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- The diamond: this is not just about seven metropolitan unitary councils getting together but the scope for expansion to, and development in, a wider area of local authorities currently covered by three Local Enterprise Partnerships.
- The focus: the launch statement has “four overarching themes:
- collaborating to make the region act as one place
- creating the jobs of the future
- reforming public services to give people the help they need to succeed
- connecting the region more effectively internationally, internally and with neighbouring areas”.
- Key issues: the West Midlands Combined Authority will have five early delivery priorities:
- development of a Strategic Economic Plan
- access to finance and a Collective Investment Vehicle
- getting the transport offer right for the long term
- creation of an economic policy and intelligence capacity
- a joint programme on skills.
- Opportunities: three major new independent Commissions will begin work immediately and independently to bring forward initial ideas for consideration later this year to inform the further development of the West Midlands Combined Authority:
- The West Midlands Productivity Commission: we want to be in the space of equipping schools, social enterprises and housing associations to help tackle the low level skills across workforces;
- The West Midlands Land Commission: we can help ensure that the opportunities afforded for development on public sector-owned land are fully exploited, not just for places to work and for enterprise, but places to live and thrive in;
- The West Midlands Commission on Mental Health and Public Services: we agree that “tackling mental health problems as and when they occur is vital to the effective reform of public services and the fulfilment of our wider economic objectives”. We advise both individuals and organisations providing support services in this critical area, and help bring together a rounded view here.
Although devolution is not about ticking boxes, the proposed West Midlands Combined Authority does seem to meet three “essentials of an ambitious deal” that Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, spelt out in his speech to the Local Government Association conference on 2nd July:
“First, unity. One of the things that has, in my view, held back the decentralisation of power is the fragmentation of local government. Too often differences between neighbours – side by side, upper and lower – have distracted from the shared interests that unite an area. These divisions must be overcome.”
“Second, business participation. In a few short years the LEPs have guaranteed a strong voice for business in local leadership. At their best, business leaders have made an amazing contribution to their local areas – bringing employer knowledge of skill requirements, development opportunities and entrepreneurship to complement the civic leadership of local councils. I would not expect to approve any deal that did not have a clear role for the LEP.”
“Third, ambition. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill is wide in scope. It allows any power, other than powers to legislate, currently held by a minister or public body to be devolved. The Spending Review provides an unmissable opportunity to show my colleagues in central government how the nation benefits, as well as local people, if things are done differently.”
Greg Clark talks about this being a great time for born-again localists. Speaking as a born-first-time localist, I welcome the Launch Statement’s single phrase: “the third sector will also play a significant role” and I ask that we have the chance to unpack what that could mean in practice. I am curious to know how this sentence will be played out: “All communities will benefit from growth, but not necessarily at the same time or in the same way”. As we move to re-balance the economy locally, we must not leave some people behind. So an examination of how we create collaborative ways of delivering public services, in which those benefitting are as much part of the offer to help as the cause for demand, should be a shared tenet for making life better for even more people than we can now.
As to the Bill, it offers a mix and match menu of options for the shape and form of the enhanced combined authorities and their mayoral forms. So the preferred structure of a mayor plus combined authority is actually only one of a variety of forms that could be adopted in the discussions between relevant councils and central government. Politically, an expectation may be on the first wave to adopt the Government’s preferred model, but there may be scope for other permutations under this Bill. The Bill says much about the combined authorities adopting more local government functions, together with those other bodies that operate at a local or regional level, but the radical rhetoric that accompanies the Bill is not reflected in explicit provisions that actually show Government departments giving up their functions and passing them through to local government. It could be strengthened therefore by an explicit assumption in favour of the “transfer of functions”.
Finally, what’s in a name? There are a few rumbles that “Greater Birmingham” would be a better name than “West Midlands”. Given the reach of the diamond, I’d like to suggest “the Central England Combined Authority”. More people have heard of “England” than “Birmingham”! Discuss.
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