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Heseltine’s advice on West Midlands combined authority: ‘Just get on with it’

Heseltine’s advice on West Midlands combined authority: ‘Just get on with it’

🕔01.Jun 2015

Lord Heseltine had a characteristically blunt message when he met West Midlands council and business leaders today to discuss plans to form a combined authority – just get on with it, reports Paul Dale.

He joined George Osborne, the Chancellor, Local Government Secretary Greg Clark and Local Government Minister Marcus Jones for talks about how the Greater Birmingham area can benefit from devolved powers and budgets.

The Government team held discussions with the leaders of Birmingham, the Black Country, Coventry, Solihull and Lichfield councils, plus the chairs of the three West Midlands regional Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Earlier in the day Mr Osborne made it clear he wouldn’t force the new combined authority to have a metro mayor, but that a mayor would be necessary to qualify for the “full suite of devolved powers” over economic development, transport and health.

The Chancellor said in a speech:

I want local leaders, local communities, to decide what they’re interested in taking part in, and how far they want to go in this new revolution in city government.

And then again, working together, local and national government needs to identify a model that works well here.

We’ll work with local council leaders across the party divide, assess each case on its merits, as every area is different.

And I know that one size doesn’t fit all. But I’m also clear that with new powers come new responsibilities.

It’s right that there’s a single point of accountability, someone elected to take decisions and carry the can. And that means, if we go for the full suite of devolved powers, a metro wide mayor.

Now, Manchester has already said it will travel down this exciting road to the future. It is my sincere hope that the cities of the Midlands will choose to be part of this revolution in city government.”

The West Midlands council leaders and LEPs issued a joint statement following the meeting:

Our discussion with the very top of Government today was both positive and productive. We were encouraged to be as ambitious as possible and to move forward at pace. We were also reassured that we are trusted to deliver what is best for our citizens and the national economy.

Lord Heseltine summed up the mood of the meeting when he impressed upon us that we were being invited just to “get on with it” and that we had the full backing of the Chancellor and Secretary of State who would do all they could to help us deliver our plans.

George Osborne shared our commitment to make a real difference for the people and businesses of the region and, in turn, the country as a whole. He supported the emphasis on the added value – ‘the economic plus’ – to be gained in terms of jobs, skills, investment and transport from working together.

We emphasised our intention to deliver on five initial priority areas, including a shared investment vehicle. Our recognition that strong economic growth will rebalance the economy, not only for the region, but for the country as a whole was welcomed, as was the importance of linking this to the reform of public services in order to improve quality and reduce the overall level of public spending.

Government is clearly saying that we should be highly ambitious and that ministers will match that, with the Chancellor encouraging us to be in the vanguard of the devolution deals that will be agreed by the new Government. We also received a clear message that we are trusted to deliver what is right for the people of our region that we serve.

Whilst there was a broader discussion around elected mayors and any future name of a Combined Authority, the Chancellor’s position was not prescriptive and there was a recognition that the present focus was properly on the articulation of the ambition and benefits for the region, as well as forming the Combined Authority itself.

We will clearly continue our dialogue with the Chancellor, the Local Government Secretary and the senior civil servants in both the Treasury and Communities Department. Further, we will now be ramping up our discussions with the district councils across the three LEP areas, business leaders and other key partners.

Five priorities for the prospective combined authority have been agreed:

Enterprise Zones: early work to extend both the geography and time frame for the existing Black Country and Birmingham Enterprise Zones to drive investment and growth.

Skills:  a fundamental reshaping of the approach to improving skills and employability, across councils and agencies, in order to deliver a step change in productivity levels and further reduce the welfare bill.

Business support and foreign direct investment: to attract and support business growth, combine the multiple interfaces with local businesses and UKTI through a  ‘one door’ approach that will build on the programmes and partnerships the LEPs have in place.

Transport: a Single Economic Impact Assessment for transport across the CA, to drive a case for investment that will improve mobility, accessibility and business efficiency.

Single Investment Vehicle:  a CA wide fund that will attract public and private sector capital and will have broad application but will, in first instance, target unlocking  brownfield sites across the conurbation for housing and  commercial investment.

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