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Tories take control of Walsall council – new leader Mike Bird ‘positive’ about West Midlands combined authority

Tories take control of Walsall council – new leader Mike Bird ‘positive’ about West Midlands combined authority

🕔04.Jun 2015

The Conservatives have gained control of Walsall Council, but the switch will not slow down sensitive negotiations around forming a West Midlands combined authority, a senior Black Country Labour politician has insisted.

Darren Cooper, the leader of Sandwell Council, said he had telephoned Mike Bird, the new Tory leader of Walsall, to congratulate him.

Cllr Cooper said Cllr Bird was supportive of the combined authority and would “help move things along positively”.

Walsall has a history of switching political control. Labour took charge last summer but lost seats this May at the local elections. This left Labour with 27 seats and the Conservatives with 25 seats and no party with an overall majority.

Cllr Bird was elected leader at the annual council meeting after three UKIP and two independent councillors threw their weight behind the Tories.

The change of control places the West Midlands into a similar position as Greater Manchester, which is often described by the Government as a role model for combined authorities.

Eight of the the ten Greater Manchester councils are solidly Labour, making political cooperation easier. But two councils, Trafford and Stockport, are controlled by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

An embryonic West Midlands combined authority consists of Labour controlled Birmingham, Sandwell, Dudley, Wolverhampton and Coventry, alongside Conservative Solihull, Walsall and Lichfield – although anything could change following next year’s local elections.

And while Labour has a commanding majority in Birmingham, the city council was run by a Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition between 2004 and 2012. Walsall, Dudley, Wolverhampton and Coventry have been under Conservative control at times in the past.

Cllr Cooper’s swift intervention, via Twitter, signified the influential role being played by the Sandwell leader in pushing forward with a combined authority – giving devolved powers and budgets over economic development and transportation to the councils.

He lit the devolution fuse last October by laying down a Christmas deadline for Birmingham to get on board with the Black Country councils in forming a combined authority. Although the timetable overran, Cooper managed to concentrate minds with the result that Solihull, Coventry and Lichfield agreed to join forces with the Black Country and Birmingham.

By March this year Cllr Cooper felt confident enough to declare that the Black Country councils wouldn’t put up with the combined authority being called Greater Birmingham. Other show-stopping ‘red lines’ included outright opposition to an elected metro mayor – although a certain amount of backpeddling may now be necessary given George Osborne’s firm declaration that full devolution can only go to combined authorities with mayors.

One of the more remarkable, and quite deliberate, features of the combined authority debate has been the low-profile role played by Birmingham city council, even though Birmingham’s huge economy will drive forward the new authority.

All official communications from the shadow combined authority come from Cllr Cooper, rather than Birmingham council leader Sir Albert Bore, or any of the other council leaders. The downplaying of Birmingham has been a vital component in bringing Tory Solihull on board, with the council now seemingly having been persuaded that the combined authority plan is not a Labour party takeover.

Mistrust between the Black Country councils and Birmingham is historic, although valiant efforts between Sir Albert and Cllr Cooper to introduce ‘glasnost’ appear to be paying off. In Coventry, where fear of Birmingham has over the years surpassed even the Black Country’s suspicions, Labour council leader Ann Lucas is facing a populist revolt with citizens demanding a referendum on whether the city council should join the combined authority.

The Coventry Observer has reported that the council is prepared to spend up to £250,000 on an analysis of whether a referendum is feasible. More than 3,700 people in Coventry have signed a petition opposing the city joining a combined authority with Birmingham and the Black Country.

While Coventry council’s Labour cabinet is said to be firmly behind a combined authority, it remains to be seen whether the idea will get the backing of the full council.

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