Cllr Robert Pritchard is Deputy Leader of Tamworth Borough Council
There has long been a differing view between county councils and district councils on key issues facing local authorities, even if those councils are of the same political colour.
Districts often say that county councils don’t understand the needs of communities at the coal face, and counties often say that districts don’t get the bigger picture. There is constant friction between the different levels of local government, but not that friction is necessarily a bad thing. It can spur us on to overcome our differences. However combined authorities has really brought these differences to the surface.
The drive to create combined authorities in the West Midlands, and elsewhere, is welcomed by many as a solution to these differing points of view. We have the opportunity to create powerful, dynamic city regions that can drive the nation’s economy forward.
Many national economies operate on the principle of core cities fuelling the growth and prosperity of a wider city region. So the desire to align with a core city economy through a Combined Authority doesn’t seem unusual.
However, other authorities view these conglomerations as an infringement on the rights and responsibilities of more traditional and established structure of local government.
In the West Midlands we have several big cities (Birmingham, Coventry & Wolverhampton) as well as economically active surrounding regions including Walsall, Sandwell, Dudley and Solihull. All these unitary authorities encompass the old “West Midlands County”. This area is surrounded by two-tier local government in the form of the many shires and districts that make up the West Midlands region of Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.
These surrounding two-tier authorities are home to a great many commuters that travel into the core cities every morning. Many of these, like Tamworth, just north west of Birmingham and the Black Country openly refer themselves as commuter towns, not shy to the economic realities of the present day. Today in Staffordshire, Tamworth has little in common with its county town Stafford and has much more in common economically with the greater Birmingham region than Staffordshire as a whole. Our economy, along with our South Staffordshire neighbouring towns, very much points south into the old West Midlands County.
Across the Greater Birmingham economy there are already strong examples of joint working between district and unitary councils for the wider economic benefit. This is in the form of the Greater Birmingham Economic Partnership (LEP’s), however these partnerships stretch further than just the core “West Midlands County”.
Travel to work patterns show 95 per cent of workers in the Coventry, Greater Birmingham & Solihull and Black Country LEP’s stay within these three combined LEP areas. Therefore Tamworth is justified in stating it has little economical interaction with the north of our own County.
The LEP’s boundaries and influence stretches far into the surrounding shires in all directions. While formal partnerships often stop at County boundaries, for years the many districts in the West Midlands region have joined the various West Midlands LEP’s. As districts we all know that we, or more accurately our residents, have a lot to gain from a thriving economic block which stretches across our borders.
This is why Tamworth was a founding member of Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP (GBSLEP) and didn’t join the Stoke and Staffordshire LEP, despite being in Staffordshire. We were not the only Staffordshire Council to adopt this position. Several more have duel membership of a West Midlands LEP or sole membership of a “neighbouring counties” LEP, a position not endorsed by the county council.
This is where much friction between local government manifests. The LEPs offered an opportunity to smaller districts and borough councils to shape the huge economic factors in the West Midlands. The Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP offers its members the simple and fair principle of one member one vote. Imagine the draw as a small district we were given the same voting power as Birmingham or Solihull on projects, policies and spending power. This opportunity has led to a truly eye-opening and engaging experience that has enabled us to build strong bonds with other local authorities and allowed us to be truly business led.
Compare this model to looking inward to our county. Stoke and Staffordshire LEP would not afford Tamworth to have a vote, let alone alignment with the major economic contributors in the area. I am not seeking to criticise the work of Stoke and Staffordshire, I am proud to be from Staffordshire and the counties LEP and County Council has done good work here in Tamworth, but our economy does not stop at Staffordshire’s historical borders. You could even argue much of our economy isn’t even in Staffordshire as many of our residents commute out of the county every morning.
The districts very much believe that what is good for their district is good for the county, but is this belief universally shared? We wish to be a strong Staffordshire family, preferring to bring the County with us to the West Midlands powerhouse. This is not something that has yet been achieved. Some believe the county is stronger alone, but can a standalone county compete with the real economic powers that both draw in and drive surrounding district economies?
Perhaps the devolution process is painful for County administrators, the downward power shift means decision, previously strategic, are to be taken by the local districts where they can choose what is best for them and their residents alone. This focus will continue as increasingly districts will look toward their economic centres for decision on transport, business rates and strategic economic matters. I welcome this shift as a means of improving economic prosperity and continuing the work of LEPs which built successful partnerships outside ceremonial boundaries.
This kind of working has delivered real success so far, Tamworth’s JSA claimant counts is just over 300. There is almost full employment here and that is because of our connectivity with a prospering West Midlands on our door step, not a prospering north or central Staffordshire.
County councils have to balance hugely diverse economies, this is perhaps their biggest challenge. In Staffordshire there is almost no economic activity between the north and south of the county and more importantly no real transport connectivity. The south has excellent links to Birmingham, and the north is well served by Manchester. From Tamworth you can be in the centre of Birmingham in 20 minutes, by contrast it can take an hour to reach Stoke-on Trent (Staffordshire’s major city), indeed the most northern rural parts in the north of the county can take much longer to reach.
Residents of Burton upon Trent can be in Derby in half the time it can take to get to Stoke or Stafford. From Cannock it take drivers minutes to get to Walsall, and Lichfield District actually borders Birmingham.
This in reality means that each district is pulling in different directions away from the county into neighbouring areas, the south heavily linked with the West Midlands, the west looking toward the Black Country, the east with an eye towards Derby, Leicester and Nottingham and the north toward Manchester and the “Northern Powerhouse”.
The crux of the matter is who knows best where to align your district. Existing county ties or the actual economic powerhouse on the doorstep. In South Staffordshire there is a huge divide between the town level of local government and county.
Perhaps county council’s see there’s a paternalist role they need to play? Do they feel they must protect their county family?
There is a joke that has emerged between local government politicians in Staffordshire that’s paints the districts as an unfaithful partner that has run off with an alluring mistress, one which we will soon return from to the open arms of the county family. However, the reality is that we have since married, settled down and started a family with our new lover. This leaves the county council running the risk of being left as a jilted spinster.
County councils continue to deliver vital public services and relationships between tiers of Government must continue to deliver on educational, health and transportation issues which have never been so important. On so many issues, especially health and social care, we need the county to lead and help tackle the issues facing its residents. They will have steadfast support of their districts to do this.
However county councils must secede and accept that the economic strategy of districts must be aligned to their neighbouring economic powerhouse. I don’t feel that this is a view is shared by my colleagues across Staffordshire and it begs the question.
Given that the county council are excluded from decisions on whether a district joins a Combined authority I wonder –
- Should County be opposed to some of their districts joining in with combined authorities which reach far outside the county borders?
- Should they use their might to beef up districts, making them even more important combined authority members?
- And most importantly, will the West Midlands Combined Authority be a new start for Staffordshire, or a continuation of old frustrations.
There is so much we can and will achieve together, but there is also so much we will achieve separately from our traditional county partnerships. This isn’t a bad thing, and it’s no way intended to be placing us at odd with colleagues.
After all we all want the same thing, economic opportunity for our residents but this can’t be delivered on a once size fits all the county model.