In the second of a major series on city regions, Chief Reporter Paul Dale looks at the last attempt at creating a form of regional government for the West Midlands and at who runs the region now...
The last attempt at a form of regional government for the West Midlands survived just 12 years before the rug was pulled in circumstances that even today provoke strong political passions.
The West Midlands County Council was one of seven metropolitan counties established in 1974 by the then Conservative Environment Secretary Peter Walker.
Its responsibilities were at a strategic level for transportation, land-use planning, police, fire, buses, waste disposal and trading standards.
The area covered by the county authority matched almost exactly today's proposed city region, taking in the metropolitan councils of Birmingham, Dudley, Walsall, Sandwell, Solihull, Wolverhampton and Coventry.
It was an artificial creation that immediately provoked controversy and even ridicule. Many people took the view that an authority ranging from industrial Coventry in the South-east to semi-rural Dudley in the North-west was too unwieldy and arbitrary to be meaningful.
It brought together local authorities that had never had much in common with each other.
This laid the groundwork for a question that has been debated ever since: what is the West Midlands?
Would it not have been better, some argued, to have combined Coventry and Warwickshire to form a single unitary authority? Much the same suggestion was put forward for the Black Country boroughs - Wolverhampton, Sandwell and Walsall.
Others argued for the creation of a Greater Birmingham Council, taking in Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Sand-well and Walsall. That would have left Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire as a single unitary authority.
In fact, the West Midlands County Council as a strategic planning unit worked well.
It brought together a largely industrial area facing the problems of high unemployment and economic decline. As far as public transport was concerned, the West Midlands county was able to target much-needed capital investment at both the Birmingham and Coventry travel-to-work areas.
Twelve years after the West Midlands county council came into existence a Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher abolished the metropolitan counties. Her main target was the Greater London Council, where left-wing Labour leader Ken Livingstone proved to be a thorn in the Government's flesh.
But the opportunity to get rid of Labour-supporting sprawling county councils which, among members of the public at least, had proved unpopular was too great to resist.
The West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Avon, the GLC and other authorities were swept away to be replaced by scaled down versions of regional administration.
Abolition was justified by the Government on two counts - the metropolitan counties were an expensive, unnecessary additional tier of local government and consisted of artificial geographical areas which people could not identify with.
The axing of the mets in 1986 resulted in strategic transportation and planning responsibilities being handed back to the seven West Midlands district councils.
Public transport, roads, local government pensions, waste disposal and a number of other regional issues are still controlled by non-elective boards drawn from the seven authorities.
The counties' disappearance left a strange gap in the electoral system. Every fourth year, when people across England elect their county council representatives, those voters living in the largest urban areas have no elections and are effectively disenfranchised.
Joint committees were established, including the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority, but the decision-making process tended to move away from strategic considerations and descended into little more than horse-trading between the leaders of the districts.
Priorities for spending were often drawn up not on a cross-border strategic basis but on the assumption that each of the seven districts should be seen to be getting a fair share of the cake.
The loss of a powerful regional authority can still be felt today according to Len Clark, a former chairman of the West Midlands County Council transportation committee.
Coun Clark, now a Birmingham city councillor, points out that the era of high-profile capital transportation projects ended with the abolition of the county council.
He believes the county authority had the clout to deal directly with Whitehall.
"We were big enough to go to the Government, representing an area of three million people, and say 'look, this area is important, it is the industrial heartland of the country, we must have investment'.
"If you look at what the county council accomplished in 12 years, it developed the Birmingham cross-city rail line, it built a new terminal at Birmingham International Airport, it built the Birmingham and Coventry ring roads," he said.
Coun Clark (Con Quinton) draws unfavourable comparison with today's governance arrangements.
He said: "There hasn't been a significant capital project in terms of major highways infrastructure since the county council was abolished. No one can deny that the county council brought massive capital investment to the conurbation."
The West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority has not been much of a success, he believes, and the case is now clear for a city region strategic body.
"Transportation planning now is very much about bargaining by the districts, rather than a strategic overview of the conurbation.
"It is demonstrably the case that the strategic direction of the conurbation has been worse for not having the county council.
"It is vitally necessary. It cannot be avoided in the long term if we want to succeed as a region and fund some of the major infrastructure issues.
"We don't want seven separate voices. We want one. We will strengthen the position of the conurbation the moment we move to that.
"It would give the commercial and business sector more confidence that they are accessing an administration that can speak for them."