The most wide-ranging changes to local government for a generation are in the pipeline, writes Chief Reporter Paul Dale...
All governments promise to devolve power to local authorities.
On reaching office, none actually deliver.
Some make changes, which they invariably describe as devolution. But the reality is very different, as the maze that is public administration in Birmingham and the West Midlands shows only too clearly.
This region is mired by what the Centre for Cities think-tank calls a "clutter of institutions" co-ordinating spending programmes and promoting regeneration.
We have Advantage West Midlands; the Learning and Skills Council; the transport authority and transport executive; housing, planning and culture boards; the Government Office for the West Midlands; the Birmingham Strategic Partnership; the West Midlands Regional Assembly.
These bodies have huge budgets, yet are unelected and largely unanswerable to voters.
A Centre for Cities research paper, which calls for a Greater Birmingham Authority overseen by an elected mayor with limited tax-raising powers, quotes the Audit Commission: "There are now so many partners involved in regeneration that paralysis is inevitable."
The CfC paper goes on: "Complex local partnerships must be chaired, public and private resources must be sought, and time must be spent on trains to and from the capital, since major spending decisions are made at the heart of government rather than city halls."
This, of course, is the main reason why Birmingham finds it so difficult to push through high-profile and high-spend projects like the redevelopment of New Street Station. Too many levers have to be pulled; too many quangos have to be cosied-up to for any quick decision making to take place.
CfC research uncovered concern about the lack of integration between local, regional and national objectives.
Advantage West Midlands was accused by an un-named senior Birmingham City Council official of being "extremely risk-averse and bureaucratic", while AWM interviewees were equally dismissive of the city council.
It is not just in the field of transport and regeneration that Birmingham finds itself with limited powers to act.
Local government taxraising powers are now so diluted as to be almost useless.
Less than five pence in the pound of Birmingham City Council's annual £3 billion expenditure is funded by local taxpayers. The planned 1.9 per cent increase in council tax this year will raise about £4 million - little more than loose change in the context of the budget as a whole.
The past 30 years has seen the centralisation of public administration in Britain, beginning in the mid-1970s when the first serious attempts were made to stop local authorities taxing and spending money.
The consequences of these actions, heightened by the Thatcher governments' mis-trust of councils, has left local authorities drained of power and all but impotent to act without the approval of Whitehall.
The contrast with Europe could hardly be greater.
In France, Spain, Italy and Germany there have been moves to enhance the powers of regional government.
French cities, for example, raise about 45 per cent of their spending through local taxes. In America the figure is 41 per cent. There appear to be few concerns in Europe or America about giving local government more responsibility.
It seems increasingly likely that the West Midlands will get a city-region authority, based on Birmingham.
The idea has been spoken about by David Miliband, the Local Government Minister, and it is no coincidence that Centre for Cities is part of the Institute for Public Policy Research, one of New Labour's favoured think tanks.
The big question is whether Mr Miliband and his colleagues will have the courage and vision to allow the Greater Birmingham Authority to be run by a directly-elected mayor?
The very least they should do is ask the people in a referendum what they think.