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Full steam ahead for the west midlands combined authority

Source: PSE June/July 15

Sam McCaffrey speaks to Cllr Pete Lowe, leader of Dudley council, about plans for a combined authority in the region.

Since the announcement of the first big devolution deal for Greater Manchester, other regions have rushed to be the next authority to receive equivalent wide-ranging powers. Deals have been announced for the Sheffield City Region and West Yorkshire, but nothing on the same scale as the devolution of health, transport and skills offered to Manchester. 

Now combined authorities in the North East, Tees Valley, Liverpool, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and even more are all competing to be the next area to receive major powers, but who will be first? According to Cllr Pete Lowe, leader of Dudley MBC, it’s going to be the West Midlands Combined Authority. 

“We’ve got to a position where we’re positive, we’ve made a statement that we’ll be working as the seven metropolitan boroughs, based upon the LEP structure with Black Country LEP, Coventry & Warwickshire LEP and the Birmingham & Solihull LEP as the geographical boundaries,” Cllr Lowe told PSE.  “In the very near future we’ll start having a conversation with government about the powers we want.” 

That conversation may have already started. Shortly following Cllr Lowe’s interview with PSE, leaders and representatives of Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull, Walsall, Dudley, Sandwell and Wolverhampton councils, who will make up the combined authority, met with the chancellor George Osborne and communities secretary Greg Clark in Birmingham. 

Following the discussions the leaders of the councils released a joint statement saying: “Our discussion with the very top of government today was both positive and productive. We were encouraged to be as ambitious as possible and to move forward at pace. We were also reassured that we are trusted to deliver what is best for our citizens and the national economy. 

“Lord Heseltine summed up the mood of the meeting when he impressed upon us that we were being invited just to “get on with it” and that we had the full backing of the chancellor and secretary of state who would do all they could to help us deliver our plans.” 

The ambition of the region was clear when Cllr Lowe spoke to us. Rather than simply aiming to match Greater Manchester, the councils in the west Midlands view themselves as potentially an even bigger powerhouse. 

“What we want is to be as influential – and have the biggest impact – as we possibly can. We see ourselves in the Midlands as being a significant powerhouse – certainly in line if not bigger than any of the authorities that have gone down the combined route previously,” Cllr Lowe said. 

While he wasn’t willing to discuss the details of individual powers the authority would be seeking or how the governance might work, he was very eager to push the potential positives of the authority, from greater investment being available for Dudley to the economic and transport infrastructure that could be put in place for the whole region. 

He insisted that no major problems had arisen in the talks between the authority leaders so far, but one sticking point which looms could be the issue of the metro-mayor. 

At Walsall Council, a recent shift saw Conservative Cllr Mike Bird return as leader and, although he has said he will not reverse the previous Labour administration’s move towards the combined authority, he is outspoken in his opposition to a mayor. 

However, recent comments have shown he may be willing to “bite the bullet”. 

“I don’t agree with a metro-mayor, but if it’s the price we have to pay I will have to bite the bullet,” he told the Express and Star. “I was there at the start of the negotiation but it’s taken on a new life while I’ve been in opposition. We still have a long way to go and we have to make sure what’s good for the West Midlands is good for Walsall.” 

Cllr Lowe told PSE that detailed discussions regarding the possibility of a mayor have not yet started but he expects the ultimate decision to be made by council leaders. 

“The devil is in the detail, isn’t it? I don’t think there would be a situation arising where there would be a diminution of powers in any of the local boroughs that would necessitate a costly local referendum.” 

The main focus of the prospective authority now appears to be speed. “No deadline is formally agreed but we’re moving forward at a pace and what we don’t want to be done is finding ourselves in a position where we’re left behind, we want to be ahead of the curve,” Cllr Lowe said. 

“We will certainly do it as quickly as we can do whilst at the same time making sure that we’ve got the appropriate detail in place. We don’t want to go too quickly that we take our eye off the ball but at the same time we don’t want to be over-cautious.”

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