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Birmingham-Black Country partnership is vital to region’s devolution hopes

Birmingham-Black Country partnership is vital to region’s devolution hopes

🕔30.Sep 2014

The Black Country’s reluctance to join with Birmingham in a combined authority status could result in the West Midlands being overlooked if the Government hands devolved powers to local councils, it has emerged.

Cities Minister Greg Clark has indicated that the five English combined authorities – Greater Manchester, Sheffield city region, the North-east, Liverpool city region and West Yorkshire – are likely to be front runners for devolution from Westminster because they represent “functional geographic areas”.

The West Midlands, however, consists of seven separate metropolitan councils and several Local Enterprise Partnerships, the main players of which are Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP, the Black Country LEP and Coventry and Warwickshire LEP.

Two obvious functional geographic areas, or travel to work areas, exist. These are Birmingham and the Black Country and Coventry and Warwickshire.

Efforts over the years to encourage Birmingham and the Black Country councils to work more closely together have taken on a fresh urgency as a result of the Government’s drive towards devolution following the Scottish independence referendum.

Low-key informal arrangements have quietly been put in place recently.

Birmingham and Solihull councils have agreed to set up a joint economic growth hub to work on big infrastructure projects. The move is being backed by GBSLEP, which will commission services from the board. Talks are underway to persuade the Black Country LEP and councils to join in.

And, almost under the radar, Birmingham city council’s Marketing Birmingham has been handling inward investment projects for the Black Country councils.

Combined authorities have devolved powers to run economic development and transport.

A complicating factor in any Birmingham-Black Country combined authority is the existence of the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority, which is limited to covering the geographical area of the former West Midlands county council.

Some of the councils that make up GBSLEP are in Staffordshire and Worcestershire and fall outside of the ITA’s sphere of influence.

One alternative is to establish a Birmingham-Black Country economic prosperity board rather than a combined authority. Such a body would have responsibility for economic development but not transport.

Sir Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham city council, told a meeting of the City Growth Commission that GBSLEP represented perfectly the functional economic geography of the West Midlands running from north to south. “What’s missing is the east-west link and we need to bring Birmingham and the Black Country into that functional economic geography”, he added.

The City Growth Commission, which will advise the Government on city finance and governance, is to produce its recommendations in October. Chairman Jim O’Neill hinted that the commission was likely to nominate the five combined authorities as the first city regions to have devolved powers.

If such a recommendation was accepted by Mr Clark, that would rule out devo-max for Birmingham and the West Midlands for the time being.

An interim report from the City Growth Commission states: “City regional devolution will hinge upon effective governance and accountability structures, visionary leadership and the economic growth potential to ride out the difficult storms of decentralisation and devolution. City region devolution is therefore not for everyone.

“Our recommendations do not immediately apply to all metro areas as some are not yet ready to deal with these challenges or responsibilities. But some cities do already exhibit these qualities and are eager to take the opportunity to power their economic futures with greater autonomy. For these cities, central government must relinquish control as soon as is practical.”

Mr O’Neill said he recognised an approach that effectively fast-tracked combined authorities for devolved powers would not be to everyone’s liking. But not all of the 15 metro areas identified by the commission had sufficiently sound organisational arrangements to deal with fiscal devolution.

“We think a multi-speed approach to devolution with some cities leading the way makes a lot of sense rather than spreading the jam too thinly.”

Sir Albert said it was a mistake for the commission to try to judge whether cities or city regions were ready for devolution. “We are entering the decentralisation decade. This is the time for cities and city regions. Let’s recognise that and encourage cities and city regions to develop that competitiveness that will allow them to grow.”

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