Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has taken another step towards dismantling regional government as he announced he was scrapping the West Midlands Leaders’ Board, which costs £2.3 million a year to run.
He came down on the side of urban councils in a battle over the future of regional government, as he promised to return power to communities instead of expensive quangos.
The decision marks a victory for Conservatives in Birmingham and the Black Country, who wanted to abolish the West Midlands Leaders’ Board – against the wishes of Tories in shire and district councils, who called for it to stay.
Rural councillors argued that the board was their only collective voice to Whitehall, and should continue at least until something else had been created to replace it.
But Mr Pickles has now confirmed that the board, a quango which gives a voice to the region’s 33 councils and employs 35 people, will be scrapped.
He claimed that Labour set up leaders’ boards as a way of imposing regional government by stealth.
The boards had replaced regional assemblies, which were created by Labour’s former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in an attempt to create elected regional parliaments, similar to the Scottish and Welsh Parliament.
Mr Prescott’s hopes of creating regional government were ruined in 2004, when voters in the North-east voted against the idea in a referendum. This left a vacuum in regional policy, as the assemblies continued but without elections to decide who took part.
One of their key functions was to oversee the role of regional development agencies, the massive Government quangos which spend hundreds of millions of pounds each year, to ensure the agencies were democratically accountable.
The Labour government abolished regional assemblies this year – but replaced them with leaders’ boards, which bought together the leaders of the local authorities, supported by civil servants.
A campaign to scrap the board was led by Tory-controlled Walsall, Dudley and Wolverhampton councils with tacit support from the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in Birmingham and Labour-controlled Sandwell.
Mr Pickles said: “This is another step in wresting control from the bureaucrats, stopping the top down diktats and axing unelected, ineffective quangos. The previous Government created a self-perpetuating stream of regional bureaucracy where plans required strategies that require boards and bodies.
“We are unravelling this complex system, putting the community back in charge of how their area develops and saving the public purse £16 million at the same time.”
He accused the previous government of making “an empty promise” to axe regional assemblies only to bring them back “stealthy re-branded as local authority leader boards”.
The boards were redundant because the Government was committed to scrapping regional spatial strategies, the regional housing and development plans, that they were supposed to oversee, he added.
The majority of the board’s revenue £1.1 million comes from the 33 councils, with Birmingham making the largest contribution of £250,000.
However, the West Midlands region, taking in the Birmingham conurbation, Coventry to the east and the outlying counties of Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire, still continues as an administrative region of government.
What is not clear is how it will be represented as a region, if at all.