Tory shire councils say ‘no’ to joining West Midlands Combined Authority
Moves to entice Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire district councils to join a West Midlands Combined Authority are faltering, with the largely Tory-run authorities refusing to work with the Labour-dominated conurbation.
The leaders of the seven metropolitan councils – Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Sandwell and Dudley – had hoped to persuade 12 surrounding district councils to sign up for the combined authority, which is negotiating for granted devolved powers from Whitehall over economic development and transportation.
The aim was to create a powerful new body which reflected the boundaries of three local enterprise partnerships – Greater Birmingham & Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire, and the Black Country.
But with days to go until the cut off period when the shadow WMCA must confirm its membership to the Government, only five of the districts have opted to join. They are Redditch, Tamworth, Telford and Wrekin, Cannock Chase and Nuneaton and Bedworth.
Others, including South Staffordshire, North Warwickshire, Warwick, Rugby and Stratford district councils, as well as Warwickshire and Worcestershire county councils, have walked away.
Tory controlled Bromsgrove council had been due to take a decision about joining this week, but the item was withdrawn from the agenda. Council leader Margaret Sherrey said the time was not right to join the WMCA “because of the uncertainty about its functions and responsibilities”, but the council would keep an open mind about joining in future.
A decision by Bromsgrove not to sign up would be embarrassing for the town’s Tory MP Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, who is backing WMCA and the Midlands Engine initiative.
North Warwickshire’s decision to opt out has driven a hole through WMCA’s strategy to form a body representative of the economic geography of the region. The Hams Hall BMW engine plant is in North Warwickshire and employs a substantial number of people from Birmingham and the Black Country, as well as Coventry.
With North Warwickshire out of the combined authority, Hams Hall will not qualify for any lucrative economic development deals that may be negotiated.
Stratford-on-Avon district council has also decided against joining, which is a blow to the combined authority’s plans to promote culture and the Shakespeare connection as a prime driver of economic development.
Only one Warwickshire district – Nuneaton and Bedworth – has decided to join. The others say they remain hopeful of forming a combined authority with Warwickshire county council and are still attempting to persuade Coventry council to drop WMCA at the last minute and team up with Warwickshire.
The reasons given by the shire districts for not joining WMCA range from not wishing to be “dominated” by Birmingham to suspicion about throwing their lot in with the Labour areas of the West Midlands and not wanting to be governed by a metro mayor.
WMCA’s failure to convince the districts may make negotiations with the Government over a devolution deal even more difficult. Talks have been taking place with the Treasury since the beginning of September over an £8 billion package for transportation, housing, economic development and skills, overseen by an elected metro mayor.
Last month the leader of Birmingham city council, Sir Albert Bore, told a scrutiny committee he was hopeful that “a substantial number” of the district councils would join WMCA. He said:
We should seek to bring in as many of the districts as possible to encourage them to deliver the economic agenda. Some of them have a big contribution to make, North Warwickshire for example which has the BMW plant at Hams Hall.
If we can work together across the seven metropolitan councils and the 12 districts, there is economic gain for us all.
Cllr Bore continued:
Warwickshire county council decided not to come in. I can tell you there are a substantial number of the districts that want to be part of the combined authority because recognise there is an economic advantage to working together with the mets.
Basing the combined authority on the boundaries of the three LEP areas, rather than solely the seven metropolitan councils, would appear to meet the Government’s main criteria, which is that combined authorities must reflect the economic geography of the area they serve.
Ninety per cent of economically active people living in the three LEP areas also work in those areas.
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