The row about the future of the West Midlands Leaders’ Board is far more than a political spat about what happens to a pretty much anonymous quango which, as far as can be ascertained, has achieved little of note since coming into existence last year.
There will be plenty of sympathy for Conservative councillors in the Black Country who want to save the public purse £2.3 million a year by killing off the board, although their case is weakened by the clumsiness of Walsall Council leader Mike Bird who thinks the quango employs 70 people when the true figure is 35, and who has also claimed incorrectly that the board’s budget is £3.5 million.
It is no wonder, given such a natural gift for exaggeration by Walsall, that Tory-led Birmingham is prepared to keep quiet and let Coun Bird lead the way, although city council leader Mike Whitby has let it be known privately that he also is no great fan of the Leaders’ Board.
Although almost no one outside of the rarefied atmosphere of local government will have heard of it, the board is the latest idea for the promotion of a form of regional government. Or to be accurate, the previous government’s idea of a structure to replace the West Midlands Regional Assembly, which was also deemed to be a useless waste of taxpayers’ money and abolished.
New Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has an opportunity now to give the West Midlands the powerful regional voice it craves, but it hardly seems credible that an organisation representing 33 councils with a 27-person executive board is the right answer.
Mr Pickles will know that Birmingham and the Black Country councils are considering joining with businesses to form one of the new Enterprise Partnerships and take over some of the responsibilities of the regional development agency. Coventry, Warwickshire and Solihull may follow a similar path.
But Enterprise Partnerships are likely to pose more questions than provide answers about regional representation. How, for instance, will they fit in with another understated quango, the Birmingham and Black Country City Region Board?
And what about elected mayors? If Birmingham and Coventry are to have such a person surely he would expect to take control of something as important as economic development and regeneration.
It is not surprising that Tory-controlled district and shire councils want to hang on to the Leaders’ Board, which they see as the only organisation capable of getting the views of rural parts of the West Midlands across in London and Europe. If it disappears, they argue, such regional representation that exists will be focused almost entirely on the Birmingham conurbation.
This is part of a war of attrition stretching back to the notorious local government reorganisation of 1974, responsible for creating the West Midlands – a region devised by civil servants and largely unrecognised and unloved by the public.
Even so, since the West Midlands is likely to be with us for the forseeable future, Mr Pickles has a duty to deliver accountable strategic regional government, whether through mayors or city regions. He must move quickly.