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The future is Intercommunality – but with whom?

The future is Intercommunality – but with whom?

🕔25.Nov 2014

Following the announcement that Birmingham and the four Black Country councils would form a Combined Authority, Kevin Johnson suggested we need a “wider conversation”

Mover and shaker that he is, I’m sure Kevin would like that conversation to be forward-looking and constructive, but he also notes the several uncertainties in the flurry of recent announcements that make looking forward in any detail really rather difficult.

For the present, therefore, my personal conversation widening will take the form of looking back, abroad, north and grumbling.

I’ll start with the north, and Manchester. I like Manchester – liked it when I lived there for a few years, and still do. I like the way Mancunians just ain’t bovvered that, if the UK had an official second city, it would indisputably be Birmingham. Witness their shamelessly branding their city centre Metrolink route 2CC – Second City Crossing.

I myself recall quoting Disraeli: “What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow”. Now, though, as a longstanding Birmingham resident, it concerns me – because it seems all too true.

Worse, certainly when it comes to Combined Authorities (CAs) – the model for what both national and local politicians tell us can be a resurgence of English local democracy – we seem content to be almost slavish followers.

If you’re slightly hazy about CAs, which seem to have mushroomed up since the dramatic climax of the Scottish referendum campaign, you’ve every reason, especially here in the West Midlands – or Greater Birmingham, Mercia, or wherever you reckon you live. So, here’s a quick backstory, starting abroad.

England’s population is 54 million, and we have 326 unitary or lower-tier district authorities, with an average population of 165,000. The equivalents in France, population 66 million, are 36,500 lower-tier communes, average population 1,800.

Most communes date back to the 1789 Revolution, and the French are very attached to them – voting for their councillors and mayors in twice the numbers we do.  Successive Presidents tell them their micro-communes are outdated, inefficient and must be reformed, but French citizens care more than us and they resist.

No enforced mergers, humongous ‘local’ authorities, and meaningless council names for them. So, French governments have developed a compromise: intercommunal cooperation. By a mix of threats and incentives, communes have been persuaded to group themselves into various types of cooperative communities.

Biggest, with most powers and fiscal autonomy, are 16 urban communities (communautés urbaines) for the largest metropolitan areas, like that surrounding Birmingham’s partner city of Lyon.

Lyon city/commune has less than half Birmingham’s population, but governmentally it can be visualised as the filling in the metaphorical sandwich of triple devolution that Council Leader Sir Albert Bore likes talking about.

At the bottom of the Lyon sandwich are nine districts/arrondissements, each with an elected, mayor-led council. They mainly manage community facilities, and they’re represented on Lyon’s 73-member city council that organises most day-to-day local services.

Top of the sandwich, responsible for transportation, planning and economic development, is the urban community of Grand Lyon (Greater Lyon – note the name). It comprises the city plus 58 other communes, has a population of 1.3 million, an indirectly elected council, and an accountable, high profile President in the city’s Socialist Mayor, Gérard Collomb.

Lyon, along with Paris and Marseille, is exceptional in having arrondissements, but all urban areas have urban communities of some kind. More rural areas, without an urban core of 15,000 residents, have communautés de communes, which account for the great majority of these cooperative communities.

With its ultra-local communal structure, France’s network of inter-municipal co-operation is one of Europe’s most extensive. But, as in so much European, we are the real exceptions.

England’s enormous and largely self-sufficient local authorities, and their minimal responsibility for what in many countries are still public services, mean that our insularity includes a near absence of formal inter-municipal co-operation.

But the future, we’re told, will be different. The seven-syllable concept peppering our conversation won’t be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, or any of the words – contrafibularities, pericombobulation, extramuralisation – Blackadder found Dr Johnson had somehow omitted from his dictionary.

It will be ‘intercommunality’, and we Brummies will be living in, if not a Midlands powerhouse, at least one Combined Authority and possibly more – just as if we were lucky enough to live in Manchester.

Manchester is English government’s José Mourinho, the special one – and, like Chelsea’s manager, it has a useful backer, but is also pretty smart itself.

That smartness was seen in the city council’s being first to utilise Labour’s 2009 Local Democracy Act by orchestrating the creation of a Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

In fact, the GMCA recreated the 10-borough Metropolitan Council, abolished by the Thatcher Government, by pooling newly devolved powers on public transport, skills, housing, regeneration, waste management, carbon neutrality and planning permission.

Though conceived under Labour, the GMCA’s establishment dates from 2011 and, perhaps surprisingly for an invariably Labour-dominated body, its principal backers have been Coalition ministers.

Manchester especially has consistently opposed elected mayors, the Government’s proclaimed condition for further devolution. Nevertheless, it was the GMCA’s 2012 City Deal that included a path-breaking 30-year ‘Earn Back’ arrangement, enabling it to recoup annually from government up to £30 million from increased business rates for transport investment.

None of the other seven 2012 City Deals were nearly as expansive, and the reason seemed inescapable.

Ministers negotiated those Deals, including Greater Birmingham’s, not with statutorily based, politically led, service-delivering CAs, but with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) – voluntary, business-led, minimally resourced alliances of councils and businesses that help coordinate local economic development. More than talking shops, but not serious intercommunality.

You didn’t need a weatherman to know the wind direction. City-based LEPs, particularly where coterminous with a former metropolitan county, began negotiating for CAs, and there are now four more – West Yorkshire, Liverpool (not Merseyside) and Sheffield (not South Yorkshire) City Regions, and the North-East – leaving the West Midlands as the only ex-met county without a CA.

Both major parties claim to see CAs of varying shapes and sizes, rather than ever larger merged councils, as the best vehicles to implement their currently vague and fluctuating devolution plans. In the dealer’s chair at present, though, is George Osborne, and first bidder once again was Greater Manchester.

This time a price tag came with the Chancellor’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ devolution deal – a required directly elected metropolitan mayor. The £1 billion of devolved funding and services s/he will share with the CA, while unremarkable in many EU countries, is a decidedly big deal here, and everyone else desperately wants one too.

The problem is that not everyone has Greater Manchester’s nicely polycentric coherence – seven of its nine surrounding boroughs sharing borders with the core city; or its unambiguous identity, its established record of co-operation, and, above all, its undisputed name.

Demonstrably, we don’t, which is why the recent stream of over-excited announcements has seemed – though Kevin was too gracious to say so – half-baked, unconvincing, and even potentially self-defeating. First, a West Midlands CA of Birmingham and the four Black Country boroughs, with Coventry an unsigned probable, but Solihull an unsigned reluctant, which raises immediate questions about an integrated transport policy.

Then, there are all the other authorities in the Birmingham/Solihull and Coventry/Warwickshire LEPs.  Apparently, they’re maybes or haven’t-been-askeds.  As for the name: Greater Birmingham? West Midlands? Birmingham City Region? All, as everyone knows, have their vehement objectors.

There’s no withdrawing now from the CA race until there’s an agreed, coherent and viable proposal.  But, come triple devolution’s third phase – of powers and resources from councils to neighbourhoods – let’s hope we can be leaders, rather than Manchester disciples.

 

Picture: Sir Richard Leese, Leader, Manchester City Council @SirRichardLeese

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