The work of Advantage West Midlands, the region’s economic development agency, has come under scrutiny after it announced £132 million was to be cut from funding for regeneration schemes.
But the fact remains that AWM, as it is known, is still responsible for spending hundreds of millions of pounds a year in the region.
Its future, however, is in doubt. Conservatives have threatened to abolish regional development agencies such as AWM if they form the next government.
Looking behind the Tory rhetoric, it becomes clear that the policy is less clear cut. In fact, the regional development agencies will continue to operate unless local councils decide to create their own economic authorities to replace them.
Still, it is easy to imagine authorities in the West Midlands conurbation, including Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country councils, setting up their own economic authority, which would then be granted some of the funding and powers currently held by AWM.
Quite where this would leave Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire – which are currently served by AWM but might be excluded by a smaller authority – is unclear.
They could, however, set up their own bodies. One might see a new “Three Counties” authority serving Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, for example.
Sir Roy McNulty, AWM’s chair, fears that breaking up the agency would damage the region’s ability to deliver major projects.
There’s a tendency to assume that the more local something it is, the better it is. But sometimes projects are more efficient when they are larger – and sometimes the only way they can happen at all is on a grand scale.
However, it is not clear that the boundaries of the current West Midlands “region” are necessarily the right ones.
Do transport strategies really need to include Stoke as well as Dudley? Or might it make more sense for decisions to be made on a “city region” basis, on a smaller scale?
Of course, there will be some occasions when a policy needs to cover a large area. But in the case of transport, this could just as easily stretch from Birmingham to Manchester, or Milton Keynes, as Stoke.
The question is not whether we need development agencies to co-ordinate work across local government boundaries, but how large those agencies should be.
The case for the existing West Midlands region has, frankly, not been made. A future government may, for the first time, give local councils the chance to decide for themselves how large their “regions” should be.