Council leaders in Birmingham are becoming increasingly resigned to the possibility that the city’s proposal to form a Local Enterprise Partnership with Solihull and parts of Staffordshire and Worcerstershire may be rejected by the Government.
Business Secretary Vince Cable has warned that only one in four LEP schemes from across the country are good enough to win approval and criticised councils for being too parochial and refusing to work together.
Birmingham City Council’s initial idea, backed by the city’s chamber of commerce, was to base an LEP broadly on the West Midlands city region, taking in areas bounded by the seven metropolitan councils as well as some shire counties.
Such a body would, it was felt, be able to generate huge economic wealth and be a natural successor to Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency. But the proposal fell apart when Coventry and the Black Country councils made it clear they would not join with Birmingham.
The absence of Walsall, Wolverhampton, Dudley and Sandwell councils from the Birmingham-Solihull LEP is thought to be of concern to Dr Cable and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who will decide which LEPs to approve.
Although Birmingham’s proposed LEP, taking in Solihull, East Staffordshire, Tamworth, Lichfield and Bromsgrove, is projected by its creators to create 100,000 private sector jobs by 2020 and boost the economy by £8 billion, the Government may take the view that it is too small and its boundaries do not match the West Midlands economic region.
Mike Whitby, the Tory leader of Birmingham City Council, used his party’s conference this week to send a blunt message to Mr Pickles.
In a speech at the eve of conference welcome party, with Mr Pickles in attendance, Coun Whitby likened the Birmingham-Solihull LEP to “consenting adults” who were together because they wanted to be partners.
It would be a mistake, he added, to force other councils to work with Birmingham against their will.
He went on: “We have launched our LEP and it covers two million people. We are determined to see how we can drive forward regeneration.”
City council sources insisted that Coun Whitby had done everything possible to persuade the Black Country councils to join a city region LEP.
But opposition to the idea, led by Tory-controlled Walsall, proved impossible to overcome in the short amount of time the Government allowed for consultation. Mr Pickles told a Chamber-organised fringe meeting that only about 20 LEP proposals from across the country were up to scratch.
The remaining 60 would be handed either amber status, if the Government believed the proposal could be improved, or red status which would require a complete rethink.
LEPs had to demonstrate that they were led by the business sectors rather than councils and were not seeking simply to replicate the “dead hand” of the regional development agencies, Mr Pickles added.
Birmingham Chamber of Commerce chief executive Jerry Blackett said a West Midlands LEP should not be constrained by local authority boundaries and the failure of politicians to agree to work together.
Mr Blackett added: “Businesses recognise there is a big need to work around the sort of city region geography that stares you in the face as an economic power house.
“We have to get our act together and find ways of putting behind us the suspicion and mistrust of the past.
“If the politicians are struggling with this, then businesses must lead a call to arms and demonstrate what working together really looks like.
“Eric Pickles is right. We need to work across boundaries, but we have to get to a point where people want to work together.”
The dilemma facing Dr Cable and Mr Pickles is heightened by the large number of LEPs on offer.
As well as Birmingham-Solihull, other partnerships include Coventry and Warwickshire; Stoke-on -Trent and Staffordshire; the Black Country; Shropshire and Herefordshire, and Worcestershire.