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Warwickshire rejects ‘Birminghamcentric’ WMCA and votes for splendid isolation

Warwickshire rejects ‘Birminghamcentric’ WMCA and votes for splendid isolation

🕔03.Sep 2015

Warwickshire county council has rejected an offer to join the West Midlands Combined Authority, claiming that membership would see the shire area dominated by Birmingham and other urban parts of the region.

A special council meeting voted to pursue what will almost certainly turn out to be an impossible dream – forming a combined authority with Coventry.

Conservative-controlled Warwickshire, with assistance from Liberal Democrat councillors, decided to continue to negotiate for a Coventry-Warwickshire combined authority as its preferred model of devolution even though the option would appear to be no longer on the table.

As Labour councillors were quick to point out, the Coventry cabinet has already voted to join WMCA and the decision will be confirmed by the full council next month. Coventry’s position as one of the seven West Midlands metropolitan council members of WMCA will be underlined in a formal submission to the Treasury tomorrow.

Tory council leaders also signalled that they might look to form a Warwickshire combined authority, taking in the county without other partners. Such a course would probably involve turning Warwickshire into a unitary authority, a course of action unlikely to be approved by the Government.

The result of the meeting leaves Warwickshire county council in isolation, with no clear route to forming a combined authority and qualifying for devolved budgets and powers.

However, Conservative councillors said they believed Warwickshire’s “economic success story” would continue even if the county did not join a combined authority.

It remains unclear whether any of the five Warwickshire district councils will accept WMCA’s invitation to become members. Nuneaton and Bedworth appears the most likely to accept, and possibly North Warwickshire. Warwick, Rugby and Stratford-on-Avon councils are expected to reject the offer.

Forming a partnership with the West Midlands in general and Birmingham in particular proved to be a partnership too far, particularly for Tory county councillors.

Members representing rural wards spoke of an “urban takeover”, said that WMCA was bound to be run by an elected metro mayor, and that Warwickshire’s police force and fire service would be swallowed up by the West Midlands.

WMCA had no democratic mandate, people were not being consulted or given a say in their future governance arrangements, and the new body would be an expensive and unwanted additional administrative tier, it was claimed.

Warwickshire police and crime commissioner Ron Ball told the meeting it was “inevitable” that WMCA would be centred on Birmingham. Councils were engaged in a “rush” towards forming a combined authority and had failed to answer questions about whether WMCA would be run by a metro mayor.

Warwickshire county council leader Izzi Seccombe said:

This combined authority is asking us to hand over our budget and policy development around transport, economic development and skills to a metropolitan region that hasn’t been elected by our citizens.

We don’t know what a mayor would mean for Warwickshire, for our stand alone police force and fire service. There is very real concern over our health and social care as that may well move to the combined authority.

We don’t understand what the objectives of this proposal are. We don’t understand what the costs are. There are a lot of myths but very few absolutes. What’s the business case, what are the opportunities and objectives?

Warwickshire Labour group leader June Tandy said ideally she would support a Coventry and Warwickshire combined authority, but the option was not on the table.

“It isn’t going to happen because Coventry doesn’t want it. Coventry isn’t going to change its mind, and we firmly believe the way forward is to enter into negotiations for a combined authority based on the West Midlands,” Cllr Tandy added.

Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership chair Jonathan Browning, a former managing director of JLR, said the county would benefit economically by retaining close links with Coventry, but that could only be achieved by joining WMCA.

He forecast a 10 per cent increase in economic growth if Warwickshire grasped the “prize” of combined authority membership, but a deal solely with Coventry was not viable.

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