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Black Country tells Birmingham: ‘Join us by Xmas or we will look elsewhere’

Black Country tells Birmingham: ‘Join us by Xmas or we will look elsewhere’

🕔02.Oct 2014

Black Country council leaders have given Birmingham a Christmas deadline to join forces and establish a Combined Authority to bid for devolved powers from Westminster.

Sandwell Council leader Darren Cooper set out the timetable and warned that failure to co-operate would leave the West Midlands way behind the likes of Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds in the devolution carve-up following the Scottish referendum.

And in a direct message to Birmingham council leader Sir Albert Bore, an exasperated Cllr Cooper said it was “time for Birmingham to make its mind up once and for all” and added that the Black Country “can’t wait for ever”.

If a Birmingham-Black Country combined authority turns out to be unachievable, Cllr Cooper said Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley councils would look elsewhere to form a combined authority, probably with South Staffordshire, Stoke and Telford councils.

Speaking exclusively to Chamberlain Files Cllr Cooper said he was “sick and tired” of being told that the Black Country was to blame for failure to reach agreement on a combined authority.

He insisted the problem lay with Solihull Council where the ruling Tory group had made it clear they did not want to enter joint arrangements with the Black Country. However, a recent change of leadership at Solihull with the election of a new leader, Bob Sleigh, could indicate a softer approach.

Cllr Cooper said: “The Black Country seems to get the blame for not working together. But I moved at the West Midlands Joint Committee eighteen months ago that we should have a combined authority.

“Sir Albert Bore informed the group that Solihull wouldn’t be on board because of their connections with the wider districts.

“Since then we have had a change of leader at Solihull. Bob Sleigh is a decent man and there is potentially a change of mood.”

Cllr Cooper chairs a joint committee of the Black Country councils, a possible template for a combined authority.

He added: “The Black Country has its own legal entity in the form of a joint committee between the four councils of which I am the chairman. It is co-terminus with the Black Country LEP and we all have very good relations with each other.

“We have been talking about how we can work together with others whether it is a combined authority or some other mechanism.

“Unless we see some positive move before Christmas we in the Black Country will go it alone.

“We will be saying to Birmingham do you want to join us? If you don’t want to join us we will look elsewhere.

“We can’t keep fudging this issue. We must get on and do something about it.

Cities Minister Greg Clark has made it clear that the government is likely to favour combined authorities like Greater Manchester or the Liverpool city region when handing down devolved powers to run transport, economic development, skills and tourism.

All previous attempts by the West Midlands to move towards a combined authority have failed to progress. It has proved impossible to get agreement between Birmingham, the Black Country, Solihull and Coventry.

In recent months Birmingham and Solihull councils have established a joint economic growth hub in an indication of closer working arrangements. It’s hoped that the Black Country councils will commission work from the hub, but formal arrangements between Birmingham, Solihull and the Black Country are still not in place.

Cllr Cooper fears that many people misunderstand the purpose of a combined authority.

He said: “A combined authority doesn’t mean the councils would lose their individual identities. You have a governance structure where the council leaders work together with some delegated responsibility around transport and economic development and tourism.

“But this needs to be explained carefully to people who are under the mistaken impression that individual councils would disappear if we had a combined authority. That is not the case. Sandwell would still be Sandwell just as Birmingham would still be Birmingham.

“As for the name of a combined authority, that’s irrelevant to the Black Country council leaders.

“There are seven districts in the West Midlands joint committee and these areas could get together as a combined authority but Coventry and Warwickshire don’t want this.”

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