‘GREATER Birmingham’ should be the name for the new regional combined authority which Coventry is seeking to join, say business leaders in Birmingham and the black country.
In a press statement today which will inflame an already fractous debate in Coventry, the Black Country Chamber of Commerce Devolution Group said only use of the word ‘Birmingham’ could bring global recognition to the so-called new ‘West Midlands powerhouse’.
It would win the full range of spending powers offered for jobs and transport from the government if it agrees to have a controversial elected mayor heading it – an idea rejected by both Coventry and Birmingham voters in referenda three years ago.
It comes as Coventry city councillors yesterday fiercely debated the matter along Labour/Conservative party lines.
The Tory group which initiated the debate insisted the plan should be ditched if a sceptical Warwickshire County Council and the county’s district councils refuse to join with the Birmingham conurbation metropolitan councils, which are Labour run.
Coventry council’s ruling Labour leaders are in favour of joining the new authority “in principle” pending further discussions with councils and public consultation.
But council leader Ann Lucas spoke out yesterday against any “need” for an elected mayor which chancellor George Osborne is publicly insisting on if the West Midlands is to receive “the full suite of powers” available.
Mike Dell, managing director of BC Barton Ltd and chair of the Black Country Chamber of Commerce Devolution Group, said in today’s statement: “I agree with Andy Street, Chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.
“The name ‘Birmingham’ is recognised on the world stage, West Midlands is not and we do not want to be trying to explain where we are.
“It is important that we put aside parochial perspectives and work together.
“The Greater Birmingham Combined Authority will be the means by which the Black Country will get its hands on transport infrastructure and skills monies that will underpin our growth.
“Within Greater Birmingham, Black Country businesses can demonstrate their worth on an international stage and secure the long term future of the region.”
Responding to comments by longstanding regional devolution advocate Lord Heseltine regarding risks to central government of devolving powers to a historically divided West Midlands region, Mr Dell said: “Business leaders should not be frightened to tell the mandarins of Whitehall about the appetite for change within the region.
“The Black Country has its blueprint for a £34bn economy. Business people know the steps that need to be taken and will work with politicians to create an agenda for change.
“The risk to the Black Country of doing nothing is greater than that to Whitehall.”
Coventry Tories including John Blundell and Ken Taylor spoke of ‘distrastrous’ current and past arrangements such as the former West Midlands County Council, and of how the proposed new arrangement could suck government funding and investment out of Coventry and into Birmingham.
They said public reaction in Coventry so far showed people did not want to be part of the new regional partnership with Birmingham, and Coventrians had rejected elected mayors in 2012.
Coun Blundell said Coun Lucas’s repeated message that each council involved in the combined authority would have ‘one member one vote’ was undermined and “put aside” by the power an elected mayor would yield over it.
Labour leaders, who have protested against media use of the phrase ‘Greater Birmingham’, accused the Tories of peddling misinformation and using “the politics of fear”.
Leading Labour councillor Kevin Maton said Coventry would be better to be in, rather than out, of the new regional authority.
He said playing a part would mean Coventry standing up for itself, while having a say in major strategic decisions, including over Birmingham Airport and HS2.