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Split West Midlands highlighted in combined authority survey

Split West Midlands highlighted in combined authority survey

🕔17.Feb 2016

A survey seeking views about the West Midlands Combined Authority has confirmed there is no great tide of public support for the new model of governance, even though the questions in a consultation exercise appear to have been framed to encourage positive responses writes Paul Dale.

The shadow WMCA board will not release all 2,000 responses, but has sent selected extracts to Communities Secretary Greg Clark who will decide whether to allow Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton councils as well as several shire district councils to form a combined authority overseeing economic development, transport and skills.

The first thing Mr Clark will notice is a high level of resistance to joining WMCA from respondents in Coventry, where a campaign to stay out of the “Birmingham-led” combined authority has been running for months.

His attention will also be drawn to less than overwhelming backing for the key role local enterprise partnerships will play on the WMCA board, as well as a strong belief that the new authority should be called Greater Birmingham, and equally forthright views that WMCA should not be aligned to Birmingham because of the city council’s “poor finances, service delivery and governance structure”.

A survey which ran on WMCA’s website for three weeks posed five questions to which respondents were asked to strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree, or say they didn’t know.

Rather than adopting a neutral tone, it could be argued that each question sets out to suggest WMCA will provide positive improvements, and asks respondents to say whether or not they agree.

The questions are:

  1. By working together more closely, through a West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) Councils will be better placed to deliver improved outcomes in relation to economic development, regeneration and transport across the West Midlands region.
  2. Our regional Local Enterprise Partnerships (voluntary partnerships between local authorities and businesses) will ensure there is a strong business voice within the Combined Authority and help it to deliver improved outcomes in relation to economic development, regeneration and transport across the West Midlands region.
  3. In order to improve collaborative working across local authorities it is important that all local authorities in the West Midlands conurbation, as well as neighbouring and economically linked authorities, are invited to participate in the workings of the WMCA.
  4. By better coordination of strategic issues on economic development, regeneration and transport across the region and by improving partnership working through the creation of a Combined Authority, councils will be better placed to secure more effective and convenient local government and better services in general.
  5. The Combined Authority should not be a ‘super council’ and the democratic sovereignty of individual councils must be retained. This is important to ensure that a Combined Authority will not have an adverse effect upon the identity and interests of local communities.

Broadly speaking, the 1,907 participants were split two-thirds in favour and a third against forming the combined authority. Question two, about the role of the LEPs, received the lowest level of support, with 60 per cent of respondents agreeing there would be a “strong business voice” on the combined authority board and 31 per cent disagreeing.

And when asked about one of the supposed key advantages of the combined authority – better coordination of strategic issues on economic development, regeneration and transport across the region and improved partnership working – 61 per cent agreed this would happen and 32 per cent disagreed.

The highest level of support went to question five, which asked respondents to agree that WMCA should not be a “super council” and that “the democratic sovereignty of individual councils must be retained”. Unsurprisingly, given the threats implied by the wording, 84 per cent agreed, although 11 per cent managed to disagree.

Far more informative than answers to the five questions were 832 responses to an invitation to make any further comments. WMCA has not published these in full, preferring to release extracts.

It has been confirmed that even the Communities Secretary has not been given the consultation results in full. Mr Clark will receive the same selective breakdown released to the media, with the addition of 12 letters from local organisations.

Written responses not published by WMCA, but seen by Chamberlain Files, include concerns from business organisations about the voting arrangements for the combined authority board, which require unanimity from council leaders on a wide range of issues.

One respondent warned that “faster decision making, made nearer to communities, is at the heart of the devolution agenda” and “retaining the need for unanimous voting over so many areas runs the risk of slow or no decision making”.

Also unpublished by WMCA are concerns over the lack of information about the way the combined authority cabinet will work and the portfolios to be shared out among council leaders.

Another respondent questioned a lack of information about the scrutiny process for WMCA.

Among the published comments, 55 people expressed concerns about the combined authority coming under the influence of Birmingham city council which was thought to be badly run.

There were 37 responses questioning the need for a metro mayor and asking for further information about the mayor’s powers.

Some 28 comments were around wanting a vote on establishing a combined authority, the devolution proposal and the mayor – some of these comments suggested that the consultation process has been undemocratic.

There were 19 comments about the name of the combined authority- the vast majority stating that Birmingham should be in the name “because this is already a recognisable international location and therefore better for the combined authority brand”.

Almost 100 respondents commented on Coventry council’s decision to join WMCA. The tone of the comments was that “Coventry does not belong or need to be associated with Birmingham and the Midlands, in particular because of the already close associations/geographical proximity to Warwickshire”.

After Coventry, the borough of Solihull appears to contain the most resistance to the combined authority.

There were 28 comments from Solihull expressing concerns about being “pulled down by other areas as Solihull is a successful area, not wishing to be part of the larger authorities (in particular Birmingham), questioning how will it stand up against the larger authorities, loss of individuality, Solihull finances being spent by others, nonsensical to join the other six authorities, loss of different character from the other authorities, expensive damage to reputation, no vote on the matter, Solihull interests not being pushed”.

WMCA vice-chair Cllr Darren Cooper commented on the consultation:

This has been incredibly useful and shows that there is certainly an appetite to discuss our plans to become a combined authority.

It’s important that people have a voice and we understand that people want to express a view.  To achieve over 1900 responses over a three week period is encouraging and we will now take our time to analyse what people have said and how we can best respond to them.

In the meantime we have submitted the initial results to government who will consider what people have said and who will ultimately decide whether it is in the region’s best interests to form a combined authority for the West Midlands.

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