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Fresh hope for a Greater Birmingham authority – but only if council leaders can agree

Fresh hope for a Greater Birmingham authority – but only if council leaders can agree

🕔26.Jul 2013

A little over two years ago the metropolitan councils of Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Manchester, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, and Wigan formed the Greater Manchester combined local authority with powers to oversee transport, economic development and regeneration.

This was the first small but significant step towards regional governance since John Prescott’s ill-judged 2001 plan for regional assemblies, and there were many pundits ready to suggest that other conurbations across England and Wales would quickly follow Manchester’s example.

Certainly, the Greater Manchester authorities had already been working together for several years in a more informal organisation and were  in well equipped to formalise the arrangements.  It is true, however, that the case for combined authorities has been given a boost by the emergence of Local Enterprise Partnerships, which have been handed responsibility for delivering economic development across council borders through the Regional Growth Fund.

Guidance issued by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills refers specifically to the type of collective governance arrangements that LEP councils may wish to consider, including combined authorities, a joint leaders’ board or economic prosperity board.

As ever, the Government is making it clear that any move towards a combined authority must be locally driven. “We are not prescribing any fixed way of working”, the guidance notes.

This reluctance to require councils to form regional bodies means that it is a matter for proud and independent boroughs and cities as the whether they will be prepared to put past rivalries aside. Certainly, in the West Midlands, the prospect of a combined authority would appear to be as remote now as it ever has been.

Four more combined authorities are in the process of being formed.

West Yorkshire, bringing together Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds, and Wakefield is expected to be up and running by April 2014, while a plan by Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham, Sheffield to form a South Yorkshire combined authority and a proposal by Newcastle and six other councils to form a North-east combined authority are still on the drawing board.

More recently, the six Liverpool city region councils have announced their intention to consult on forming a combined authority.

A pattern has emerged in the North-west and the North-east, with local political leaders making it clear that they are not opting for combined status out of any great commitment to regionalism. Rather, they see this as “the only game in town” if the Government is to be persuaded to devolve powers and budgets.

The bureaucracy through which requests to form a combined authority must pass is time consuming and does not guarantee success at the end of the day.

The 2009 Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act sets out the procedure. Each council involved must agree to the proposal and a governance review has to be conducted before a formal proposal can be put to the government.

The review must “establish the likelihood that a combined authority would improve the exercise of statutory functions relating to transport in the area, the effectiveness and efficiency of transport in the area.”

On completion of the review the local authorities publish a proposed scheme of the combined authority to be created, including the area that will be covered, the constitution and functions. This must include details of membership of the authority, remuneration, and how meetings will be chaired and recorded. Following a period of consultation and subject to the approval of the Secretary of State the combined authority is formally created.

The possibility of a West Midlands combined authority, perhaps a Greater Birmingham Council, has never quite gone away since the demise of the county council in 1986, even though the chance of this happening without compulsion from the Government is surely remote.

Birmingham City Council leader Sir Albert Bore has put the case strongly for the region’s two main LEPs to join forces, arguing with remorseless logic that the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP, taking in the largely rural authorities of Bromsgrove, Redditch, Wyre Forest, Lichfield and East Staffordshire, hardly represents the economic footprint of Birmingham and the West Midlands.

It would be far better, according to Sir Albert, to form a single powerful economic unit by combining GBSLEP with the Black Country LEP, although it is far from clear whether this new body would include GBSLEP’s rural hinterland. In his 2013 policy statement to the city council, Sir Albert demanded better working at city-regional level and a focus on “the real economic geography of Greater Birmingham”.

Combining the two main LEPs could be the first step towards a combined West Midlands authority. Regional government supporters were given some hope recently by an agreement between GBSLEP and the Black Country Councils to form a single strategic transport board.

But the chances of a combined authority Greater Manchester-style for Birmingham and the West Midlands have been rejected by politicians on the left and right. Mike Bird, Tory leader of Walsall Council, reportedly commented that the two LEPs would join “over my dead body”, while Darren Cooper, Labour leader of Sandwell, said he didn’t accept the case for amalgamation.

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