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West Midlands devo deal less likely as council leaders ‘take it one step at a time’

West Midlands devo deal less likely as council leaders ‘take it one step at a time’

🕔19.Oct 2015

The North East of England is the latest region to reach a devolution agreement with the Government. But council leaders locally are playing down any expectation of an early breakthrough in reaching a similar agreement for the West Midlands, writes Paul Dale.

It is a little over six weeks since the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils lodged ambitious devolution proposals worth £8 billion with the Treasury. Discussions continue to take place, but it is becoming more likely by the day that this region will miss out on the current wave of deals.

The mood music among the council leaders has changed and the emphasis now is on making sure a West Midlands Combined Authority is up and running from next April.

Any full-scale devolution deal will probably have to wait until after then, and will inevitably depend on whether the seven councils can be convinced that a directly elected metro mayor is a price worth paying for the transfer of powers and budgets offered by the Treasury.

Greater Manchester, Sheffield and South Yorkshire and the North East have signed, or are about to sign, devolution agreements with Chancellor George Osborne that depend on having a mayor, but all already have combined authorities in place and a track record of working together.

The West Midlands has a shadow combined authority, but the body will not become a legal entity until next year. The chair, Solihull Council leader Bob Sleigh, told Chamberlain Files he wanted to emphasise “the many things a combined authority can get done”.

Cllr Sleigh said:

There is an awful lot that a combined authority can achieve in terms of transportation and economic development. We have done extremely well and moved a long way in the past 11 months and we can speak to the Government with one voice.

He added that the West Midlands council leaders remained unclear about the precise nature of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill which is passing through Parliament and will make it easier to establish combined authorities under metro mayors.

We don’t yet know what the Devolution Bill will bring forward, particularly in relation to the powers of a mayor. We need to work these things through. We need to take it one step at a time.

All seven council leaders have had to contend with unrest among backbench councillors after it emerged a draft devolution agreement submitted by the shadow WMCA to the Treasury was based entirely on the region embracing a metro mayor.

Mr Osborne has made it clear maximum devolution is dependent on city regions adopting metro mayors, but opposition to the idea remains strong in the West Midlands.

There are also uncertainties about the future role of Birmingham, the economic driver of the West Midlands, where a new city council leader will be elected in December. Councillor John Clancy, the front runner for the job, has made it clear he doubts whether the “limited” devolution deals offered by the Government justify the “upheaval” of moving to rule by a metro mayor.

Mr Osborne is expected to visit the North East this week to sign a £1.3 billion devolution deal giving the region powers over employment and skills, transport, housing, planning, business support and investment.

According to the Newcastle Chronicle, the deal will see the Government channel £30 million-a-year into a newly-established North East Investment Fund, while the mayor, to be elected in 2017, can collect an additional £30m-a-year in business rates specifically for infrastructure.

Regional leaders will take control of the adult skills budget while a skills board will oversee a comprehensive review post-16 education, skills and employment support system in the North East.

The deal has a strong emphasis on skills, transport and rural growth, but also paves the way for further devolution of police and fire services, health and social care.

It ties the Government to reviewing the business case for the reinstatement of passenger services on the Blyth and Ashington rail line and for the reinvigoration of the Tyne and Wear Metro, and asks for the North East Combined Authority to, in future, oversee the Northern Rail franchise.

The deal says:

We believe we can deliver a deal which is good for the North East, good for our individual communities, and good for the UK. It demonstrates the central role that the North East plays in delivering the ambitions of the Northern Powerhouse.

We will now move forward to champion the progressive devolution which the North East demands and expects, with radical reforms of the relationship between the region and central government.

Above all, we will help create new opportunities for the people of the North East, more and better jobs, and a greater say over their communities and their future.

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