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Sturgeon’s independence gambit ‘will reignite English devolution debate’

Sturgeon’s independence gambit ‘will reignite English devolution debate’

🕔08.Apr 2015

Once let so carelessly out of the bottle by the Government, the Scottish independence genie was never willingly going to go back inside and the odds are narrowing on a second referendum on leaving the UK next year, writes Paul Dale.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon dropped a broad hint during the TV General Election debate featuring the four Scottish party leaders that demands for a new poll could be on the table following the 2016 elections for the Scottish parliament.

That is a long way from former SNP leader Alex Salmond’s insistence following last year’s narrow referendum decision to reject independence that the issue had been settled for a generation. But then again, even at the time, Mr Salmond’s insistence that 20 years or more might pass before the independence question was asked again seemed rather wide of the mark.

Ms Sturgeon is on something of a roll, since her party appears to be on course to mop up most of the Labour-held seats in Scotland at the General Election on May 7, putting her in the driving seat as far as negotiations to support a minority Labour government for the UK are concerned.

There is of course many a slip between cup and lip as far as Scottish independence is concerned and it is by no means certain that a yes vote would be secure at another referendum. However, even the possibility of independence is likely to panic whoever is heading the Westminster government to concede further devolution powers north of the border, on top even of the current Devo-max deal.

Any temptation to suppose that none of this really matters in England should be resisted, not just because independence for Scotland would have all sorts of economic and political implications for what would be left of the United Kingdom but also because debate around a referendum would reignite the issue of English devolution which has gone slightly off the boil in recent months.

Understandably in a campaign that was always going to be focussed chiefly on the NHS, the economy and taxation, the future of local government is not dominating the General Election agenda. There have though been a few skirmishes in the West Midlands, where Ed Miliband has promised a Labour government would hand Birmingham and the Black Country councils powers “similar to Scotland”.

On further examination, these powers are confined to allowing councils to directly run bus and train services as well as take control of skills programmes, which is a start but can hardly be described as devolution on a grand scale.

Michael Heseltine, whose ‘No Stone Unturned’ report kicked off the dash to devolution, has resurfaced to claim that a deal has already been done with the Government and that Greater Birmingham will be next in line for the type of devolution package handed out to Greater Manchester.

It’s worth recalling the scale of the Greater Manchester deal, which was only secured after the 10 combined authority councils agreed to elect a metro mayor – something the West Midlands refuses to contemplate. The growth deal is worth about £560 million between 2016 and 2021 and grants wide-ranging powers and budgets to improve transportation, skills and business support.

Both Conservative and Labour have headed into the General Election offering further devolution.

Labour promises to decentralise £30 billion of Whitehall budgets to “reinvigorate local economies and democracy” giving cities and regions more control over their budgets. The Conservatives say the Greater Manchester deal must be a template for other city regions and they would grant devolved powers and budgets to combined authorities that can demonstrate they have the commitment and ability to work in partnership.

Labour also favours the combined authority role, but differs to the Tory approach by stating that it should not be necessary for city regions to opt for an elected mayor in order to reap the benefits of devolution.

Where, then, does all of this leave Greater Birmingham?

Some commentators have fallen into the trap of stating that Birmingham and the Black Country councils have agreed to form a combined authority, which would have strategic powers over transport and economic development. It would be more accurate to state that they “would like” to form a combined authority, preferably in partnership with Solihull and Coventry councils.

A West Midlands combined authority stretching from the Black Country to Solihull, taking in Birmingham and the GBSLEP shire districts as well as Coventry and parts of Warwickshire would represent 3.5 million people and be an economic entity to eclipse any northern powerhouse. By comparison, a combined authority consisting solely of Birmingham and the Black Country councils would not represent the West Midlands’ economic footprint and would run the risk of being rejected by the Government as an unacceptable half-way house.

There is much riding on Solihull Council’s prevarication over this issue. The Tory controlled authority has delayed a decision on joining a Greater Birmingham combined authority until after the General Election entirely for political reasons – the Conservative election candidate doesn’t want Solihull to be “taken over” by big bad Birmingham, and his simplistic view is supported by some borough councillors.

The fact that each council member of a Greater Birmingham combined authority would have an equal say on policy development and spending decisions through a committee of council leaders appears to have passed Solihull by. For its own reasons, the borough prefers to play the irresponsible and untrue Birmingham takeover card.

As it happens, the latest economic statistics suggest that Solihull needs the advantages of devolution rather more than any of the other West Midlands councils. As Patrick Willcocks, on his Urban Pivot website, has demonstrated, Solihull was the only West Midlands council last year to record minus growth in GVA despite the expansion of car makers JLR and all of the hype around the UK Central regeneration scheme.

By contrast, Birmingham, Dudley, Coventry and Walsall all recorded GVA growth well above the West Midlands average.

Willcocks also shows that Greater Birmingham and Greater Manchester are running neck and neck in the battle to be the leading economy outside of London. He writes: “The latest GVA growth figures (2013) show that growth in the core of the Midlands Powerhouse at 4.74 per cent marginally shaded those in the core of the Northern Powerhouse at 4.61 per cent.  These figures well exceed growth in London at 3.95 per cent.

“What these also show is the importance of economic engines outside of London. The combined powerhouses of Greater Birmingham and Greater Manchester produce almost a third of what London does.  With key investments and importantly much more local control these figures can be improved for the areas but also the nation’s benefit.”

Whoever finds themselves Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government after the General Election will inherit a dossier marked ‘the Greater Birmingham problem’ and will have to decide what to do about the combined authority issue.

An economic impact study funded by the West Midlands councils will be completed shortly with the aim of convincing Solihull of the benefits of joining a combined authority. Sir Albert Bore, the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, has hinted that a Labour government might be tempted to take the lead and force Solihull to join forces with Birmingham and the Black Country for the greater good if agreement cannot be reached voluntarily.

One way or another there’s a feeling that the next Government dare not take the risk that an economy as powerful as that of Greater Birmingham and the West Midlands may miss out on devolution. Such an outcome would be economic madness, not just for this region but for UK plc.

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