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WMCA’s metro area and suburban districts in different orbits

WMCA’s metro area and suburban districts in different orbits

🕔22.Oct 2015

Chris Game’s latest blog is principally about the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) -as might be deduced from the headline and map – and not at all about the Birmingham City Council leadership election.

It was, though, prompted by seeing Paul Dale’s reference to a ‘Kafkaesque conundrum’ concerning the leadership contest apparently illustrated by Edvard Munch’s universally famous picture ‘The Scream’.

Munch and Franz Kafka were of course contemporaries and both sought in their work to portray psychological trauma. But though, as a writer, Kafka is generally harder to illustrate pictorially, there happens in this instance to be a work by the famous, sometimes controversial Czech sculptor, David Cerny, which would have fitted the leadership election story really rather appealingly.

two peeing guys


I refer, as visitors to Prague may already have guessed, to his ‘Two Peeing Guys’ sculpture outside the Franz Kafka museum. It comprises two gyrating bronze figures (John Clancy on the right, I reckon) facing each other, willies out, urinating into an irregular shaped pool that is in fact a map of the Czech Republic.


Digression over; time for a slick segue via ‘The Scream’ to the suggestion that, in its own way, the message conveyed by the aforementioned West Midlands map can also be seen as maybe not scary, but at least rather unsettling.

It accompanies an article in the current edition of the Local Government Chronicle (LGC), whose journalists have been monitoring the progress or otherwise of the devolution bids from 34 existing or aspiring English Combined Authorities (CAs).

Last week saw the final votes of the 12 district councils – 5 in Warwickshire, 4 in Staffordshire, and 3 in Worcestershire – who could apply to become non-constituent members of WMCA, if it were to achieve its stated hope of becoming coterminous with the boundaries of its three Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).

Last month, when Nuneaton & Bedworth councillors voted to join – and the council’s Labour leader attacked Conservative-controlled Warwickshire County Council for not doing so – Paul Dale reported Birmingham leader, Sir Albert Bore, as expecting at least 6 of the 12 to join.

Together with Bob Sleigh, Conservative Leader of Solihull Council, as the elected Chairman of the WMCA shadow board, a smattering of even non-constituent Conservative districts could give it a cross-partisan image that might usefully – in negotiations with ministers, for example – serve as something of a counterbalance to the inevitable Labour dominance among the full members.

It would have been nice too, in a difficult enough week for Sir Albert, if it had turned out that he got this prediction right – but unfortunately life isn’t like that.

Following presumably a Friday ring-around, the LGC reported the extent to which “the districts surrounding the emerging WMCA are split over whether to join the new body”. An uneven split, as it turns out, with 8 to 4 against joining – which is as close as makes little difference to the split between Conservative- and Labour-controlled councils.

Close enough anyway to make sense of the LGC‘s decision to use a section of its own Council Political Control map, as reproduced above, to illustrate the present state of play. The acres of blue aren’t a rather strident background to the whole map, but Conservative-controlled councils – that so encircle the WMCA’s Birmingham/Black Country core that it reminded me of the massively simplified depictions of Neptune’s moons produced at the time of Voyager 2’s historic flight past this remotest of planets some 25 years ago.

OK, the colours are wrong – Neptune here being blue and the WMCA predominantly red – and yes, the scale too. Neptune’s biggest moon, Triton, is both considerably larger even than Coventry, Nuneaton and Bedworth combined, and much, much further away; also a lot chillier – all its 60,000 Earth days-year round. Otherwise, though, you must admit there’s a resemblance between these Neptunian moons and the WMCA’s almost entirely red non-constituent member satellites.

Almost entirely red because the 4-8 in-out split among potential non-constituent members isn’t totally a Labour-Conservative one. In addition to Nuneaton & Bedworth (Warwickshire), Redditch (Worcestershire), and Cannock Chase (Staffordshire) (all Labour), members of Conservative-controlled Tamworth also voted, apparently unanimously, to join.

And so too, completely outside the 3-LEP boundary in Shropshire, has Telford & Wrekin unitary council – at least partly, it seems, because Shropshire County Council couldn’t decide if it wanted to be part of a Mercian CA (which doesn’t yet exist), and T & W didn’t fancy being stuck partnerless when the devolution music stopped.

The big and largely unanswerable question about all of this is: so what? How much does any of this matter? To which the answer to the biggest questions is: who knows?

At present, we haven’t even been told authoritatively what devolution deal the still only ‘proposed’ 7-member WMCA is seeking from the Government. So we obviously don’t know what it may be offered, and on what conditions – and it seems, despite all the excited speculation of a Conservative Conference-timed announcement, we’ll probably not know for some little time yet.

As for how different any deal might or might not have been if, say, all or most of the potentially 12 non-constituent districts had signed up, enabling it at least to look a more politically balanced and geographically and economically coherent entity – well, that we’ll never know.

On the other hand, we do know something – about the future status of non-contiguous, non-constituent CA member districts of the type discussed in this blog – which members of Birmingham City Council’s Corporate Resources Overview & Scrutiny Committee don’t officially know.

We know that the Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill, which should be enacted sometime early next year, will make conditions of CA membership considerably more flexible than they have been under the existing 2009 combined authorities legislation.

For a start, the contiguity condition will go. Currently CAs may not include as full members authorities that are geographically detached – like, say, Redditch and Telford & Wrekin would be at present.

Secondly, as noted more than once by Paul Dale and more recently by the Chair of the Corporate Resources Committee, Waseem Zaffar, districts restricted at present to non-constituent and non-voting status are likely in future – regardless of contiguity and, of course, of politics – to be able to apply for full membership, with voting rights both for their leaders on the WMCA board and for their voters in metro-mayoral elections.

Cllr Zaffar seems to think it “highly likely” that full membership is what districts will want, as opposed to non-constituent membership with or without voting rights. I’m not so sure, for it’s my impression that some districts’ recent decisions have been based on their wanting to have a voice within the WMCA, while retaining for the present their right to join a possibly emerging county authority, and certainly the freedom from the authority of an elected mayor.

As I say, though, members of the Corporate Resources Committee haven’t officially got even this far, as these matters either slipped Sir Albert Bore’s mind when he appeared before them, or they forgot to ask him about them. Either way, they may yet have the opportunity, but that speculation takes us right back to the leadership election business, which I promised to avoid.

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