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‘We’ll be slick and fast’, promise West Midlands combined authority leaders

‘We’ll be slick and fast’, promise West Midlands combined authority leaders

🕔06.Jul 2015

West Midlands councils have put decades of rivalry and often irrational suspicion behind them by publishing plans for a combined authority to run economic development, transportation and skills reports Paul Dale.

The new body, which will be significantly larger and have more economic clout than Greater Manchester, will bring together Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry, the four Black Country councils and three local enterprise partnerships to drive forward what’s being termed the Midlands Engine.

If the Government approves today’s prospectus, the West Midlands will benefit from the first strategic administrative body since the demise of the former county council almost 30 years ago.

Council leaders and representatives from the LEPs met in Coventry today to proclaim a fresh start.

They stressed that the new body, pointedly called the West Midlands rather than Birmingham combined authority, was not an attempt to trample over regional sensitivities. All of the councils will retain their separate identity, cabinet and decision making capabilities.

The thorny question of whether to have an elected metro mayor is yet to be answered definitively.

George Osborne, the chancellor, and Greg Clark, the Local Government Secretary, have made it clear that a full suite of devolved powers similar to those bestowed upon Greater Manchester can only be given to combined authorities led by a directly elected mayor.

But the West Midlands continues to hedge its bets.

Darren Cooper, the leader of Sandwell council, said the combined authority ought not to “walk before we can run”. He added: “It’s taken us 12 months to get where we are today and we have put together some early submissions of what we want to see from the Government.

We haven’t ruled a mayor in and we haven’t ruled a mayor out. We want to see what’s on offer from the devolution agenda and in the future we will be able to make a decision one way or another as to whether this is something we wish to pursue.

Cllr Cooper said he didn’t want to talk about old rivalries.

If we keep dragging up the past, we will never move forward. All this parochialism needs to be put to bed or we will fall further behind Greater Manchester which is steaming ahead.

The agreement brings together five Labour controlled and two Tory councils. Work is underway to extend membership to Conservative controlled Warwickshire county council, with district councils in Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire also considering their options.

Ann Lucas, Labour leader of Coventry council, spoke for her combined authority colleagues when she promised “a partnership of equals” and a “slick and fast” body.

We have made rapid progress since the General Election and are now bringing forward ambitious plans to form the biggest and most effective combined authority in the country.

Bob Sleigh, the Tory leader of Solihull council, an authority which until fairly recently remained unsure of teaming up with the Black Country and Birmingham, said he had been convinced of the case for a combined authority by research indicating huge economic benefits.

The combined authority board, consisting of the seven council leaders plus representatives from the Birmingham and Solihull, Black Country and Coventry and Warwickshire LEPs will take responsibility for pushing forward economic development, transportation and the skills agenda.

Five early priorities have been agreed:

  • Developing a strategic economic plan for the West Midlands.
  • Setting up a finance and collective investment vehicle to fund major regeneration projects.
  • Establishing a regional transportation strategy to improve connectivity.
  • Creating an economic intelligence hub to gather the evidence required to support better decision making.
  • Establishing a joint programme on skills.

It is also proposed to set up three independent commissions with Government support to address the West Midlands productivity gap, identify sites for housing and to focus on improving mental health services.

The combined authority prospectus sets out problems facing the West Midlands including a significant shortage of workforce skills, higher than average unemployment and poor public transport.

The aim is to close a £16 billion a year economic output gap between the West Midlands and the average for English regions.

The seven councils have embarked on a process of consultation and engagement between now and the formal launch of the combined authority in April 2016.

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