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West Midlands Devo 2 ‘just like Brexit, shrouded in mystery’

West Midlands Devo 2 ‘just like Brexit, shrouded in mystery’

🕔04.Oct 2016

Devolution, productivity and skills are the key words of the Conservative conference so far. Paul Dale reflects on the second day. 

Given that the Tories are gathering in Birmingham and the election for a West Midlands metro mayor happens to be a mere eight months away, Ministers haven’t missed a chance to talk up the region’s new combined authority and the prospect of further devolution deals to come.

Theresa May turned up at a fringe meeting staged by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP to nod appreciatively at the merest mention of the devolution agenda. One of the speakers was John Clancy, the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, who had to wind up his remarks to make way for the surprise guest of honour.

Chancellor Phillip Hammond, in his conference speech, rehearsed a well-worn theme about making sure that the benefits of economic growth are shared more evenly across the regions. A key part of the Government’s agenda, he said, was to close the “dangerous divide between those who believe they have a stake in the success of our economy and those who do not” by harnessing the economic power of great cities like Birmingham.

Referencing the Northern Powerhouse, Mr Hammond told the conference there was “nowhere more ripe (sic) to benefit from a similar approach than the Midlands”.

However, Mr Hammond was forced to admit that things in the West Midlands aren’t quite as rosy as the Government would like them to be. Both productivity and growth have lagged behind the UK average for years. If the West Midlands could meet the English average for productivity, GVA would increase by about £16 billion. This is an issue now at the very top of the agenda of the combined authority and the region’s local enterprise partnerships.

In a clear statement that seemed to put paid to any doubts about the Government’s commitment to devolution, Mr Hammond said:

We are working with the West Midlands Combined Authority on a second devolution deal to include new powers on transport, criminal justice, data, planning and skills.

In a well-attended fringe meeting organised by the University of Warwick – Powering Productivity, how to invest the devolution dividend – combined authority chair Bob Sleigh and Warwickshire county council leader Izzi Seccombe were grilled about WMCA’s future role, in particular how the body can harness the research and knowledge base of the region’s universities.

Cllr Sleigh, the Tory leader of Solihull council who has the tricky task of chairing a Labour-dominated combined authority, spoke of “the decade for the West Midlands” and added: “We have created a unique partnership. We have bought together the public sector and businesses, higher education and further education.”

As for what Devo 2 might look like, Cllr Sleigh was more circumspect. More devolved powers over skills and land use to enable councils to build homes for those that would fill the new jobs coming on stream, he said, but gave little more in the way of detail. As with Brexit, it would appear WMCA wants to give very little away about its negotiating tactics.

Asked whether he was happy about proposed powers for the metro mayor, Cllr Sleigh gave a Delphic answer that seemed to indicate the mayor might, possibly, be handed additional powers at some stage in the future:

The powers that the mayor will have are commensurate with the devolution package we have negotiated. As devolution progresses we are more than prepared for a discussion with the Government to see how further devolved responsibilities will be discharged.

The most interesting question asked at the event, will the Conservative government look more favourably on a Tory West Midlands mayor as far as further devolution is concerned, was batted away by the wily Sleigh: “We will work constructively with whoever the mayor is.”

There was plenty of talk about WMCA’s aim to bring “vulnerable people” into work, partly through recommendations to come from a mental health commission established by the combined authority.

University of Warwick vice-chancellor and president Stuart Croft said the commission would shortly publish “astonishing statistics” demonstrating the impact “that making even a small improvement in mental health outcomes will have on productivity”.

Mr Croft continued with the theme that devolution has already changed the West Midlands for the better:

This is the moment the Midlands is talking about the Midlands. For the first time in my life I have seen us really pulling together.

Warwickshire county council leader Izzi Seccombe told the meeting:

Allowing the economy to grow is a key pillar and if we can do that by building and investing in businesses we can keep those vulnerable people out of our services because they will have a pound in their pocket and be able to afford a roof over their heads and have aspirations for the future.

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