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WMCA’s ‘vague’ plan for economic growth slammed by sceptical Warwickshire

WMCA’s ‘vague’ plan for economic growth slammed by sceptical Warwickshire

🕔01.Sep 2015

The seven West Midlands metropolitan councils will submit a formal proposal for a combined authority to the Treasury this week. But a plan to take neighbouring shire counties under the wing of the new body suffered a setback after Warwickshire described WMCA’s prospectus as “vague” and containing no sound argument about the economic benefits expected to flow from the scheme, writes Paul Dale.

Conservative controlled Warwickshire county council is on course to turn down an invitation to join the West Midlands Combined Authority.

County councillors are likely to ask the Government about setting up their own combined authority and have not lost all hope of persuading Labour-run Coventry council to join them.

A special county council meeting on September 3 will consider three options:

  • To decide whether or not to join the WMCA;
  • To decide whether to continue to pursue a Coventry-Warwickshire Combined Authority as its preferred devolution model;
  • To continue to engage with Government on the devolution issue and to develop and evaluate alternative devolution models for Warwickshire.

A written report to the county council meeting casts doubt on the WMCA proposal, describing the body’s launch prospectus as “vague” with a lack of detail and containing no convincing argument about the difference to the local economy the new body will make.

The document praises Cornwall council’s recent devolution deal with the Government, which resulted in setting up a combined authority based on a single county, without a metro mayor.

The report raises a number of questions about the role to be played in WMCA by the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership. As things stand, if Coventry council joins WMCA and Warwickshire county council does not, the LEP will be split between two different administrative bodies with an uncertain future.

In order to become full voting members of WMCA, Warwickshire county council and all of the district councils would have to vote in favour, which appears unlikely.

Coventry council is not expected to take a formal decision to join WMCA until October. Even though the Labour cabinet is in favour, Warwickshire councillors clearly feel there is still scope for a Warwickshire-Coventry combined authority.

The report to the county council meeting puts the case for Warwickshire and Coventry joining forces:

This council will also wish to consider continued pursuit of a Coventry and Warwickshire combined authority. The issue of minimum population/scale is one that remains untested nationally and more recent emerging combined authority models elsewhere indicate that a Coventry and Warwickshire combined authority would be of sufficient scale. It would certainly be of sufficient economic weight and impact.

The WMCA is currently consulting about its devolved model. There is currently a lack of clarity over the level of membership open to the county if we were to join. It is for Warwickshire to decide what the best options are for the county and to ensure the right decision is made for the county.

The report makes the point that the Government is considering applications to set up combined authorities from a number of shire counties. These include Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire, and Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

WMCA – consisting of Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry, Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley councils – is keen to bring Warwickshire and its districts on board as well as the region’s three LEPs, but only as non-constituent members without automatic voting rights.

The Warwickshire report warns:

The WMCA proposition is based upon the geographies of the three LEP areas, not the local authority geographies. This is not meaningful unless the local authorities themselves agree to join, since the devolution of powers and the legislation applies to local government functions and not to LEPs who in practice hold no such powers themselves.

The combined authority area cannot be based on the LEP areas unless all the councils in those areas agree to their areas being included. This would in essence mean constituent member status as it is unlikely that any local authority would agree to allow the combined authority to exercise powers in its area without voting rights.

It’s not the first time the difficulty of forming a partnership between the urban and rural parts of the West Midlands has been questioned. Earlier this year the region’s police commissioner David Jamieson told Chamberlain Files WMCA risked turning into “a dog’s breakfast” because people in the shires had no affinity with the cities.

Consultants SQW, hired by Warwickshire county council to look at WMCA’s launch prospectus, complained that the document gave little detail about how the combined authority would work and what it might achieve, and specifically did not explain how a pledge “to propel the economy to further growth than can be achieved at present” would be delivered:

It does not explain why priorities have been identified and why other possible priorities have not been pursued; it says nothing about resourcing; it contains no implementation detail; and it does not discuss the scale of ambition.

This exercise was challenging given the lack of detail: neither document provides any firm plans as to what specific functions and activities the West Midlands Combined Authority is seeking to undertake, or what positive difference the combined authority arrangement will make to the performance of the local economy.

It has therefore been impossible given this lack of detail to undertake any impact assessments or to assess the financial implications for Warwickshire. Clearly the WMCA’s proposal is still under development, and little actual detail has been made publicly available as yet.

The report to the county council concludes there are advantages to Warwickshire in joining a combined authority, but points out that the county’s natural economic geography and travel to work patterns has close links with Coventry.

Overall, around a fifth of Warwickshire workers commute into the metropolitan area – but the majority of these commute to Coventry. Warwickshire’s links with Coventry are much stronger than with the wider metropolitan area as a whole.

For example, the skills challenges in Warwickshire are rather different from those which exist in (say) Sandwell; and it will be important to consider whether the WMCA – with its inevitable focus on the Metropolitan Areas – is the appropriate vehicle (and geography) for addressing skills issues in Warwickshire.

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