Peter Smallbone is a Conservative activist living in Birmingham and a former Councillor for the city.
The West Midlands. The only emotion the term is likely to engender, if any, is one of mild confusion. It’s basically just Birmingham isn’t it? But you get MEPs for the West Midlands, so it must be fairly big, right?
This is where the identity crisis begins. To start with, there are at least two ‘West Midlandses’: the six-county region that elects seven MEPs; and the much smaller county that includes, inter alia, the cities of Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton.
The latter was created in 1974 with a corresponding County Council. During the council’s brief existence, it was frequently criticised for being authoritative and out of touch, as well as a Labour thorn in Thatcher’s side. By 1985, the Conservative government had lost patience and scrapped it the following year, along with five others and the much more widely remembered Greater London Council.
For some reason, the old county structure was never put back and the West Midlands struggled on for the next thirty years, its identity kept alive largely by the eponymous police, fire and public transport services.
Things are set to change with the creation of the West Midlands Combined Authority. As in Greater Manchester, the concept really does promise a ‘devolution revolution’, with considerable money and power transferred from Whitehall to Wolverhampton, West Bromwich and Walsall.
Sadly, when it comes to communication and public engagement, all of the signs so far point to the WMCA repeating the mistakes of its County Council forebear. The name is the first problem. Greater Manchester have come up with a really good name for their combined authority: they have called it ‘Greater Manchester Combined Authority’. It works because Manchester is a real place. But as we’ve already seen, the West Midlands is not, so the name ‘West Midlands Combined Authority’ is pointless.
To compound this rather depressing point, let us now turn to what WMCA laughingly describe as their ‘Open Survey’, intended to solicit the views of ordinary Brummies, Wulfrunians and Silhillians. You can find it here. ‘Question’ Four goes like this:
“By better coordination of strategic issues on economic development, regeneration and transport across the region and by improving partnership working through the creation of a Combined Authority, councils will be better placed to secure more effective and convenient local government and better services in general.”
This is a sentence (note ‘a’ sentence) of which the old West Midlands County Council’s apparatchiks would surely be proud. So detached in its irrelevance. So untouchable in its banality. So resplendent in its incomprehensibility. Indeed, it is one of two questions in the survey to post a negative readability score.
The only hope lies in the deal that WMCA recently struck with the Treasury. The most interesting and important commitment in the full deal document, which as you would expect by now is entirely absent from the summary document, is “a new, directly elected Mayor for the West Midlands”.
The first mayoral election will be in May 2017, so if past performance is anything to go by, we have around another year to put up with more of the same from the West Midlands Combined Authority. But the authority already has an image problem. To avoid the fate of the old County Council, the new mayor will need to get a grip on this, and quickly.