Cllr Robert Pritchard is Deputy Leader of Tamworth Borough Council
There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to combined authorities. The, as of yet, unwritten paths they may take, their ultimate shape, membership, size and most importantly powers – to name a few things. However the only thing that is known for certain is that they are happening.
If you join one or not, one will probably be on your doorstep really soon. This is the case in the West Midlands. I have previously written on ConHome about the difficulties in balancing the differing opinions of county and district councils when it comes to the subject of Combined Authorities and functioning economic areas – especially the very difficult decisions when economic boundaries are different from county boundaries.
Unsurprisingly, the issue has progressed a lot since then. Warwickshire County Council have turned down their invitation to join the West Midlands Combined Authority. Perhaps more of my previous article bore out than expected as Warwickshire shares Staffordshire’s differing opinions?
However, we are where we are, and we now have a formal submission for the West Midlands Combined Authority with the government. This was led by the West Midlands Metropolitan councils and came with an open invitation for neighbouring councils to join.
So far, many district councils rounding the West Midlands are looking at each other and wondering what to do. Some councils are afraid of it, some running full steam into it and some just sticking their heads in the sand and waiting to see what will happen.
This decision is complicated for districts because unless a County Council joins it, the district can’t be a full member of the Combined Authority. That means you can’t be a constituent member inside its administrative boundaries.
But you can still join in another form. Surrounding districts outside the West Midlands Met’s boundaries get the opportunity of being a “non-constituent member”. This fancy title basically means you are not inside the boundaries of the combined authority, but you have a seat at the table and a vote on many, but not all, matters. For matters on which you don’t get a vote, you would still be at the table for the discussion. That alone is worth my council’s time and I suspect many other people would say the same.
I don’t know how anyone would not accept this is a very appealing opportunity, many of the benefits and, in my humble opinion, none of the risks.
I really feel that this is the single biggest opportunity to shape the economic region’s future – an opportunity that will never be given again in my political lifetime. The creation of a body focused on economic prosperity, possessing real power to make a difference in a huge area. This area won’t just be an administrative boundary but reach much further in every direction, stopping only at the limits of the core West Midlands economy influence. As districts you can be right at the heart of it. You would be mad to walk away and hold up inside your boundaries.
I am very proud to say that my council is running to the West Midlands Combined Authority at full steam.
However on the face of it not every shire district wants to join. From inter-council discussions, some councils are scared of it and what it could do. Additionally, some simply don’t understand it.
The combined authority isn’t a new council that takes services off existing councils against their will, builds houses in neighbouring districts, imposes dictats on other councils and is the start of local government reorganisation. Only its opponents seem to be pushing this message.
However, I have had councillors from some districts say to me that they won’t join because it means Birmingham can build houses in their district. While this is actually just a load of ill-informed rubbish, they forget that they will have to do that anyway as part of the duty to co-operate in planning law. In the Combined Authority or not, you will be building houses for Birmingham. So move on to the real issue to discuss, the economic prosperity and the future opportunities of your district.
Councils that don’t join are comforting themselves that have the opportunity to form partnership with comparable members of the Combined Authority, i.e. Neighbouring districts, to be their voice at the Combined Authority. This would be achieved through a memorandum of understanding if you like. This non-binding gentleman’s agreement would mean that a member of the Combined Authority would be their voice.
That doesn’t make any sense to me. If you care enough to want to be heard at a Combined Authority, you surely must care enough to be sat at the table. As a council that will join, Tamworth has the prospect of being a voice of multiple districts. This sounds ever more empowering, to go with the huge powers and decisions we would already get influence over or votes on at the Combined Authority board. But ultimately the message of non-members is reliant on others to get there, others that will be at the table and want to voice their own opinions first and foremost. I also wonder why a Combined Authority, business leaders, investors and politicians would want to listen the to views of those who, when the Combined Authority was born, were scared of, indifferent to or ignorant of the Combined Authority in the first place. That’s not something that would come out of any malice but the fact they didn’t have the drive or belief that they belong at the table must devalue their message.
The image brought up in my imagination is the views of non-member districts being visualised as little more than “post-it notes” taken along to the meeting and stuck to the back page of the agenda. Occasionally to receive a passing glance, light acknowledgement and then the ceremonial scrunch up and game of office basketball as they are thrown to the bin – as is the fate of so many post-it notes. Then the decisions carry on being made by those in the room.
It leads me to ask, can a district really afford to miss out actually being at the table? I know Tamworth won’t miss out, but some may do so – I believe, much to their eventual regret.
For South Staffordshire especially there is only one Combined Authority on offer: the West Midlands Combined Authority and its massive economic area. That’s not to say a Staffordshire and surrounding counties model is not possible; some councils are trying to develop a model. However, I would bet a drink it is many, many months, if not years, away from agreement. There is one available right now, covering their economic geography.
Personally, I think any district bordering any Combined Authority would be mad to refuse the offer to join as a non-constituent member. You get a say on the biggest economic decisions affecting your population, but none of the risks. You get the opportunity to demonstrate your commitment and readiness for serious investment and above all, the maturity of a seat at the table looking at the bigger picture, by the way a bigger picture than ever seen at a county level or even LEP’s.
Perhaps this is what put some off joining, the sheer size of the agenda. However, the feeling of watching the opportunity pass is not something we will feel in Tamworth. We won’t sit by and let the West Midlands economy just happen to Tamworth, as previous local government models have ensured. For the first time we will be there at the table grabbing the first opportunity to really influence our local economy. Because after all so many of the big drivers of district economies are often outside a district’s boundary. Perhaps those left behind could let us know what they are feeling, they can put it on a post-it note for us.