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Birmingham-Solihull partnership indicates appetite for Combined Authority

Birmingham-Solihull partnership indicates appetite for Combined Authority

🕔08.Oct 2014

Birmingham and Solihull councils have taken the first step towards forming a Combined Authority in a process that could eventually include the Black Country and parts of Staffordshire and Worcestershire.

The prospect of a Greater Birmingham Combined Authority with devolved powers to oversee economic development moved a step closer last week when Birmingham and Solihull council leaders agreed to establish a Joint Economic Unit.

The decision prompted little in the way of media comment, but the symbolic move represents one of the most important changes to governance arrangements in the West Midlands for 40 years.

It may eventually lead to the creation of an Economic Prosperity Board under the terms of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009.

Economic prosperity boards are Combined Authorities that exist solely to oversee economic development and do not have responsibility for transportation.

The Government is currently consulting on changes to the Act that would permit economic prosperity boards to extend their membership beyond neighbouring authorities and across county borders.

That would open the way for the creation of a board taking in Birmingham, Solihull, the Black Country and the Staffordshire and Worcestershire councils represented by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.

Sandwell Council leader Darren Cooper told Chamberlain Files last week that the Black Country council leaders were ready to join a Combined Authority and would give Birmingham until Christmas to come on board.

It remains unclear, though, whether Solihull Council would be willing to approve formal arrangements with the Black Country. Solihull Council leader Bob Sleigh did not respond to an invitation from the Chamberlain Files to comment.

At the moment Birmingham and Solihull are pinning their hopes on other West Midlands councils joining the Joint Economic Unit, or commissioning work from the unit.

Cities Minister Greg Clark has made it clear that devolved budgets and powers from Whitehall are only likely to be handed down to councils that are prepared to work together in Combined Authorities.

Birmingham city council chief executive Mark Rogers said: “This is a major step forward in cross-border collaboration, and also leaves the door open for other councils to join in with us to make sure that we have the capacity to deliver that all important growth to our city region.”

Birmingham city council leader Sir Albert Bore said: “We see genuine benefit in our closer alignment.  Together we will be able to maintain our forward momentum to place our economic growth on a strong regional, national and international footing. The Greater Birmingham and Solihull area and the wider West Midlands region is now being seen as the place to invest, develop and live.”

The unit will initially include employees from both councils working alongside existing economic capacity in Marketing Birmingham and Finance Birmingham. Key projects, including the work around High Speed 2, will benefit from joint working, developing integrated project delivery teams, working across traditional geographical boundaries.

The unit will provide specialist support in the areas of economic growth, wider economic infrastructure development, business support and inward investment.

A Birmingham council spokesman said the unit will deliver to agreed outputs and outcomes, a series of projects and programmes in response to commissions, and will continue to bring in outside expertise as necessary.

It is anticipated that other GBSLEP customers, Marketing Birmingham, Finance Birmingham will join the unit and put resources into it. Local authorities and public bodies will be able to commission work from the unit.

The spokesman added: “Collaboration between the two councils will enable us to promote the Greater Birmingham and Solihull region, to increase inward investment, increase prosperity and the wellbeing of our populations. We are clear that the region has incredible assets, both in terms of its built and natural environments and its people. This approach signals our ambition to move forward.”

Proposed changes to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act being consulted upon include:

  • To allow councils with non-contiguous boundaries to join or form combined authorities or economic prosperity boards.
  • To allow county councils to become a member of a combined authority or economic prosperity board with respect to part of its area, that area being the same area as that of those district councils that wish to join or form an economic prosperity board or combined authority.
  • To allow combined authorities and economic prosperity boards to exercise their functions on a patchwork basis across their area.
  • To require combined authorities and economic prosperity boards to have one or more overview and scrutiny committees constituted with a membership reflecting the political balance of the councils concerned.

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