Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has urged Birmingham and the Black Country to create a new combined authority “as quickly as possible”.
The Liberal Democrat leader insisted he did not want to impose any new system of local government on the region – but stressed it would be easier to continue devolving cash and powers to the region once a combined authority was in place.
Sources in Birmingham say they are not expecting Solihull to make a decision on whether or not to join the proposed body until after the general election on May 7.
This is despite the fact that combined authorities, bringing together the leaders of neighbouring councils, are likely to be the focus of regional development whoever wins power at Westminster, with all three major parties backing the idea.
George Osborne, the Chancellor, is set to visit the region next month to announce an economic plan for the West Midlands.
He will argue that the region, and Birmingham in particular, once led the world – but is currently failing to live up to its potential as an economic powerhouse.
But he is expected to argue that creating a combined authority is an essential step in growing the region’s economy.
Despite the announcement of new funding for the local enterprise partnerships this week and the promise of support for employers in grants to be announced in February, the Liberal Democrat leader said he was keen to introduce more deals with combined authorities similar to the £1 billion package announced for Manchester’s combined authority last November.
Since then, a similar though smaller package of measures has been agreed with the Sheffield city region’s combined authority.
Mr Clegg said: “The decision by Birmingham and the Black Country to create a combined authority – it is a decision for them to take but now it appears to have been taken I think it would be a good thing, and Birmingham being the country’s second city, for them to press ahead as quickly as possible.
“Because while I don’t want to be prescriptive about what form of governance each area has, it is nonetheless true to say that with more power and more freedom and money, clearly governance needs to be strengthened.
“It is not unreasonable to say to British taxpayers that this money is going Birmingham’s way, or Manchester’s way or Sheffield’s way, but it is going to be well spent and held properly to account and efficiently deployed and so on.
“So I think you need to see an improvement in governance.”
But he stressed the Black Country and Birmingham would not need to create a mayor unless local councils chose to create one.
A Solihull Council spokesman said: “We have a very successful relationship through our LEP with Birmingham and district councils and indeed neighbouring authorities. The expansion of Jaguar Land Rover’s plant in Solihull, including 1300 jobs, is a great example of what we are doing already and we recognise this benefits not just Solihull but the regional and national economy too.
“Any combined authority proposal would therefore need to add significant additional value for Solihull and a future defined economic area. So our position is let’s do our thinking intelligently, carefully and based on a sound footing.”
ON REGIONAL PAY
Mr Clegg said he had blocked plans to impose lower pay deals on public sector workers in some parts of the country, which would probably have included the Black Country and the outer areas of Birmingham. But he claimed Conservatives could bring the plan back if they formed a Government on their own.
He said: “They pushed it very hard and I had to push very hard back to stop it. The Conservatives have always been very keen in my experience at pushing this idea that nurses and teachers and doctors should be paid less in some parts of the country.”
ON STUDENT FEES
The Deputy Prime Minister insisted students actually liked the new fee system introduced by the Coalition, which saw maximum fees tripled from £3,000 a year to £9,000 a year.
He was widely criticised for breaking a promise made during the 2010 election campaign to vote against any increase in fees.
But Liberal Democrats point out that while richer graduates pay more under the new system, graduates on low average incomes actually pay less than they used to.
Mr Clegg said: “To state the obvious, we are not going to do as well among students as we did last time.
“But my experience, as someone who has a fair number of students in my own constituency, is that if you actually speak to students about the system that has bene introduced, they are the first to tell you that it is much much fairer than all the critics predicted it would be.
“Far from discouraging people from going to university, we now have more young people on fill time courses at university than ever before.”
ON OPINION POLLS
Mr Clegg dismissed people who interpret opinion polls as a “cottage industry of pundits” involved in a “fake science”, as he dismissed predictions the Lib Dems could lose the bulk of their 56 seats in the General Election.
“I think we have got into this ludicrous game at the moment, where every single Tom, Dick or Harry can pop up and come up with some entirely specious prediction on some entirely random poll and say that’s going to happen. It’s not going to happen.
“The notion that these predictions of Lib Dem wipeout – it’s just patent nonsense.”
Coalition government would become the norm, Mr Clegg predicted.
“I always anticipated that being one of the architects of the country’s first proper coalition at a time of economic emergency, when you are having to make lots of controversial decisions, is not going to be popular – but I think it is very much a harbinger of what’s going to happen in the future.
“It’s fairly obvious to me that coalitions will repeat themselves in the future.
“The two old parties are trying to turn the clock back and pretend that everybody either votes for the red team or the blue team.