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Birmingham and Black Country councils make peace and discuss joint working at historic ‘glasnost’ dinner

Birmingham and Black Country councils make peace and discuss joint working at historic ‘glasnost’ dinner

🕔15.Nov 2013

Birmingham and the Black Country councils are edging slowly towards adopting joint working arrangements, possibly through a merged LEP or a Greater Manchester-style combined authority.

At what was described as a “very positive meeting” the leaders of Birmingham city council and the four Black Country councils and their chief executives met for dinner last week.

They agreed to forget historic differences and concentrate on working together to generate jobs and tackle the region’s transport problems. Further meetings will be held to map out firm proposals.

Sandwell Council leader Darren Cooper told Chamberlain Files he expects that some kind of joint working arrangements are “inevitable”, although this may not happen quickly.

The dinner, at the ICC, was hosted by Birmingham city council leader Sir Albert Bore, who has in the past floated the possibility of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP merging with the Black Country LEP. It’s believed the idea is also being pushed by Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles.

Mr Pickles has expressed concern about the number of LEPs across the country, and noted that some are not representative of economic areas.

The Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP has a range of largely rural councils including Redditch, Wyre Forest, Bromsgrove, Lichfield and East Staffordshire. In addition to the Black Country LEP, the West Midlands county area also has the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP.

Sir Albert said: “It was a very positive meeting and a step forward. We are now talking, and that is a good thing.”

He thinks it is too early to talk about a combined authority, but said the meeting did discuss a number of ways in which the councils could co-operate, in particular allowing the Black Country councils to “use the Marketing Birmingham resource” and the Greater Birmingham office in Brussels.

Sir Albert added: “We all share common objectives. The question is, how can we take this agenda forward in a tangible way?
“There were discussions around the European agenda. The LEPs are putting in investment strategies at the moment and there are overlaps, so how can we work more closely together?

“We need some sort of sub-regional vehicle that deals with economic growth issues, something that picks up on the LEP agenda.”
Cllr Cooper said he and the other Black Country leaders were inclined to push for a Greater Birmingham combined authority, based on the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils. The body would initially be responsible for economic development and transportation.
However, the idea is being resisted by Solihull Council.

Cllr Cooper said: “We have proposed a joint authority that would be the seven districts. But Solihull wasn’t too keen on moving down that path. Solihull was a little bit icy about moving in that direction quickly.

“It was a very, very positive meeting, and not before time.”

Cllr Cooper insisted: “I’m not as parochial as some people think I am.”

He made it clear, however, that any move towards a merged LEP or combined authority would have to take account of Black Country sensitivities.

Cllr Cooper added: “Everything has been Birmingham dominated in the past. That’s the feedback I get from colleagues.

“People don’t see boundaries. They see their own identities.

“We have to get our act together. We are working closely together as leaders.”

Asked about the atmosphere at the dinner, Cllr Cooper said: “We didn’t discuss merging the LEPs in great detail. We looked at how we could work closer together to get better outcomes for the Black Country and Greater Birmingham.

“I am not opposed in the future to looking at how we can do that. We want to achieve the best for local people whether this is for the Black Country or Birmingham.

“We had a really good dialogue about how we can do things better in future.”

He went on: “The Black Country is doing fairly well. There are 1.2 million people there so if we went into partnership it has to be on an equal footing.

“I am not firmly in favour and I am not firmly against. We are doing well in the Black Country.

“People are thinking in terms of Greater Birmingham, adopted from Greater Manchester. That wouldn’t threaten individual identities. If we could come to some conclusion around that, people wouldn’t be bothered by names.

“I am not opposed to merging in the future if that’s the way the government wants to go. It has to be from the point of view of better outcomes for everyone. We have to work closely together.

“I wouldn’t rule it out at all. At the end of the day budgets are getting tighter. There are lots of ways we can work together.

“Inevitably, you can’t have all these LEPs. We have to come up with a formula.”

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