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West Midlands council leaders in ’11th hour talks’ to improve Devo deal

West Midlands council leaders in ’11th hour talks’ to improve Devo deal

🕔04.May 2016

Council leaders are still talking to the Government about improving an £8 billion devolution package for the West Midlands even though the deal is to be signed off by the end of this month.

Bob Sleigh, chair of the shadow West Midlands Combined Authority, is holding “11th hour discussions” with Ministers in an attempt to secure better infrastructure investment and additional powers around transportation and skills.

There is no suggestion that the devolution deal will not be approved by the end of May, and the combined authority is still on course to become a legal entity around the beginning of June.

WMCA’s first AGM is scheduled for next month, bringing together the leaders of the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils – Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry, Sandwell, Wolverhampton, Walsall and Dudley – as well as the Greater Birmingham and Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire and Black Country local enterprise partnerships.

District councils in the combined authority include Cannock Chase, Nuneaton and Bedworth, Redditch, Tamworth and Telford and Wrekin, with others are expected to join.

The devolution deal on the table commits the Government to make an annual contribution of £40 million to WMCA for 30 years to support an overall investment package worth £8 billion.

Cllr Sleigh, the Tory leader of Solihull Council, said WMCA would in any case return to the Government later in the year to negotiate a further devolution deal. In the meantime, attempts are taking place to improve the offer on the table.

The devo deal with the Government isn’t signed off yet. A lot of due diligence has to be undertaken. And we are also talking to the Government about further levels of devolution.

We have until the end of May to sign it off. We are working through the fine detail to make sure this is right for the West Midlands. All of the seven metropolitan councils will have to agree.

Even at the 11th hour there are discussions to see if we can improve the deal in some respects.

There are things in the deal that we weren’t successful with.  There are issues around business rate retention and some of the infrastructure investment the councils are seeking on top of the £8 billion.

Cllr Sleigh said the fact that WMCA has existed in shadow form for more than a year had already delivered benefits:

Ministers and civil servants now know who they have to talk to in the West Midlands.

We have a voice now in Whitehall. We are seeing doors opening around the transportation and skills agendas. We are talking to Ministers about the whole issue of the strategic highways network.

On the high level strategic stuff the Government is speaking to us and we are talking to them. We are opening doors to get the deal the West Midlands deserves.

Cllr Sleigh confirmed that WMCA will have to pass a five-year test in 2021 to convince the Government that it is delivering on targets for jobs and economic growth.

Our success will be measured. The clock is ticking and we know we have to move very quickly now from the planning stage to the delivery stage.

The shadow combined authority has already created several bodies including an HS2 Delivery Board, a mental health commission, a land commission and a skills and productivity commission.

The land commission will identify obstacles standing in the way of housing development. Councils across the West Midlands metropolitan area managed to meet only 55 per cent of their house building targets over the past five years.

A strategic highways resilience group is looking at ways of dealing with major incidents on the roads, in particular how to make more use of the M6 Toll when motorways around Birmingham are congested. WMCA wants to invest in improved signage to warn motorists to stay away from the notorious Birmingham Box, the M6, M42 and M5, when it is gridlocked.

Cllr Sleigh added that a Strategic Economic Plan for the combined authority will be signed off shortly and would identify “what can you do to get the maximum impact in the shortest possible time to benefit the whole of the West Midlands”. He continued:

Everything is going to be measurable. The economic stuff will be based on a sound business case. There will be clear risk assessments. The outcomes will be measured over a period of time.

There will also be a scrutiny process to hold the combined authority to account. This will be local authority-led.

Cllr Sleigh has ruled himself out of running to become the West Midlands’ first metro mayor next year. He wants to concentrate on chairing the WMCA during its first year.

He is talking to Conservative-controlled Warwickshire county council, which is reconsidering a decision not to join WMCA. Similar discussions are being held with North Warwickshire district council.

Cllr Sleigh added:

I have spoken to a number of district councils who are now reviewing their decision not to join. Perhaps now they can see the devolution deal they might be convinced this is the right place for them to be around the table.

If they are around the table they will get to agree the priorities. If they are not around the table, they won’t.

Asked how he would measure the success of the combined authority, Cllr Sleigh said he wanted to see signs at economic regeneration sites saying ‘this development was made possible by the West Midlands Combined Authority’.

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