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West Midlands combined authority ‘will start work in April 2016, with or without Solihull’

West Midlands combined authority ‘will start work in April 2016, with or without Solihull’

🕔11.Feb 2015

A draft timetable to form a greater Birmingham and Black Country combined authority in April 2016 has been approved by the Government, it can be revealed.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has accepted an outline for the process that will create a strategic administrative body covering most of the West Midlands – but it still remains far from clear whether Solihull, Coventry and North Warwickshire will join in.

Sir Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham city council, has emerged as one of the driving forces behind a concerted move to deliver a combined authority within 13 months – something that would enable the West Midlands to gain the type of growth deal and devolved powers and budgets already handed to Greater Manchester and Sheffield.

The Government has made it clear that maximum devolution will only be handed to councils willing to form combined authorities – strategic bodies controlling economic development and transport.

Sir Albert confirmed that the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils are funding a major economic impact study to determine the optimum functional economic geography for a combined authority.

The study is expected to confirm that a partnership between the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP area, the Black Country, Coventry and North Warwickshire would accurately reflect travel to work patterns and the region’s economic geography.

Sir Albert hopes the study will give Solihull council leader Bob Sleigh the ammunition he needs to convince sceptical Conservative councillors of the benefits of a combined authority.

While the idea has the backing of the Black Country councils, Labour-led North Warwickshire is doubtful about setting up a strategic body in partnership with Birmingham, and Labour-led Coventry is yet to take a decision.

The issue is further complicated in Solihull where Tory general election candidate Julian Knight has pledged to “fight tooth and nail” to prevent the borough from “being sucked into a Labour controlled Birmingham”.

Sir Albert said he fully understood why Cllr Sleigh could not reach a decision about combined authority membership until after May.

About 70 per cent of Solihull is green belt and they have this view that they have to do everything they possibly can to protect the green belt from house building. There is an issue about the sovereignty of decision making in Solihull.

But this has not stopped us. The metropolitan councils have commissioned some work which should be awarded this week to do an economic impact study on the wider geography.

It will look at the optimum functional economic geography in the West Midlands.

If you take the whole of the GBSLEP area and the Black Country plus Coventry and some of the Warwickshire districts you are putting together an economic powerhouse of 3.5 million people that would be the most important economic area outside of London and the south-east.

Isn’t that a powerful idea? Couldn’t that be a powerful unit?

It would have a GVA to sit comfortably alongside London and the south-east. If we are going to talk about economic growth in this region then that’s the prize.

Sir Albert said the economic impact study would be used to give Solihull council an argument for joining a combined authority.

But he warned against further delay:

I have a timetable which would set up the combined authority from May 2016. This has been approved by DCLG.

After the General Election the heat will be turned up and we have to take a decision. We have to press forward with this because the West Midlands cannot afford to be left behind by other parts of the country where combined authorities are either already in place or are being created.

Sir Albert hinted that he expected the next Government, of whichever political colour, to “knock heads together” if necessary to ensure a West Midlands combined authority represented functional economic geography.

The Kerslake Review into Birmingham city council’s governance capabilities urged the West Midlands councils to act quickly:

We welcome the steps the Black Country and Birmingham City Council have taken to form a combined authority. A combined authority and further devolution are the best opportunity the West Midlands authorities have to secure the economic resurgence of the area and ensure growth for the future, benefitting all parts of the region.

However, they are currently behind the curve and in danger of missing out. Our view is they must move quickly to catch up.

On the basis of our economic analysis of the functional economic area, the combined authority should – at least as a first step – include Birmingham city council, the Black Country authorities and Solihull.

This does not mean that partnership working with the other local authorities in the area should stop. On the contrary it needs to continue to get better.

Nor does it mean that other local authorities could not join the combined authority from the start if there is local support. The governance review should consider this. We welcome Birmingham city council’s recognition that while it should play its part in the creation of the new combined authority it should not seek nor assume the role of first amongst equals.

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