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Birmingham-Black Country combined authority: ‘What happens next?’

Birmingham-Black Country combined authority: ‘What happens next?’

🕔10.Nov 2014

Agreement in principle has finally been reached, thanks to a powerful kick from Greater Manchester. George Osborne has been sent a letter outlining plans for a Birmingham and Black Country combined authority. But what happens next, asks Paul Dale?

It has taken years for the leaders of the four Black Country councils to agree that the best interests of the people they represent involves establishing a strategic authority with Birmingham to deliver regeneration and transport. There’s clearly a temptation to breathe a sigh of relief and assume the hard work is now over.

That would be a terrible mistake. If anything, the next year or so will involve yet more soul searching and big asks among the fledgling combined authority members – and prospective members.

Some critical questions remain unanswered. In no particular order of importance:

  • Can Solihull be persuaded to join the combined authority? It would be odd, to say the least, if Birmingham’s eastern neighbour with the NEC and airport did not sign up for the combined authority and would raise doubts about the new authority’s economic geography. With Solihull’s prospective Tory parliamentary candidate campaigning hard against membership, it will be difficult for the Tory-controlled Solihull Council to vote for a combined authority.
  • What about the Worcestershire and Staffordshire district councils currently members of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP? The agreement signed by Birmingham and Black Country leaders envisages discussions that may lead to some or all of these councils joining the combined authority, but where then does that leave the other West Midlands shire counties and districts?
  • Who will be the public face of the new deal and explain clearly and concisely what a combined authority is, what it can achieve and why having one is a good idea? Crucially, what will a combined authority give us that we don’t have now in terms of economic development and transportation? There will be public suspicion about inventing another layer of local government, and concerns about council tax increases. People require rather more information than “we’ll get more powers and budgets” if they are to feel comfortable with city region governance.
  • A metro mayor, or not? There appears to be no appetite for a mayor from any of the Black Country councils. On the other hand, Birmingham’s Sir Albert Bore is a passionate supporter of elected mayors. George Osborne is also in favour and managed to persuade Greater Manchester to go down the mayoral route. It is early days, but the likelihood is that the chair of the Birmingham-Black Country combined authority will be shared in turn by the council leaders, which may raise issues of consistency.
  • Can Coventry and some of the Warwickshire districts be persuaded to join? On an economic geography argument, reflecting Birmingham’s east-west travel to work corridor, Coventry, North Warwickshire and Nuneaton and Bedworth ought to be in. But is there really any appetite there?
  • What is going to happen to all of the LEPs? A key question. Does a Birmingham-Black Country combined authority require two Local Enterprise Partnerships, or three LEPs if Coventry and Warwickshire can be persuaded to join?
  • What shall we call the combined authority? This is the trickiest question of them all. All of the main players are being very grown up at the moment and claiming they don’t care about the name. But deep down they really do care passionately. There will be intense pressure not to have ‘Greater Birmingham’ in deference to Black Country sensitivities. The West Midlands Combined Authority has to be favourite, but does anyone know where the West Midlands is, less still what the name stands for?

One person with strong views about the combined authority is former British Chambers of Commerce director general David Frost. Mr Frost, now chair of the Stoke and Staffordshire LEP, took to his blog to raise several issues, not least the matter of who is going to ‘sell’ the new system?

Frost said: “What is required is for someone to get in front of the cameras and explain what the bright sunny uplands are going to look like for the people and businesses of the area. Not one person, either a politician or business leader, has been able to articulate this other than to say it will “give us more power”.

“Do you think that will appeal? As a resident I  would say that local authorities haven’t exactly exercised their current powers particularly well – Children’s Services/Trojan Horse/Educational Performance to name but a few.”

He sees issues over district councils joining the combined authority: “We need to ensure that this is not seen as a land grab. I must declare an interest as Chairman of an adjacent LEP. Clearly the metropolitan West Midlands sees chunks of Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire being sucked into it.

“We shall have to see what these districts want to do and no doubt all sorts of economic reasons will be put forward by the metro, but ultimately the residents will need a say if they want the ties breaking with the historic counties they are attached to.”

And on the subject of a name for the new authority, Frost has this to say: “If the intent is to promote the area to the outside world here is a sobering story. A decade ago I had to give a lecture to a substantial business audience in the mid-west of the United States.

“These were big hitters but none had heard of the Black Country and at a maximum, 30 per cent had heard of Birmingham with no one having a real idea where it was. So if this is the track that politicians want to go down then get over the local politics and go for Greater Birmingham.”

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