West Midlands councils have not always been seen at their best when it comes to collaborative working.
Suspicions about Birmingham’s sheer size, power and influence and the fear felt by the region’s other councils that they will inevitably be eclipsed by the big city have tended in the past to hold back attempts to move forward with a form of regional government. That is why progress, albeit slow progress, toward city region status which will allow Whitehall to offload budgets and responsibilities to the West Midlands local authorities is so welcome.
It is a pity, then, that arrangements for administering the Multi Area Agreement for Employment and Skills hand ample ammunition to those that mistrust the city region although, ironically, on this occasion, the complaints involve Birmingham being excluded from the decision-making process rather than dominating it.
There would seem to be no logical explanation for the lack of any Birmingham council representation on the MAA management board, a body which will take day to day responsibility for carving up a budget of £500 million. Neither does the quango-stuffed membership, including directors from the Learning and Skills Council and Jobcentre Plus, fill us with any great enthusiasm. These are, to quote a Birmingham city councillor, the usual suspects that have failed to deliver in the past.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the MAA, which is supposed to represent a concerted attempt to do something about reducing the appalling levels of unemployment and lack of skills in the West Midlands. There will be no greater challenge facing the embryonic city region, and the way the councils work together with the private sector and other agencies to deliver improvements is bound to be watched carefully at government level.
But in order to gain credibility, the MAA must be seen as a transparent process where decision making can be understood and subjected to public scrutiny.
A step change is required from the current circumstances, where the work of the city region board has, to put it politely, an extremely low profile.
Sir Albert Bore, leader of the opposition Labour group on Birmingham City Council, is right to point out that the board appears to operate in extreme secrecy, although it is stretching the imagination to suppose that anything would be different if he was in charge.
If we are to have a city region board, consisting of the seven West Midlands council leaders, it would seem logical that we should also have a city region scrutiny committee to hold board members to account for their actions. Can anyone explain why this is not possible?