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How Labour council leaders hitched a Sleigh ride to devolution prize

How Labour council leaders hitched a Sleigh ride to devolution prize

🕔25.Aug 2015

Bob Sleigh has not until now been a big name in regional politics. But that will change as the Tory leader of Solihull Council has been appointed chair of the shadow West Midlands Combined Authority. Chief blogger Paul Dale traces Sleigh’s role in convincing sceptical colleagues to join forces with Birmingham and the other metropolitan councils.

There was one thought in the minds of West Midlands Labour politicians when veteran Tory Bob Sleigh became leader of Solihull Council in June 2014 – was he the type of person they could do business with?

Sleigh’s predecessor Ken Meeson was unconvinced about the benefits that a combined authority could bring to economic development and transportation across the West Midlands and remained wary about Solihull playing any part in the project.

This suspicion arose partly from a fear that the new authority would be dominated by Labour-controlled Birmingham, and worries that the body might eventually obtain planning powers and approve housing development in the sensitive Meriden Gap of green belt land separating Solihull from Coventry.

Labour had its answer within weeks of Sleigh’s appointment. Senior figures such as Birmingham city council leader Sir Albert Bore and Solihull council leader Darren Cooper discovered that Sleigh was a man with a genuinely open mind over a combined authority and wanted to make progress if he could.

But he had to sell the idea to Solihull Conservative councillors, and to the prospective MP Julian Knight who had vowed to “fight tooth and nail”against the borough being taken over by Birmingham. In order to convince the more sceptical of his colleagues Sleigh agreed to a suggestion by Bore and Cooper that a wide ranging economic study be conducted to demonstrate Solihull’s place in the functional economic geography of the West Midlands and the benefits that could follow in jobs and investment from devolution.

By a stroke of good fortune Sleigh’s appointment coincided with Chancellor George Osborne’s big pre-election push on the Northern Powerhouse and the Greater Manchester template for devolution and combined authorities.

It quickly became apparent that the West Midlands risked being left behind if the region’s five Labour and two Tory council leaders could not agree to set up a combined authority. The prospect of agreement moved up a notch when the new Tory leader of Walsall council, Mike Bird, signalled his support for a combined authority.

Although Bob Sleigh has been around on the political scene for many years, he has been relatively unknown outside of Solihull until now. Twice chairman of the Meriden Conservative Association, he is the chairman of Solihull Borough Conservatives and served as cabinet member for health and wellbeing before becoming leader.

Sleigh has a hinterland beyond politics. He has worked in sales and marketing for a range of companies and currently works for Birmingham based Gee & Co Ltd as Business Development Manager leading the chemical storage tank division.

He is a former chairman of the National Probation Service in the West Midlands has been an NHS non-executive director for Solihull Care and was the first Chairman of Solihull’s Health & Wellbeing Board.

He is a Director of Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP), Deputy Chairman of the ITA (Integrated Transport Authority) a voting member of the West Midland Joint Committee and the West Midlands Police & Crime Panel.

Writing in the Solihull Observer May this year Cllr Sleigh said a combined authority would provide:

  • A new way for local councils to work together to promote transport, economic development and regeneration across the whole region.
  • The chance to better plan those things that could be more effectively delivered across authority boundaries – like tourism, skills development and business support.
  • Local decision-making powers passed down by central government to our region.
  • Securing long-term funding and investment to help boost economic growth and employment opportunities.

And he tackled a number of “myths” about the new authority:

  • It won’t replace existing councils.
  • There won’t be one new single authority.
  • One local council won’t absorb the others and set the agenda.
  • Councillors in each authority will still be accountable to the people who elected them.

He believed it would be better for the borough to be a part of a combined authority.

In order to achieve Solihull’s wider ambition for sustainable economic growth the borough needs a high performing regional platform of a scale and geography that attracts the significant inward investment needed to satisfy that ambition.

I am convinced that an ‘economic-plus’ model, which includes skills and infrastructure, requires regional devolution at the right scale.

I remain clear on the areas which need further discussion, they lie around, economic growth and how it’s delivered, how we develop a skilled workforce to support the creation of jobs, business support by way of readily available advice and support and transport interconnectivity across the region.

This will be underpinned by a single investment vehicle whose purpose will be to attract public and private finance to target the places were economic growth can best be delivered.

He told Solihull’s annual council meeting that devolved powers granted to the new authority would include “greater freedoms and flexibilities, which will see power coming from Whitehall to local people, allowing local people a greater say in determining the future of the region”.

He added:

My decision also comes from an understanding that in order to achieve Solihull’s wider ambition for sustainable economic growth the borough needs a high performing regional platform of a scale and geography that attracts the significant inward investment needed to satisfy that ambition.

Having signalled my intention to support in principle, it’s down to us the politicians and stakeholders, including Solihull’s businesses and educationalists, to now prove the case that working together we can achieve acceleration in our economy.

 

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