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Devolution for Greater Birmingham ‘no foregone conclusion’, warns think tank chief

Devolution for Greater Birmingham ‘no foregone conclusion’, warns think tank chief

🕔28.Jan 2015

Politicians and business leaders have been urged to “step up to the plate” and make the case strongly for a Greater Birmingham combined authority and devolved powers in the run-up to the General Election, writes Paul Dale.

The warning came from Andrew Carter, acting chief executive at the Centre for Cities think tank, who said it should not be assumed the case for devolution had been won at Government level.

Mr Carter was addressing a Think Birmingham event hosted by Squire Patton Boggs and organised by BPS Birmingham which was attended by nearly 100 representatives from Birmingham’s political and business worlds.

He urged council leaders to step up the pace on devising plans for a combined authority before the election, or risk Birmingham and the West Midlands being left behind by Manchester and other northern cities.

Birmingham city council and the Black Country councils have reached agreement in principle to move to combined authority status but Solihull and Coventry councils have not yet signed up.

Reluctance by Conservative-controlled Solihull to join forces with Labour-run authorities opens the possibility of a stand-alone Birmingham and Black Country combined authority which would not represent the economic footprint of the West Midlands.

Mr Carter said he believed the Conservative party would push through plans for combined authorities and devolution if it won the election, but Labour’s view on the matter was far from clear.

“We don’t really know what Labour would do because Labour doesn’t really know. And given that all of the big cities are led by Labour and are at the forefront of the city devolution agenda, this is a crying shame.”

Mr Carter said: “There is a temptation to say the argument on devolution has been won and it’s just a case of sitting back and watching it all unravel. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

“Ultimately our politicians need to step up to the plate and have a genuine conversation about what Greater Birmingham is and can be. Visibility on this issue is pretty low and you need to enter into a debate.

Business leaders had to recognise the important role they should be playing since devolution would involve “serious decisions about the taxes you pay”. He added: “If we want better investment there is a legitimate question about what the business community is going to contribute.

“Be very clear about what it is you want and what you are prepared to offer.”

He described the Government’s northern powerhouse initiative, handing budgets and devolved powers to Greater Manchester, as “very much the exception rather than the rule”.

He continued: “Local government will face drastic cuts of about 20 per cent in real terms over the course of the next parliament over the next five years whoever is in power. The notion that they can continue to do the same with less is just not possible.”

“A Greater Birmingham strategic decision making body is absolutely vital and we think this body should be headed by a directly elected mayor operating at the Greater Birmingham level.

“Nearly all of the politicians in this area don’t like the idea, but we think it would make a real difference in having an important part of the country headed up by someone people can identify with.”

The meeting marked the launch of a major economic review commissioned by The Lunar Society to be led by Aston Business School. The review aims to produce a fact-based set of policy prescriptions and recommended organisational structures and processes that will accelerate economic growth, enhance the appeal of the region to its own talented workforce and outside workers and enterprises and raise personal welfare.

It is being led by the executive dean of Aston Business School, Professor George Fieger, along with Professorw Mark Hart and David Bailey at Aston. Waheed Saleem, chair of the Lunar Society, and Kevin Johnson, city lead for Think Birmingham and editor of the Chamberlain Files, will be joined on a panel to steer the review by academic, business and civic figures. BPS Birmingham, which represents, promotes and connects the business professional and financial services sector in Greater Birmingham, has already signed up to support the Review.

The Review Panel expect to report ahead of a new Greater Birmingham combined authority starting work so it can help inform its economic policy.

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