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West Midlands combined authority eyes the shires in bold expansion plan

West Midlands combined authority eyes the shires in bold expansion plan

🕔08.Jul 2015

A West Midlands combined authority could triple in size if talks to bring in Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire county councils and their district councils are successful, writes Paul Dale.

At the moment only the seven metropolitan authorities – Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry, Walsall, Wolverhampton, Dudley and Sandwell – have put forward proposals to the Government to set up a new strategic body to run transport, economic development and skills.

Discussions are underway that could see the seven councils become 20, covering a huge area with an annual economic output approaching £100 billion – on a par with the Netherlands or Indonesia.

In their prospectus setting out how the combined authority would work, the seven metropolitan council leaders and three local enterprise partnerships say they are agreed that an authority covering a much wider area is required to produce a Midlands Engine to rival the Northern Powerhouse. They add:

Currently district and county councils are actively engaged in a dialogue around the creation of a West Midlands combined authority and are still working through the implications of joining.

As we work to both develop the new economic strategy plan that will underpin the work of the West Midlands combined authority and the supporting governance structures, all councils will work together over the coming months positively and constructively to deliver the very best outcome for the West Midlands.

Government stipulation that the combined authority must reflect functional economic geography and travel to work patterns would suggest that Warwickshire will become a member of the combined authority, unless the new body is to have a difficult ‘gap’ between Solihull and Coventry.

Coventry council leader Ann Lucas, speaking at the prospectus launch, said she was “incredibly hopeful” Warwickshire would join the combined authority. She described the relationship between Coventry and Warwickshire as “rhubarb and custard”, suggesting it would be impossible to have one without the other.

The pace of change has quickened since the General Election, with the Government making it clear that support for combined authorities and devolution must come bottom up from local communities.

Certainly in Warwickshire, district councils appear to have woken up and smelt the coffee as far as teaming up with Birmingham in a combined authority is concerned.

Three or four months ago, the language coming from the likes of Nuneaton and Bedworth, North Warwickshire, Stratford-on Avon, Rugby and Coventry was not promising. “We aren’t going to be swallowed up by Birmingham” was the general thrust of the combined authority debate.

Since the election however, with the new Conservative Government’s commitment to devolve powers to city regions led by metro mayors, the view from Warwickshire has become far more amenable to joining the emerging West Midlands combined authority.

A week ago in a little publicised get together the leaders of the West Midlands metropolitan authorities met with the region’s district council leaders and chief executives to make a pitch for combined authority membership.

Whatever was said seems to have worked. Nuneaton and Bedworth council leader Dennis Harvey, writing in the Nuneaton News, indicated that if Coventry is on board with the West Midlands combined authority, then Nuneaton could not afford to miss the boat.

Underlining the importance of Coventry in the Nuneaton and Bedworth travel to work area, Harvey wrote:

What is clear is that we cannot be left behind in this national move to devolve more powers to local regions.

Discussions taking place are clear that this is no threat to Nuneaton and Bedworth but an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. With Birmingham airport on our doorstep and our local hotels benefiting enormously from the proximity of the NEC, our borough’s economic links within the region are vital to our future prosperity.

We shall certainly be looking carefully at whatever proposals are put forward for the West Midlands, but as the chief executive of Warwick Council said at the meeting, ‘the train is leaving and we want to be on it.’

Harvey, one of the longest serving Labour council leaders in the country, warns that Government spending cuts could limit the ability of combined authorities to run transport and economic development, but concludes “it is no good if councils in the West Midlands are left behind in this move to localise important decisions about such matters”.

Moves to bring in the counties and districts are also backed by Birmingham Tories.

Robert Alden, leader of the city council Conservative group, said:

For the authority to be a success it is vital that we get it operating over the full functional economic geography of the local area and this means we need to get the other Councils in the Black Country, Birmingham and Solihull and Coventry and Warwickshire LEP areas all fully on board.

This will then enable us to transform the Midlands into the Powerhouse of the Country in the years ahead and deliver maximum economic benefits to local residents.

Expanding the membership could also be beneficial to the Conservatives. On their own the seven metropolitan authorities are likely to be dominated by Labour and in most years would return a Labour mayor and the combined authority would have a Labour-dominated cabinet. However, if Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire are added the prospects of a Tory metro mayor are more realistic.

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