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West Midlands outstripped by Yorkshire in dash for regional goverment

West Midlands outstripped by Yorkshire in dash for regional goverment

🕔20.Aug 2013

While the West Midlands continues to turn its back on regional governance, local authorities in the north of England are burying historic jealousies to form powerful joint boards to run economic development, regeneration and transport.

South Yorkshire is the latest area to ask for Government permission to establish a Combined Authority, bringing together nine councils – Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham, Sheffield, Bassetlaw, Bolsover, Chesterfield, Derbyshire Dales and North East Derbyshire.

The new arrangements would allow councils to take decisions jointly across their area with the purpose of driving economic growth. Three further areas are also seeking to establish combined authorities – West Yorkshire, the North East and Merseyside.

In the West Midlands, however, a Combined Authority would appear to be as far away as ever even though the joint might of the seven metropolitan authorities would be immense.

Two of the Black Country councils, Labour-led Sandwell and Tory-led Walsall, have made it clear that they are not prepared to accept a suggestion by Birmingham council leader Sir Albert Bore to explore closer working “at a city-regional level”.

Their reluctance would appear to be driven, as ever, by a fear of Birmingham “taking over” the West Midlands through its sheer size and economic might.

Cllr Bird’s opposition might be removed next May, if Labour regains control of Walsall Council. But Sandwell Council leader Darren Cooper is likely to maintain his opposition to regional governance, certainly for as long as Sir Albert Bore remains Birmingham council leader.

The only regional structure on the drawing board at the moment is a new integrated regional transport authority, which has attracted the blessing of all West Midlands councils. The new ITA will take responsibility for transport strategy, decide which schemes will be given priority and seek new investment for transport in the region.

As far as economic development and regeneration is concerned, there appear to be little realistic chance of the region’s two main LEPs – greater Birmingham and Solihull and the Black Country – amalgamating or of establishing a West Midlands Combined Authority.

A Department for Communities and Local Government consultation paper sets out the advantages that would flow from a regional approach in South Yorkshire:

“The combined authorities approach allows for strategic decision making by a number of authorities alongside their local enterprise partnership. It streamlines the decision-making process in areas like transport, which can overlap various boundaries, and economic growth which is often interlinked with a wider geographic area. With this approach the public, businesses and agencies only have to deal with one decision making body rather than many.

“The nine councils consider that the lack of any formal link between decision making in relation to transport, economic development and regeneration makes it difficult for decisions to be co-ordinated in a way that achieves maximum benefit for the functional economic area.”

A governance review concluded that the establishment of a combined authority would improve the delivery of statutory functions in connection with transport, economic development and regeneration across South Yorkshire.”

The strategic oversight that the combined authority would provide would deliver sustainable economic social benefits to the area – in line with the councils’ long term ambitions, according to the review.

The review continued: “Furthermore, in the councils’ view a combined authority as the optimal legal model for the area would allow them to take tough, binding decisions on transport, economic development and regeneration across the area, supporting the improvements in the economic outputs of the functional economic area.”

One thing appears to be indisputable. If adjoining local authorities lobby for combined status they will find themselves kicking at an open door as far as the Government is concerned.

Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis said: “By encouraging joint working by local authorities across South Yorkshire and more widely, and having all local authority leaders in a room together at one time, decisions can be made quickly. This boosts economic growth and drives forward business success.

“Looking at strategic decision making in this way recognises that an area’s economy, its roads and its rail don’t stop at a local authority boundary.”

The only other Combined Authority, Greater Manchester, was established in 2011. The partnership, according to the DCLG, is on course to achieve:

  • Major refurbishment of Bolton and Rochdale railway stations.
  • A ‘Revolving Infrastructure Fund’ worth £30 million per year.
  • 5,000 to 7,000 new homes built by 2017.
  • A  programme of low-carbon reduction measures.
  • An overall saving of £11.7 million per year compared to 2007 to 2008.

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