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Don’t blame George Osborne for West Midlands’ failure to work together

Don’t blame George Osborne for West Midlands’ failure to work together

🕔16.Feb 2015

Oh dear. Birmingham is going through one of its not infrequent periods of insecurity. And as usual, it is events in Manchester that have prompted much wailing and gnashing of teeth, writes Paul Dale.

George Osborne, the Chancellor, has been spending rather a lot of time in Manchester which is perhaps not surprising since he is MP for Tatton, a neighbouring constituency.

Whenever he goes to Manchester he seems to announce hundreds of millions of pounds in funding for the Northern Powerhouse – a Government scheme to improve transport infrastructure linking the great cities of the north and in doing so to regenerate the region’s economy and create thousands of jobs.

Last week Mr Osborne got around to giving details of his Midland Powerhouse plan.

Sadly, the six-point long term economic plan to “make the Midlands an engine for growth” is nowhere near as bold or as visionary as the Northern Powerhouse plan, which amounts to £1 billion of investment.

It is true that growth deals for the West Midlands do not even begin to match up to the offer for Greater Manchester, although Mr Osborne’s six-point Midland plan does envisage creating 300,000 jobs in advanced manufacturing and engineering and should not therefore be dismissed out of hand.

If proof were needed that Mr Osborne has a downer on Birmingham, here’s the evidence, apparently.  The Chancellor did not choose Birmingham as the location to launch the Midland long-term economic plan. Oh, no. He chose Derby instead.

Derby? Can you believe it? What a snub to the great Birmingham. What an insult.

Well, not really. Derby is the headquarters of train manufacturers Bombardier, and part of Mr Osborne’s economic plan involves electrifying rail links from Birmingham to Derby and the east Midlands, so Derby was actually an obvious choice.

The blunt truth about Greater Birmingham and the Midland Powerhouse is that Birmingham city council in its present state isn’t capable of delivering on a regional scale and hasn’t been for years. After all it can hardly run its own affairs with any great efficiency never mind operate strategically.

The Government knows this, Mr Osborne and David Cameron know this too which is why they are insisting that the councils across the Greater Birmingham and West Midlands region must work together through a combined authority before they can expect the type of Devo-max package awarded to Greater Manchester.

As Mr Osborne has hinted, it would be preferable for a Greater Birmingham combined authority to be run by an elected metro mayor, which is exactly what Greater Manchester had to agree to in order to get the maximum amount of devolution.

Mr Cameron told the Birmingham Post last week: “The city council leadership in Birmingham faces challenges, everybody knows that. Kerslake has re-emphasised that and you can see that with the problems there’s been with children’s services and Trojan Horse. I’ve got massive confidence in the city, the city council does need to address some of the challenges.”

The Prime Minister was being diplomatic. The Kerslake Review spells out in detail why Birmingham cannot be trusted with much in the way of devolution in the near future: poor leadership, a tendency to sweep problems under the carpet, no shared vision for the future and lack of a corporate grip, to name but four criticisms.

It’s no use the great and good behaving like latter-day Millwall FC fans – ‘We are Birmingham, no-one likes us, we don’t care’ – the evidence as to why Mr Osborne can’t trust the city council is clear.

Here are some of the things Kershaw has to say about Birmingham’s dismal record: “The council has an attitude to partnerships of ‘if it’s worth doing, the council should do it’. This paternalism alienates partners, means the council is failing to reconfigure services effectively, and is missing opportunities to work with partners and communities to deliver the services people need.”

Kerslake adds: “A combined authority and further devolution are the best opportunity the West Midlands authorities have to secure the economic resurgence of the area and ensure growth for the future, benefitting all parts of the region. However, they are currently behind the curve and in danger of missing out. Our view is they must move quickly to catch up.”

Behind the curve? That’s one way of putting it. In reality Greater Birmingham is light years behind Greater Manchester in terms of partnership working, although there are reasons for this.

Kerslake turns his attention to the optimum economic geography of a West Midlands or Greater Birmingham combined authority: “The combined authority should, at least as a first step, include Birmingham city council, the Black Country authorities and Solihull.

“This does not mean that partnership working with the other local authorities in the area should stop. On the contrary it needs to continue to get better. Nor does it mean that other local authorities could not join the combined authority from the start if there is local support.”

So before Mr Osborne gets it in the neck for obsessing over the Northern Powerhouse, let’s recap on just where the West Midlands is on the road to forming a combined authority? If it was a horse race this region wouldn’t even be under starter’s orders. In fact there would be grave doubts over whether the race would ever take place and if it did who the runners would be.

Greater Manchester benefits from a decade or more of co-operation between similar sized largely Labour run councils, which makes partnership working far easier. The West Midlands, a rambling, largely dysfunctional administrative area, is dominated by Birmingham whose sheer size and economic footprint eclipses all of the other councils.

The political geography of the West Midlands is unpredictable ranging from staunchly Labour Sandwell to usually but not always Labour-run Birmingham, Walsall, Dudley, Wolverhampton and Coventry, to Tory Solihull.

Occasionally during the past ten years Dudley, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Coventry councils have been Conservative controlled. Birmingham council was run by a Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition from 2004 to 2012.

It is clear therefore that a grown-up approach to partnership making is required in the West Midlands with politicians prepared to cast aside destructive tribal alliances for the greater good. We haven’t seen much of this so far, although all credit to the Labour leaders of Sandwell and Birmingham, Darren Cooper and Sir Albert Bore, for attempting to broker a deal.

Sir Albert has a timetable approved by DCLG which envisages a combined authority starting work in April 2016. Whether the new body will include Solihull, as proposed by Kerslake and the Government, remains to be seen. The Tory leader of Solihull, Cllr Bob Sleigh, is under pressure from his party’s parliamentary candidate Julian Knight who has promised to “fight tooth and nail to prevent Solihull from being sucked into Labour controlled Birmingham”.

Mr Knight appears to have misunderstood the purpose of a combined authority, which is certainly not to reinvent the old West Midlands County Council. Perhaps Mr Osborne could put him straight?

Sadly, Knight’s view is by no means unusual, particularly among shire Conservatives who look upon Birmingham with suspicion verging on contempt.

Some Labour politicians take a similar view. North Warwickshire council, for example, favours joining Leicestershire and Coventry in an economic prosperity board, which is a type of combined authority. Coventry council leader Ann Lucas is thought to favour joining a Greater Birmingham combined authority, but is yet to persuade her colleagues of the benefits.

To return to the subject of Manchester v Birmingham, then, it is hardly fair to blame George Osborne for the failure of the West Midlands to grasp the opportunities offered by a combined authority and metro mayor.

The Government has made it very clear that the absence of a mayor and combined authority is a deal breaker for full devolution.  Labour isn’t so keen on mayors, but is supportive of the move towards combined authorities. Greater Birmingham cannot expect to match the Northern Powerhouse until it gets its act together, and time on this front is certainly running out.

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