COVENTRY business leaders have joined with their West Midlands counterparts in supporting plans for the city to join with Birmingham and Black Country councils in a combined authority.
And council leaders including Coventry’s Ann Lucas are reported to be set to table proposals to chancellor George Osborne which do not rule out having an elected mayor to head the new regionwide body – in return for maximum spending ‘powers’ devolved from the government.
The Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce has joined forces with its counterparts in Birmingham and the Black Country to back council leaders’ plans for the combined authority recently declared in a ‘statement of intent’, launched in Coventry last month.
The idea of creating the West Midlands Combined Authority by next April has been controversial among Coventry people, with many fearing a transfer of power on housing, jobs and transport from the Coventry region to the Birmingham conurbation.
It is also controversial because Coventry people in a referendum in 2012 voted two-to-one to oppose the government’s desire for elected mayors to run city councils.
Coun Lucas has repeatedly said powers will transfer from Whitehall and Westminster, not the Coventry and Warwickshire region.
But sceptical Coventry Conservatives and Warwickshire council figures have argued many of the ‘powers’ will simply transfer from existing bodies such as West Midlands passenger transport authority Centro, potentially from the Police and Crime Commissioner, and the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) – a partnership between councils and business set up in response to the coalition government’s abolition of regional body Advantage West Midlands.
Coun Lucas has said there is “no need” for an elected mayor, but the combined council leaders are drawing up proposals to open up dialogue with Mr Osborne from next month over the prospect of a combined authority either with or without an elected mayor.
Any such proposals will have to be approved by councils including Labour-run Coventry City Council. Many leading Labour councillors fiercely opposed the idea of elected mayors three years ago, saying it meant a less democratic system than having a leader and cabinet, and placed too much power in the hands of one person.
Meanwhile, chief executives of chambers in the Black Country, Coventry and Warwickshire and Greater Birmingham have combined to back the seven metropolitan authority leaders.
A joint Chambers open letter, signed by Louise Bennett (Coventry and Warwickshire), Margaret Corneby (Black Country) and Paul Faulkner (Greater Birmingham), said council leaders’ ‘statement of intent’ provided “a powerful basis for a successful combined authority”.
It added: “We would now like to add formally the weight of the three leading business support organisations in the area, representing the private enterprise that will be vital to the success of the combined authority.
“We do believe that the chambers should be collectively built into the engagement process going forward. The recent growth in our respective LEP areas was private-sector led and it is important that this continues.
“Businesses in our regions see this as a tremendous opportunity to put the Black Country, Coventry, Greater Birmingham and Solihull at the heart of an economic revolution so it is important that strong collaboration between the private and public sectors is maintained and built upon.
“By working together, we can deliver the jobs and growth that are vital to the economic development of the region.
“As you have pointed out, the achievement of the goal of the combined authority will require new ways of working between the local authorities and the three LEPs and the private sector.”
Critics say the government is not offering real power in its pledge to devolve power on economic development, transport and other policy areas to the English regions, not least as it is disproportionately cutting councils’ funding.
Critics also point to Westminster dictating that combined authorities must have elected mayors if they want the “full suite of powers” – rather than genuinely letting regions decide themselves how to run their own affairs.