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Identity crisis as West Midlands combined authority reaches Welsh borders

Identity crisis as West Midlands combined authority reaches Welsh borders

🕔25.Jul 2016

The West Midlands Combined Authority keeps growing and has extended its operations to the Welsh border, with the The Marches Local Enterprise Partnership joining as a new member.

But the decision left one senior politician baffled.

David Jamieson, the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, who has the biggest mandate of any elected official outside of the mayor of London, confessed that he had never heard of The Marches and had only the haziest notion of where it might be.

Mr Jamieson asked for more information at a WMCA board meeting and was informed that The Marches LEP operates across Telford & Wrekin, Shropshire and Herefordshire councils.

With the new member on board, WMCA’s sphere of influence stretches from Warwickshire in the east to Shropshire and Herefordshire in the west and includes the seven metropolitan West Midlands councils as well as a smattering of district councils, as well as three other local enterprise partnerships – Greater Birmingham and Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire, and the Black Country.

This makes the WMCA easily the largest combined authority in the country with responsibility for overseeing transportation, economic development and skills, and the organisation may spread even wider with several more district councils expressing an interest in joining.

While Telford & Wrekin council is a WMCA non-constituent member, Shropshire and Herefordshire councils are not, although they are believed to be considering joining the club.

The Marches LEP will be a non-constituent member of WMCA in common with the district councils and won’t have full voting rights. But there is nothing to stop any of the non-constituent members from applying to become full members in future.

Mr Jamieson has long been concerned about the sprawling nature of WMCA and once called the combined authority a “dog’s breakfast”. He has questioned the role of  shire districts and counties alongside the urban nature of the metropolitan councils.

The PCC has been given some support by the highly influential Andy Street, chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP and a possible Conservative candidate to become West Midlands metro mayor next year.

Mr Street, while taking care to welcome The Marches to the combined authority, told the board meeting that WMCA would have to be “very clear we do not dilute our focus” on the three LEP full members, Greater Birmingham and Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire and the Black Country.

He reminded the meeting that WMCA is based on the travel to work patterns and economic geography of the three LEPs and he urged the combined authority to make sure it distinguished between the “three-LEP geography and beyond”.

Mr Street, who has close links to the top of the Government, urged WMCA to be radical in putting together a second devolution deal on top of the £8 billion 30-year agreement already reached.

He said he sensed the new Government was in the mood “to buy from us again” and a wide-ranging devolution deal “is there for us to take”.

It emerged that WMCA has set aside £150,000 to cover the cost of setting up commissions on productivity, land and mental health.

WMCA chief operating officer Jan Britton said the past failure of the public sector to tackle issues like the productivity gap and the release of sufficient land for housing and employment had to be recognised. He said the combined authority had “sought commissioner and external advisers who will change the paradigm” and approach difficult issues in a radically different way.

Mr Britton added:

I make no bones about it. This is expensive research. It is not the sort of thing you get on the cheap but the return on the investment if we get it right will be hundreds of times the value of the sums spent.

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