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Solihull sits on its hands as Birmingham-Black Country ‘economic powerhouse’ takes off

Solihull sits on its hands as Birmingham-Black Country ‘economic powerhouse’ takes off

🕔07.Nov 2014

The announcement that the leaders of Birmingham and the four Black Country councils have agreed to accept the Government’s offer of  new powers and devolved resources by establishing a Combined Authority begs a question of crucial importance – what about Solihull?

Is the sole Tory-controlled West Midlands metropolitan council in, out, or just shaking it all about?

What is going on in Solihull? Two days ago, council leader Bob Sleigh insisted Solihull had taken no part in the months of protracted regional talks about a combined authority, adding: “We have had no discussions at this point in time”.

He went on to suggest that, wishful thinking perhaps, it was unlikely a combined authority could go ahead without Solihull.

It is almost unbelievable that Solihull has played no part whatsoever in months of discussions, either at councillor or officer level, preferring to sit in splendid isolation and let Birmingham and the Black Country, and latterly Coventry, get on with it.

Today in a press release from Birmingham and the Black Country councils confirming the combined authority, Cllr Sleigh issued what can only be described as a holding statement: “We are open to discussions around better regional cooperation as we recognise in a global economy the region must punch its weight.  However, any new arrangements must benefit both the people I serve in Solihull as well as the regional partners.”

This hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement of the Birmingham-Black Country invitation to join the emerging “broad and deep coalition for prosperity for the West Midlands”.

It would be difficult, but not impossible, for Solihull to opt out of a West Midlands Combined Authority given that the council area takes in an economic gold mine consisting of Birmingham Airport, the NEC, the planned HS2 interchange station, and the UK Central regeneration zone.

This is precisely the type of territory where devolved powers and budgets around transportation and economic development could translate into thousands of jobs and economic growth. Solihull appears to have partially recognised this by entering into an economic prosperity board arrangement with neighbouring Birmingham, but seemingly won’t extend that cooperation to the Black Country.

David Sparks, the leader of Dudley Council and chair of the Local Government Association, believes a combined authority with Solihull’s membership can act as lynchpin for national economic recovery.

He said: “We need a combined authority in the West Midlands to compete with other areas which have already gone down this route. There is evidence from around the country, such as in Greater Manchester, that where councils work in a more coordinated way they secure significantly greater proportions of national government investment for their area.”

It has been suggested that Solihull’s biggest concern is the priority a Labour-dominated combined authority might give to housing development, in particular building in the rolling green belt of the Meriden Gap between Birmingham and Coventry.

Arms will continue to be twisted between now and next March, when formal arrangements for a combined authority are expected to be in place. Coventry is likely to be on board along with some or all of the Warwickshire district councils, and the Staffordshire and Worcestershire districts of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP.

With or without Solihull the West Midlands Combined Authority is lining up to be the largest of its kind in the country, with a unique mix of urban and rural areas. The population covered by the authority will be a minimum 3.4 million people but could easily extend beyond four million.

A statement of intent signed by the leaders of Birmingham and the Black Country councils addresses key issues and makes it clear that the members of the combined authority will keep their individual identities and sovereignty. There is no intention at this stage to follow Greater Manchester along the metro mayor route, or to recreate the former West Midlands County Council.

The statement in full:

In the light of developments in policy from both the Government and Opposition, we believe that there is now an unprecedented window of opportunity for the West Midlands, along with the other cities and city regions of England, to claim significant new powers and devolved resources from central government.  We recognise that this will require us to collaborate more effectively, not least by establishing stronger accountability arrangements for city region governance.

We have, therefore, agreed to commence the first stage in the creation of a Combined Authority, with the intention that the detailed Scheme for the Authority will be produced by April 2015 and approval gained by the end of next year.

The details of the functions and governance will be the subject of these talks.  But we have already agreed that at its inception, the Combined Authority will focus on strategic planning and delivery for economic development and transport. It will be for the members of the Combined Authority to decide at a later date whether or not to include further functions.

We have also agreed that whilst a Combined Authority is a way of strengthening our collaboration on specific policy areas for the good of the West Midlands as a whole, it formation will not alter the autonomy or sovereignty of each local authority.  We will celebrate, and not seek to dilute, the separate identities of each local area and the diversity within the city region.

Birmingham and the Black Country leaders are fully committed to forming a Combined Authority and we have invited other districts to join us in the creation of an Authority that also includes Solihull, the other districts within the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership area, Coventry and the districts surrounding Coventry.

Both Solihull and Coventry are in the process of making their own local decisions about future collaboration and therefore at this stage, whilst they will be fully engaged in ongoing discussions and are supporting this statement, they are not yet able to give a firm commitment as to their intentions.  However they expect to be able to confirm their position in the near future.

For Birmingham and the Black Country district this statement represents a clear and firm commitment today to participate in the proposed Combined Authority.

This means that, whilst authorities may move at different speeds and be engaged in the Combined Authority in different ways, they will all be engaged in the process from the beginning.

The future boundaries of the three Local Enterprise Partnerships included in this area, and their relationship to the Combined Authority will also be a matter for further talks.

We believe that a Combined Authority on this geography brings together the core elements of a West Midlands economic powerhouse. It would have a potential population of 3.4 million and the economic and political weight to drive local growth and place the West Midlands at the forefront of the nation’s economic recovery.

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