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10.11.14

More councils merge functions and power as 'combined authorities'

Council leaders in the West Midlands are the latest to plan a combined authority for their region, which would act as a “lynchpin for the national economic recovery” and create a “Midlands Powerhouse”.

Greater Manchester’s combined authority working since 2011 is widely believed to have contributed to its recent economic and infrastructure successes, and other areas are seeking to emulate the idea. Three further combined authorities were established on 1 April 2014, in the city-regions of Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool, and the North East Combined Authority was set up later that month.

Darlington, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Redcar and Cleveland councils are also planning their own Tees Valley Combined Authority.

In the West Midlands, the heads of the four Black Country councils (Sandwell, Dudley, Walsall and Wolverhampton) and Birmingham City Council have made an agreement “in principle” to work as a combined authority.

On top of this, Solihull and Coventry have been invited to join negotiations to develop the plans for the political coalition with the aim if building a “broad” and “deep” authority for the prosperity of the West Midlands.

Cllr David Sparks, leader of Dudley Council and chair of the Local Government Association, said: “By working together in this way, the West Midlands can become a lynchpin for national economic recovery.

“We need a combined authority in the West Midlands to compete with other areas which have already gone down this route. There is evidence from around the country, such as in Greater Manchester, that where councils work in a more coordinated way they secure significantly greater proportions of national government investment for their area.” 

The key purpose of the combined authority, which could represent more than 3.4 million people, is to drive growth, create jobs and improve local skills. 

However, UKIP’s West Midlands MEP Bill Etheridge has dubbed the new combined authority “anti-democratic” and a “Labour party stitch-up”. 

“This is typical of the Labour party seeking to concentrate power over the people by moving the centre of power further away from people,” he said. 

But there has been much local support from businesses. Jerry Blackett, chief executive of Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, said the announcement was welcomed “unreservedly”. 

He added: “This is the gold standard for local authorities to work together and this coalition will give government the confidence to devolve more powers and budgets to the West Midlands. 

“There are many examples of great working partnerships, such as the LEPs bringing business, local authorities and education together and Midlands Connect where West and East Midlands are joining together to bring infrastructure projects like HS2 to fruition.” 

The four Black Country councils are already working very closely together and have secured £12m for high-speed broadband, attracted Jaguar Land Rover to the region and benefited from £7.6m in Growing Priority Sectors funding which has safeguarded hundreds of jobs. They added that the combined authority will be an extension of this kind of work. 

Cllr Sir Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham City Council, said: “A combined authority stretching from Wolverhampton to Coventry and beyond, and from East Staffordshire to Redditch, would form the core of a ‘Midlands Powerhouse’ to compete with city regions around the world.” 

Cllr Bob Sleigh, leader of Solihull Council, added that the authority is open to discussions around better regional cooperation. “However, any new arrangements must benefit both the people I serve in Solihull as well as the regional partners.” 

West Midlands’ council leaders will now look to finalise the finer details of their arrangement, including an official name for the combined authority. The priority of initial discussions will be to establish the role and remit of the authority and council bosses will also look at the most suitable leadership model for the West Midlands. 

Last week the chancellor, George Osborne, announced that Greater Manchester is to receive a multi-billion pound package of devolution from the government, in return for agreeing to institute a directly elected mayor for the region. 

(Image: Birmingham skyline c. Steve N)

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