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Summer Special: The birth and teething pains of WMCA

Summer Special: The birth and teething pains of WMCA

🕔22.Aug 2016

In the latest of our special summer reports on the Greater Birmingham political scene, the Chamberlain Files team examine the rise of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).

Are you in the club yet? After years spent, at best, ignoring and at worst fighting each other, West Midlands local government is displaying an unprecedented and welcome spirit of partnership through a fast-growing combined authority.

The pace of change in the past two years has been extraordinary, driven at first by former Chancellor George Osborne’s devolution agenda which convinced council leaders that they either had to bite the bullet and work with each other and local businesses to develop economic strategies, or miss out to other city regions on Government funding, growth and jobs.

There were four different aspects to the challenge faced in the West Midlands. The first was to unite the metropolitan councils – Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry, Sandwell, Wolverhampton, Walsall and Dudley – a task made all the more difficult by decades of mutual suspicion, fears that any partnership would be dominated by Birmingham, and an uneasy often changing Labour-Conservative power base across the region.

No assessment of WMCA’s progress would be complete without paying tribute to the efforts of the late Darren Cooper, former leader of Sandwell council, who kicked the whole process off by publicly challenging Birmingham to decide once and for all whether it wanted to go into a partnership with the Black Country.

The work behind the scenes of former Birmingham council leader Sir Albert Bore in helping to persuade Tory-led Solihull and sceptical Labour-led Coventry to join the combined authority should also be recognised, as should the political commitment to keep the combined authority together despite a change of leaders at Birmingham, Coventry and Walsall councils.

The second challenge was to convince the shire counties and districts, a mix of Conservative and Labour control, that they would be better off joining WMCA, even as non-constituent members without full voting rights, because economic gain would be certain to spread out to the rural areas. You have to be in the club to benefit from the club continues to be the message.

The third challenge was to persuade the Government to recognise the cross-border ‘three LEP geography’ of WMCA, taking in Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP, Coventry and Warwickshire LEP and the Black Country LEP.

The proposition, accepted by Ministers, was that the economic geography of the West Midlands and its travel to work patterns are reflected most accurately by the three local enterprise partnerships even though the combined authority covers a vast area taking in densely populated urban authorities as well as rural areas.

As if the first three challenges were not difficult enough, the fourth, to accept the Government’s insistence on having a metro mayor in order to qualify for a full devolution package, proved to be the most contentious of all. One by one the councils agreed to accept a mayor, even if in public the pretence was kept up that it might not happen or that some kind of arrangement could be negotiated with the Government to keep the West Midlands mayor-free.

No such arrangement proved possible. The West Midlands will elect a metro mayor in May 2017 to chair the combined authority and assume overall responsibility for economic development, transport, housing and skills. If the council leaders get their way, the mayor will have few direct powers although a final decision about this has to be made by the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid following a period of public consultation which closed at midnight last night.

Mr Javid may or may not be influenced by surveys indicating public support for strong mayoral powers, much to the discomfort of council leaders who insist a team approach is required. Siôn Simon, the Labour candidate has said he is comfortable with having few direct powers and favours a consensual approach. It is understood that Andy Street, who is anticipated to declare his candidacy in the coming weeks, also believes that establishing trust and building on collaboration with council leaders is the way forward. 

The West Midlands Combined Authority finally came into existence at the end of June 2016 after a few last minute hitches and in the face of persistent criticism from Labour police and crime commissioner David Jamieson, who fears the mayor will have no power to speak of and worries about the size of the combined authority which continues to grow.

As well as the seven metropolitan councils and the three LEPs, who are the full members, non-constituent members include Cannock Chase, Nuneaton and Bedworth, Redditch, Tamworth and Telford & Wrekin councils. Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire and Shropshire councils are waiting to join. The Marches LEP, covering Telford, Shropshire and Herefordshire, has recently become a non-constituent member. More districts, counties and LEPs may join in due course.

There is an obvious question as to whether size matters. Mr Jamieson’s concerns appeared to have been supported to a limited extent by Andy Street, chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP, who while welcoming the arrival of The Marches as a non-constituent member told a WMCA board it would be dangerous to “dilute our focus” on the three-LEP geography.

Privately, senior councillors do have concerns about the size of WMCA and its manageability, given that full board meetings can consist of more than 50 elected representatives and LEP chairs, plus officials, raising obvious questions about the speed of decision making.

Along with the late Cllr Cooper and twice Labour leader of Birmingham Sir Albert Bore, the steady hand and careful diplomacy of Cllr Bob Sleigh, Solihull’s Conservative leader, must be recognised in the story of WMCA’s birth. Cllr Sleigh is widely respected across the political divide and as well as with the media to which he is accessible and open.

Solihull’s Sleigh has been joined at the top table by Coventry CEO Martin Reeves. The dynamic and constantly positive figure of the man sent by Coventry is behind the Combined Authority’s Strategic Economic Plan and is the driving force behind new found ambition. Together with the likes of Andy Street, Birmingham Chief Executive Mark Rogers and Marketing Birmingham boss Neil Rami, the West Midlands now has senior figures trusted by ministers and mandarins.

Work is already underway on putting together a second devolution deal to build on the package negotiated with the Government at the end of last year – an annual contribution of £40 million from Whitehall which it is claimed will unlock £8 billion of investment and create 500,000 jobs.

Early indications following the Brexit EU referendum result and Theresa May’s arrival at Number Ten are that the new Government will be looking to step up devolution as a means to offset any economic turndown during Britain’s negotiations to leave the EU.

The new mayor and the WMCA cabinet will be seeking a second and a third deal worth, perhaps, twice as much as the first package. Taking control of some health budgets, tax-raising powers and taking over the M6 Toll are likely to be on the agenda.

In a message that perhaps had some validity from the Government, Andy Street told the WMCA board to be radical in putting together a second devolution package. The Prime Minister, he said, was in the mood “to buy in from us” if propositions from the combined authority and the mayor were bold and well thought through. This was backed up by a recent Birmingham Mail article penned in her name and which appeared to be giving as much of a commitment to Andy Street as it was to Birmingham and the Midlands Engine initiative.

Paul Dale and Kevin Johnson

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