.

Warwickshire joining the club would put paid to any lingering chance of Coventry opting out of WMCA. Rebel councillors have been keen to promote the idea of the city joining Warwickshire county council in a combined authority, but that idea now appears to be dead and buried.

Mr Reeves said:

There is a significant business case for Warwickshire county council to join. Rugby, North Warwickshire and Warwick councils are watching and waiting. It’s a moveable feast.

There is a powerful economic argument about why Warwickshire should be in the club.

At the moment the combined authority consists of the seven metropolitan councils – Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Walsall and Dudley – as well as Cannock Chase, Nuneaton and Bedworth, Redditch, Tamworth and Telford and Wrekin district councils. Shropshire unitary authority and Stratford-upon-Avon district council will be joining later in the year.

Under an agreement with the Government, the Treasury is to make an annual commitment of £40 million to WMCA for 30 years, to support an overall investment package that will unlock £8 billion and help create an estimated 500,000 jobs.

The combined authority will be handed devolved powers to run transport, economic regeneration and skills. Council leaders are confident they can negotiate an additional devolution package with the Government once the authority is up and running.

Mr Reeves, who is working two days a week for the combined authority as well as continuing his role as chief executive at Coventry council, admitted WMCA would have to tread a careful path and could not risk becoming an expensive additional layer of bureaucracy.

He stressed:

We don’t want significantly inflated costs, but we are not being amateurish. This is big stuff. We must not over-resource, but equally we cannot set ourselves up to fail. We have to be professional but flexible in the way we build the economic model.

WMCA’s core administrative centre is Centro House in Birmingham, where about 300 officials are being transferred from the public transport authority to the combined authority.

The division of portfolios at WMCA would not simply be confined to the metropolitan council leaders. A more strategic approach is planned.

Mr Reeves said:

What you are not going to see is some kind of uber-portfolios for the seven met council leaders. What you will see is a distributed set of roles and responsibilities not just across the metropolitan councils.

This can’t just be seen as a set of cabinet portfolios. There are many areas that may be better led by people from the business community or voluntary sector. We have to bring in the Federation of Small Businesses and the CBI as well as the chambers of commerce.

You can certainly expect to see the private sector playing a far bigger role.

The West Midlands has come a long way in a very short space of time.

It is 18 months since Darren Cooper, the late leader of Sandwell Council, issued an ultimatum to Birmingham and Solihull – join the Black Country in  a combined authority, or we will look elsewhere. Since his intervention, not only have council leaders reached agreement on WMCA, they have at the same time negotiated a complex devolution deal with the Treasury.

For the first time, given the West Midlands’ long history of division, there is general agreement that only by working together can the region’s local authorities and business organisations deliver jobs and skills.

As Mr Reeves puts it:

Why would the Black Country, Coventry, and the other councils not put their best people to the shoulder of the wheel to deliver the best opportunity that this region has ever had?

It is acknowledged among WMCA’s leadership that the body must improve its communications record and do more to explain how the organisation will deliver unprecedented economic growth and close the productivity gap between the West Midlands and the rest of the country.

WMCA’s Strategic Economic Plan will require careful communicating and “we have to get the narrative right”, Mr Reeves admitted, adding:

Business want to know practicalities about what the combined authority is and how it works.

There will also have to be careful communications over the West Midlands metro mayor, who will be elected next year and will chair the combined authority cabinet.

Only people living in areas covered by the seven metropolitan councils can vote in a contest that is odds-on to produce a Labour mayor.

However, there is still time for non-constituent councils, the shire districts and Shropshire, to apply to become full members, which would extend the electorate and make the result of a mayoral election a little less predictable. Any applications would have to be made before an order is laid before Parliament confirming next May’s metro mayor election.

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