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Boundary rules thwart West Midlands combined authority

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Rigid legislation over combined authorities has left the West Midlands as the only metropolitan area now lacking one.

Disputes in the region turn on whether the Black Country – Walsall MBC, Wolverhampton City Council, Dudley MBC and Sandwell MBC – should form a combined authority or whether Birmingham and Coventry city councils and Solihull MBC could also be involved.

Combined authorities are statutory bodies in which member councils pool powers and money for transport, economic development and regeneration.

But only adjacent authorities with similar powers may join and not, for example, individual districts or parts of counties.

Solihull MBC leader Ken Meeson (Con) told LGC he would be reluctant to join any combined authority since he believed Solihull had a different economic base from the rest of the region. Without Solihull’s involvement, Birmingham and Coventry could not form a combined authority because they are not adjacent.

Wolverhampton leader Roger Lawrence (Lab) said: “As far as I am aware all authorities except Solihull would form a combined authority.”

Once City of York Council’s legal position as a non-contiguous associate member of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority was clearer “it may allow us to proceed” with a combined authority without Solihull, he said.

Cllr Meeson said: “The Black Country authorities have a history of a specific identity so perhaps a combined authority would make sense for them, but they have little in common with Solihull.” He added that Solihull was a thriving area with an economy that was unlike the rest of the industrialised region.

He said a whole region combined authority would cut across three local enterprise partnerships and be “very disruptive and artificial”, and that the West Midlands could not be compared with the successful combined authority in Greater Manchester as that comprised 10 councils of roughly equal size while “Birmingham dwarfs its neighbours”.

Solihull has strong economic links with districts in surrounding counties, which could not join a combined authority, he added.

Dudley MBC leader David Sparks (Lab), who will become LGA chair next month, said: “The four Black Country councils are in a joint committee and a city deal, so that is a strong formal centre of gravity.

“My preferred option is a combined authority for the West Midlands but if any authority did not want to join then, because combined authorities recognise the reality of transport and regeneration in conurbations, I would be advocating one based on the Black Country. No one authority can exercise a veto over this.”

Cllr Sparks said Birmingham would be “an obvious partner” and that, were York’s position resolved, Telford & Wrekin BC was a potential member, as could be Coventry.

The membership legislation problem has also stalled progress on a possible combined authority for Coventry and Warwickshire, which have instead established a joint committee for economic development, regeneration and strategic planning.

A Coventry cabinet report in March noted that its city deal was focused on local advanced manufacturing and engineering and so included the Leicestershire district of Hinckley & Bosworth BC.

Legislation meant the district could not join a combined authority without the whole of Leicestershire participating, which the report said “would be an additional complication at this stage”.

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