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Council leaders edging towards West Mids combined authority deal ‘by Christmas’

Council leaders edging towards West Mids combined authority deal ‘by Christmas’

🕔21.Oct 2014

West Midlands council leaders are tantalisingly close to agreeing to establish a Combined Authority to take advantage of powers and budgets expected to flow from the Government’s devolution agenda.

Months of sensitive discussions are drawing to an end and there is an understanding among political leaders from all parties that a decision must be made by Christmas.

The most likely outcome is to form an Economic Prosperity Board taking in the area covered by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP as well as the four Black Country boroughs. An EPB is a type of combined authority that has responsibility for economic development but not transport.

There is also a possibility that Coventry may join as well, although this is less likely.

Birmingham city council leader Sir Albert Bore and the leader of Dudley Council, David Sparks, joined forces last night to make a passionate plea for unity across the region.

Cllr Sparks, who is also chairman of the Local Government Association, said the West Midlands faced “a moment in history” and that other parts of the country were “galloping away” with the devolution agenda at the expense of the Midlands.

Both leaders told a Think Birmingham event in the city’s Council House that the West Midlands risked being left behind by the likes of the Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire combined authorities if it failed to reach agreement about the way forward.

The Government has made it clear that devolved powers and budgets will only be handed down to councils that are prepared to work together as combined strategic bodies. That stance is also backed by the Labour Party.

Attempts so far to establish a West Midlands or Greater Birmingham combined authority have faltered, partly as a result of historic differences between the constituent parts of the region.

Only two sticking points remain. The first is Solihull Council’s unwillingness, so far, to join with the Black Country and Birmingham in a combined authority, although there are signs that this may change. The second, more intractable problem, is whether Coventry sees itself as part of the West Midlands or whether it prefers to establish alliances with Warwickshire and the East Midlands.

Sir Albert told last night’s meeting: “Make no mistake. Combined authorities, or something very like them, are now the only show in town. My sense is that the main parties have now settled on that as the way forward.

“Five of the core city regions have already adopted a combined authority and leaders in the West Midlands are acutely aware that we must put in place our own strengthened arrangements if we are not to get left behind and lose out in terms of resources and freedoms.”

Ministers are stressing that combined authorities must be based on functional economic areas reflecting travel to work patterns. The geographical area covered by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP and the Black Country boroughs accurately reflects north-south and east-west travel to work patterns.

Both Sir Albert and Cllr Sparks underlined a sense of urgency driving forward the combined authority debate. Earlier this month, Sandwell Council leader Darren Cooper laid down a Christmas deadline for Birmingham and Solihull to agree to join with the Black Country.

Last night Sir Albert said: “There are some tea leaves which are beginning to be read. Nothing is yet decided.

“But one thing we are all resolved about is we have to take a decision soon. We have to get the principle of this out there quickly otherwise this region stands to miss out yet again. It has to be settled by Christmas.”

Cllr Sparks described the Midlands’ approach to devolution as “non-existent as far as the rest of the country is concerned”. Combined authorities in the north of England were already discussing joining together to put pressure on the Government to devolve more and more in the way of tax-raising and spending powers.

He said: “It’s important we realise just how far and fast the rest of the country is galloping ahead with this agenda.

“I believe we are at a moment in history. My view is that a combined authority is absolutely essential.

“The fact that there has been a delay in establishing a combined authority for the West Midlands metropolitan area means the situation has fundamentally changed.

“The current situation is a mess. It’s pathetic and defies logic. The sooner we can have a unit based on Birmingham and the Black Country the better.

“We are not aggressive enough. We have to be able to go into Number Ten after the next election, whoever wins, and put the case for the West Midlands. That’s why I am so impatient.”

Last night’s event was staged by Birmingham City Council, Think Birmingham (part of the Think Cities campaign backed by Centre for Cities) and Core Cities. The event in the Banqueting Suite of the Council House featured a ‘State of the City’ address by Sir Albert Bore and contributions from Cllr Sparks, Andrew Carter (Deputy Chief Executive, Centre for Cities), Beverley Nielsen (Corporate Affairs Director, Birmingham City University) and Waheed Saleem (Chair, The Lunar Society). Around 100 business and civic leaders attended the event chaired by Chamberlain Files editor and RJF Public Affairs partner Kevin Johnson.

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