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Metro Mayors, Big Birmingham and Advantage West Midlands – MPs talk devolution

Metro Mayors, Big Birmingham and Advantage West Midlands – MPs talk devolution

🕔08.Jun 2015

Midland MPs discuss devolution and take the opportunity to dust off a few old sores, namely the alleged overbearing dominance of Birmingham and the performance of the former regional development agency Advantage West Midlands. Paul Dale reviews the contribution of our MPs to the Queen’s Speech debate on devolution ahead of today’s Second Reading of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill in the House of Lords. 

In a Commons debate on the Queen’s Speech both Conservative and Labour members  expressed concern about the restructuring of local government and accused Ministers of railroading the region against its wishes into having a combined authority centred on Birmingham with an elected metro mayor at its head.

Caroline Spelman (Con Meriden) claimed the “sheer size of Birmingham city council” stood in the way of collaboration with West Midlands authorities.

She hoped to see councils come together “of their own free will” to form a “Midlands powerhouse” and claimed the Government’s approach to devolution had an advantage because it did not impose a structure “as was the case with the regional development agencies”.

Mrs Spelman said AWM, which was abolished with all regional development agencies after the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government took office in 2010, had overseen a period when money was “sucked into Birmingham, with other surrounding authorities losing out”. Coventry had been treated particularly badly. She continued:

The sheer size of Birmingham city council has been the sticking point for further collaboration. As the Kerslake Report puts it, ‘its size is both a badge and a barrier to its progress, and it faces significant budget difficulties…and does not yet have credible plans to meet these’.

It is no wonder that there is a degree of reluctance to combine.

Mrs Spelman did praise Birmingham, however, for agreeing on a one council, one vote, arrangement for a West Midlands combined authority, which would give each council an equal say irrespective of their size. The agreement means that council leaders on the combined authority board would each have a single vote, giving the smallest member, Lichfield, parity with the largest, Birmingham.

Mrs Spelman suggested that Birmingham should not lead the new combined authority, and raised doubts about the prospect of a metro mayor.

I am not totally convinced about the establishment of a metro mayor for the Midlands powerhouse. Rivalries between the towns and cities are intense, not least on the football pitch. I am thinking of, for instance, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Coventry, to name just a few. Perhaps, however, a smaller local authority could take the lead.

Julian Knight, the new Tory MP for Solihull, appears to have toned down his opposition to a West Midlands combined authority. Before the General Election he promised to “fight tooth and nail” against Solihull being “sucked in” to Labour controlled Birmingham.

But in the Commons, Mr Knight simply told MPs:

As we face the challenging and exciting prospect of devolution, Solihull stands ready to play its part, happy to co-operate on big-ticket items such as infrastructure, potentially policing, transport and skills for our young people, but it does so as a strong independent town. I intend to be a strong voice for the town I represent.

Coventry North-west Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson said the Government’s approach to devolution was akin to “the whore through the ages” in that it offered power without responsibility. Mr Robinson said:

We do not know what the Government want, yet they will use their huge influence and power over local authorities but take no responsibility for what emerges. The likely outcome is that they will create a bigger muddle than the one they are trying to sort out.

He wanted to know why the Government was “obsessed with the idea of metro mayors” and demanded to know what powers the mayors would have.

Describing Coventry as being in an invidious position, Mr Robinson warned the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership would be “cut in half” if Coventry joined a West Midlands combined authority. He added:

Where does it stand? What are the alternatives? What are the chances of having a Coventry and Warwickshire strategic or combined authority? Which powers would that authority gain from the Government? Does it need a mayor?

Manchester has a totally different set of circumstances, and the authorities that are coming together in the northern powerhouse are very different from Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Three cities will be included in the new midlands powerhouse, which is another difference.

I am prepared to say that the whole idea serves a useful purpose in giving us all a kick up the backside to get on with things. Indeed, that is the message that the Secretary of State brought to the Midlands, but nobody knows what we are meant to get on with.

Robin Walker (Con Worcester) continued with the AWM theme:

Worcestershire has never done well when it has been lumped in with a region, and where Birmingham has called all the shots. We missed out during the time of Advantage West Midlands, and we have done much better with our own local enterprise partnership.

It was noticeable, even in recent years, that Labour-led Birmingham city council sent officers to object to the south Worcestershire development plan, on the basis—unbelievably—that it created too many jobs in our part of the world. That approach did not endear the Labour party to people in Worcestershire.

Richard Burden (Lab Birmingham Northfield) complained about a “one-size-fits-all” approach to devolution.

A good argument is being made for elected mayors in many areas, but what is right for one metropolitan area is not necessarily right for another, let alone for non-metropolitan areas. Often travel-to-work areas and economic activity clusters and so on do not fit neatly into political boundaries. That is why, if devolution is to work, the Government need to listen to ideas coming up from below as well as putting their preferred solutions down from on high.

Jack Dromey (Lab Erdington) accused the Government of ignoring the will of the people by insisting on metro mayors for maximum devolution.

How can the Government say, ‘all power to the people’ and ‘let the people decide’, and then say about the issue of mayors three years on, when people in the West Midlands have decided ‘it does not matter what you have decided. We are going to decide for you, and if you want that radical devolution deal, you will have to embrace what we want, whether or not you want I’. That cannot be right.

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