Monday, November 10, 2014

A quiet revolution?

Friday was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, so it was perhaps fitting that it also marked the end of division between the Black Country and Birmingham, with the announcement of work towards a West Midlands Combined Authority. Fortunately, this rapprochement was achieved without the intervention of David Hasselhoff. 

I have no doubt that this is in the interest of Birmingham and the rest of the Midlands. This is a potentially transformative change in how the Midlands works – putting power back in our hands and reducing reliance on Whitehall. It isn't the most exciting proposal on the doorstep, I grant you, but the potential is huge. Bringing the West Midlands together creates a single region generating 15% of the nation's GDP - we'll have a tremendously powerful voice.

A combined authority isn’t, as some have suggested, a “super-council” – the constituent local authorities will carry on, representing and delivering services to their residents, but there will be a process for them to work together. Primarily, this will be about economic development and transport – we have the chance to create a body that could work like a regional version of Transport for London and the authorities will work together on the economy. Powers can be passed up from the local authorities, but they decide that together and the councils don’t have to surrender those powers completely – members of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority retain their economic development powers.

What does that mean? Economic development is crucial to the function of a local authority like Birmingham – businesses like Deutsche Bank brought 2000 jobs to this City as the result of a coordinated effort to identify their potential interest and provide a matching package of help to ensure that they made the right choice. That’s the sort of work that the combined authority will do – working across borders for the benefit of all.

Neither employers nor employees look at local authority borders – I actually worked out that apart from being a councillor, I’ve not actually worked in Birmingham since 1996. My career has taken me to Coventry, Mansfield and Oldbury (twice) and that’s not unusual. Employers moving into Birmingham or Sandwell or Walsall will employ people from across the city region – what’s good for one authority also has benefits for others.

Crucially, powers also come down from government. Last week’s deal for Greater Manchester promises this:
  • a new housing investment fund of up to £300m, with the aim of building up to 15,000 more homes over 10 years
  • greater planning powers
  • responsibility for local transport, including power to run franchised bus services and provide Oyster-style integrated tickets
  • welfare-to-work programmes, with a budget of £100m, to help up to 50,000 people back into work
  • control of existing health and social care budgets, which have been pooled by local authorities across Greater Manchester
  • greater responsibility for business support and further education
  • up to £30m a year for the growth generated by its economy
We’ve a long way to go before the authority is legally constituted or before we understand the precise deal on the table from government.

So this is a real opportunity for the Midlands, but there are some that disagree. Solihull seems quite lukewarm on the idea, but that has a knock on effect – current rules require that councils making up combined authorities have to share boundaries, so unless Solihull join, Coventry can’t join in.

The Conservative candidate for Solihull, Julian Knight has decided that this whole idea – of working together to bring jobs and prosperity to the whole region – isn’t a good idea.
There has been increasing talk of a Greater Birmingham authority encompassing Solihull. Julian Knight, parliamentary candidate for Solihull has looked at the early proposals and is deeply disturbed over the plans. Julian is also launching a campaign to stop Solihull being subsumed into this ill-conceived Greater Birmingham authority...
Now, even a basic understanding of a combined authority means that no council is “subsumed” into Birmingham or anywhere else. Indeed, if he is opposed to this proposal, I assume that he will also be campaigning for Solihull to withdraw from CENTRO or the West Midlands Fire Authority, upon both of which councillors from across the region sit to run and monitor key services. I assume he will insist on Solihull's immediate resignation from the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership. But I suspect that Julian will declare victory at some point, having saved Solihull from being swallowed up in a way that nobody has actually proposed. (See also George Osborne saving us from paying £1.7 billion to the EU. Which we were never going to have to pay in the first place,) Even if Solihull does decide to stay outside the CA, I'm sure that Julian will be only too happy for the residents to take up any new jobs delivered thanks to the policies of the neighbouring councils.

Also in pursuit of short term political gain are UKIP, who have also decided to oppose this. I’m not entirely sure to which part of jobs, prosperity or genuine local control they are opposed, but opposed they are. Just as over HS/2, they don’t have the interests of the West Midlands at heart.