SEVEN councils including Coventry today chose the city to launch their grand plan for joining in a combined authority.
The prospectus – a ‘statement of intent’ – was launched by leading members of the West Midlands councils at Coventry Council House.
They have chosen the working title for the new body as the ‘West Midlands Combined Authority’.
Politicans and business leaders in Birmingham and the Black Country have argued it should be called the Greater Birmingham Combined Authority – to give the name global recognition. They argue few people know where the West Midlands is.
The decision to launch the prospectus in Coventry will be interpreted as a gesture to attempt to persuade local people that councils like Coventry will not be playing second fiddle to Birmingham in the new regional authority.
Coventry council leader Ann Lucas insists it would have one vote for one member each sent from participating councils.
But Coventry Conservatives say the ‘one member one vote’ principle could be cast aside, with Conservative government chancellor George Osborne insisting the combined authority must have a powerful elected mayor leading it if it wants to gain the full range of spending powers offered for jobs, transport and other policy areas.
Opponents fear the elected mayor could become a ‘Birmingham-centric’ Birmingham figure as there will be more voters in England’s second city than in other participating local authority areas.
Today’s prospectus neither says ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to having an elected mayor for the West Midlands Combined Authority.
It is despite leaders at some Labour-run councils including Coventry campaigning against elected mayors for councils in 2012, when voters in Coventry voted two-to-one against having an elected mayor. Birmingham voters also said ‘No’ in those referenda three years ago.
Coventry Tory group leader John Blundell said the first he heard about today’s event was through the media.
He said it was another example of the Labour leadership attempting to ‘railroad’ through the combined authority, which he argues has proved to be unpopular with Coventry people.
Coventry’s Labour-run cabinet rejected the Conservatives’ and 4000 petitioners’ calls for a referendum to decide if Coventry people wanted to join a combined authority with the Birmingham, Solihull and Black Country councils.
Tories prefer a combined authority with Warwickshire councils who are also sceptical about the proposed West Midlands body, while discussions continue over whether they will join in some capacity.
The Labour councils involved in the West Midlands Combined Authority are to present today’s ‘statement of intent’ to Mr Osborne.
Coun Lucas said today: “By working together we can move powers from Whitehall to the West Midlands and start building a Midlands engine in the heart of the country.
“..Our aim is to consult and work with more partners across the private, public and third sector so that we can establish our Combined Authority in April next year.”
Yet Coventry council leaders had also pledged to listen to people’s views in a series of public forum events taking place throughout the city until the end of the month.
Bob Sleigh, Leader of Solihull council, claimed the combined authority presented a “unique opportunity” to tackle a £16 billion shortfall in the West Midlands economy compared with the national average – £4000 less per person.
Conservative business secretary Sajid Javid said: “I welcome the ambition shown today by the new West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and will back them in their mission to drive forward the Midlands Engine. ”
The WMCA has identified five early priorities:
• A Strategic Plan for the West Midlands
• Access to a Finance and collective investment
• A long term transport plan for the region
• Creating an economic policy and intelligence team
• A joint programme on ‘skills’ – for jobs and training
The WMCA also proposes to establish three new independent “commissions” to help shape the combined authority.
It will seek government support for
• The West Midlands Productivity Commission
• The West Midlands Land Commission
• The West Midlands Commission on Mental Health and Public Services
More details at www.westmidlandscombinedauthority.org.uk