Who really runs the West Midlands? It’s a bit difficult to be certain, says Public Affairs Correspondent Paul Dale.
The West Midlands Regional Assembly is definitely going. It’s as dead as a dodo come April Fool’s Day 2010 and it probably won’t be mourned by most local council leaders who regarded it as John Prescott’s unwanted back-door method of introducing European-style regional government.
Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency with a £300 million budget, might be on its way too, but only if the Conservatives win the next election. And then only if local councils decide they want to form enterprise partnerships with business leaders and take over some of AWM’s duties.
The West Midlands Local Government Association, meanwhile, which used to represent local government interests at a regional level, has already been put out of its misery and has been replaced by a Leaders Board consisting of leaders of all the region’s 33 councils.
Where, then, does that leave the West Midlands City Region Board, which last month saw Coventry jump ship to throw its lot in with Warwickshire?
There’s a newcomer in this tangled maze of talking shops, too. The West Midlands Joint Strategy and Investment Board brings together the Leaders Board and Advantage West Midlands to establish economic priorities for the region.
And what about elected mayors? Birmingham and Coventry might each get one if David Cameron becomes Conservative prime minister, but only if a majority of people vote in favour in a referendum.
The mayors, presumably, will be handed new powers but will still be required to work in partnership with the Leaders Board and the West Midlands Joint Strategy and Investment Board, not to mention the replacement for AWM if indeed there is to be a replacement.
Confused? You should be. Local government has moved a long way since the simple days of parish, city and county councils, but the changes do not make governance more accountable or easier for citizens to understand or, crucially, to get involved in.
Here’s what Ken Taylor, the leader of Coventry City Council and chairman of the West Midlands Leaders Board, had to say about his new role: “The Leaders Board will develop the strong, clear voice the region has long been waiting for.
“Our next steps are to pull together key areas of priority and lead a powerful coalition of partners from the public, private, voluntary and business sector to deliver this change.”
A strong, clear voice? Powerful coalition of partners? Funny, that. It sounds very much like the picture painted of the West Midlands City Region board by its chairman, Mike Whitby, who is also the leader of Birmingham City Council: “The city region is the natural level at which we can make some key strategic decisions that will enrich not only the sub-region but the whole of the West Midlands as well.
“I firmly believe that a strong city region can be a true driver behind the national economy, and across the country successful city regions will be essential if we are to continue to elevate the status of our cities.
“We believe that through true partnership working, on a co-ordinated and cross-border basis, we can increase our prosperity, competitiveness and quality of life to a far greater extent than if acting individually.”
Meanwhile, in his first press release as chairman of the Leaders Board, Coun Taylor proudly described the organisation as “the new regional decision-making body for local government in the West Midlands”.
Certainly the board will have a major responsibility to work with regional development agency Advantage West Midlands in producing a joint regional spatial and economic strategy, setting down targets for new housing, job creation and skills training.
But isn’t job creation and skills training precisely the territory that the West Midlands City Region Board and the embryonic Coventry and Warwickshire city region also wants to occupy?
Coun Whitby, as chairman of the city region board, spent months attempting to persuade the government to give him powers to set up Accelerated Development Zones, closely defined areas where councils can borrow to fund regeneration and repay the loan with the proceeds of increased business rates.
How was he rewarded? By the government deciding to award Manchester and Leeds the first official city region status.
Last month Liam Byrne, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, formally approved Leeds’ city region status, granting the city unprecedented powers over housing and regeneration and more control over how Whitehall funding is spent. A housing and regeneration board and an employment and skills board will take the lead on key programmes, levering in millions of pounds in government and private sector finance.
West Midlands City Region Board director Simon Murphy admits the “landscape is changing” at a fast rate but believes that both Labour and the Conservatives are edging towards allowing local councils to deliver economic development, skills and other services through joint partnership arrangements. Dr Murphy added: “Everyone is aware that the current government is talking about local authorities working together and having statutory boards. The Conservatives are also talking about groups of councils working together through enterprise partnerships.”
He insists the city region board is far from sidelined.
It continues to be responsible for delivering the Local Area Agreement with the government, which sets out demanding targets for a better-skilled workforce, and is also involved in planning the next generation of broadband coverage for the region.
“The city region board is working very closely with the leaders board and the message is that groups of local authorities working together do have a role to play.”
Dermot Finch, chief executive at the Centre for Cities thinktank, is urging the Conservatives to be clearer about what they intend to do with regional development agencies. He thinks it is vital that cities like Birmingham undertake contingency planning for the two very different outcomes that would occur if Labour wins the general election or the Conservatives are successful.
Mr Finch said: “As we get closer to an election there’s increased uncertainty about the medium term because each of the two parties takes a very different approach. The Conservatives do need to clarify exactly whether they are going to get rid of RDAs, or scale them down and strip them of certain powers, leaving them in a smaller form to work around providing business support. If Labour wins the election, however, it’s pretty clear the RDAs will survive in their present form albeit with less money, and that they will be expected to work closely with local authority leaders boards.”
* What the Quangos do for Birmingham
Advantage West Midlands
One of nine English regional development agencies, AWM’s remit is to lead the West Midlands to economic prosperity. But the organisation has struggled to overcome decades of under-performance.
Even before recession began to bite, the West Midlands economy was failing to close a £15 billion output gap.
Production and wealth lags way behind the average for England with high unemployment, poor skills levels and a low level of graduate retention. If the Conservatives win the next General Election, AWM’s future will be in doubt.
Shadow chancellor George Osborne confirmed recently that the Tories intend to allow local authorities to form enterprise partnerships and take some of the responsibilities of regional assemblies. But this will only happen if the councils and local business organisations express a wish to take over the role of the RDAs.
With an annual £300 million budget AWM has concentrated on purchasing sites that have proved difficult to develop and then working with partners to deliver major regeneration projects.
* New Street Station – AWM provided £100 million toward the £600 million cost of refurbishing Birmingham’s main railway station.
* Longbridge – land purchases and development of a £20 million innovation centre kick-started post-MG Rover redevelopment of an iconic industrial site.
* Fort Dunlop – a £58 million venture with Urban Splash transformed a landmark building alongside the M6 into a high quality mixed-use scheme.
West Midlands Regional Assembly
English regional assemblies began life in the late 1990s and inherited some of the planning powers formerly held by county councils. Unelected quangos, the assemblies were controversially allowed to draw up regional strategies for housing, transport and waste planning.
The failure of a referendum in north-east England to embrace regional government sounded the death knell and the assemblies will be abolished from April next year and replaced by boards consisting of local council leaders.
WMRA’s role includes scrutinising AWM, enhancing the social, economic and environmental policy agenda as well as carrying out a wide range of consultancy roles with government bodies and the European Union.
WMRA is probably best known as the body responsible for drawing up the West Midlands Regional Spatial Strategy, setting targets for house building, and the Regional Transport Strategy.
The West Midlands Leaders Board is the new regional decision making body for local government in the West Midlands.
It has taken over roles formerly performed by the West Midlands Local Government Association and brings together the leaders of 33 local authorities. From April 2010, the leaders board will replace the West Midlands Regional Assembly. Under its chairman Ken Taylor, the leader of Coventry Council, the leaders board will be expected to work closely with AWM.
The two bodies will be responsible for drawing up a joint regional spatial and economic strategy, but the leaders board will have sole power to sign off this document before it goes to the government for final approval.
City Region Board
A bad year for the West Midlands seven metropolitan councils, who were told by the Government in April that they would not be chosen as a pilot area to become the country’s first official City Region.
The award went instead to Manchester and Leeds, who will be given new powers to borrow money for economic development and will take control of skills training and employment strategy.
The decision contributed to a decision last month by Coventry to part company with the city region board to set up its own economic development partnership with Warwickshire and Solihull.
That leaves Birmingham, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton councils continuing with the city region board, which is chaired by Birmingham council leader Mike Whitby.
West Midlands Joint Strategy and Investment Board
A new body responsible for the strategic management of the government’s Sub-National Review of economic development and regeneration. Its job is to set out economic priorities for the region and work out how they can be delivered. The board includes six members of the West Midlands Local Authorities Leaders Board and six board members of AWM plus representatives from the private sector. It works closely with Regional Minister Ian Austin and with key funding agencies.