Work on a business case for the UK’s biggest combined authority has begun – but leaders have been told elected mayors will be needed.
With Solihull and Coventry on board, the West Midlands combined authority is set to oversee a region with of four million people and an £81 billion economy.
Leaders of the seven authorities, which also include Birmingham, Sandwell, Wolverhampton, Walsall and Dudley, have pledged to “grasp the nettle” and push for a “major devolution deal”.
But with most of the leaders opposed to a region-wide mayor, they are set for a rough ride with government after it was spelled out as a prerequisite in the Queen’s speech.
The Queen said: “To bring different parts of our country together, my Government will work to bring about a balanced economic recovery. Legislation will be introduced to provide for the devolution of powers to cities with elected metro mayors.”
Speaking on behalf of the West Midlands authorities exploring options for a combined authority, the leader of Sandwell Council councillor Darren Cooper, said: “The Queen’s speech demonstrates that the government is prioritising devolution to cities, coming fast on the heels of major announcements about the Northern Powerhouse, the forthcoming Productivity Plan and the appointment of new ministers to drive this agenda.
“For our area this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move power from Whitehall to the West Midlands and have a much bigger say in making the key decisions that will drive economic growth in relation to transport, housing, regeneration and jobs. There is a real sense of urgency in the region and politicians are grasping the nettle to transform how our councils work together and to present a credible, ambitious and compelling business case to government.”
Coun Cooper said there was a clear plan that would see the councils work alongside residents, businesses and organisations with the aim of developing a prospectus, to be published in the summer.
The Queen’s speech came a day after the latest meeting of council leaders, who now have an agreement-in-principle.
If a combined authority brought together the three local enterprise partnership areas, that would mean it would cover a region with an £81 billion economy – dwarfing Greater Manchester, which is more like £54 billion. The name – with Greater Birmingham seen as unpopular outside the city – and metro mayor issue are likely to be sticking points. They are presently not being debated, with issues like skills, infrastructure and housing at the fore.
However, business leaders have urged civic bosses to bury parochialism for the greater good.
Johnathan Dudley, regional managing partner of national audit, tax and advisory firm Crowe Clark Whitehill, said: “The force of economics and commercial pressure will take on local political fiefdoms in a battle where those that reform will take the winnings for themselves, leaving parochial authorities behind.”
Mike Dell, chairman of the Black Country Chamber of Commerce Devolution Group, said it was important business was at the heart of the agenda.
He said: “Our members are in favour of a West Midlands approach and the news is one step further forward to achieving this.
“Whether we like it or not we are competing with Greater Manchester and the Northern Powerhouse and the industrial heart of the UK needs the right political infrastructure to ensure we are able to manage our future effectively.
“However, where we can make a real difference is through the engagement of business leaders. I understand the Government’s focus on elected mayors but without business leaders taking ownership of the skills and transport agenda, all we will end up with is a bureaucratic superstructure.”