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West Midlands combined authority proposal gains boost

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Plans to form a combined authority for the West Midlands have received a major boost after two key councils indicated they were prepared to join.

Coventry City Council and Solihull MBC had been awaiting the outcome of the general and local elections before making a decision on whether to join the proposed combined authority.

In the next few weeks leaders of Coventry Ann Lucas (Lab) and Solihull Bob Sleigh (Con) are set to formally recommend their respective authorities join forces with Dudley, Sandwell, and Walsall MBCs, and Birmingham and Wolverhampton city councils in a bid to win more powers and controls of funding from central government.

Cllr Lucas told LGC: “The Midlands has been left behind. If you look at the north and the powers and responsibilities they have got, and the funding streams they have access to, they are in danger of squeezing the Midlands out and that is not going to happen on my watch.”

There has been local opposition to the proposals over fears Coventry will be overlooked by Birmingham but Cllr Lucas said that was “complete and utter nonsense”. She said the way to boost the region’s economy “starts with us being grown up”. A decision is likely to be made by the end of June, she said.

Cllr Sleigh said in a statement he had informed members he was intending “to seek approval for taking forward detailed discussions in principle to support a combined authority for the West Midlands”.

“This decision follows extensive discussions and analysis of the evidence over several months and has been taken in the light of the chancellor’s recent announcement to bring forward legislation to devolve powers,” he said.

Cllr Sleigh said he believed the combined authority should cover the three local enterprise partnership areas covering Birmingham and Solihull, the Black Country, and Coventry and Warwickshire.

It is not known whether Warwickshire CC intends to join this particular combined authority but in a statement leader Izzi Seccombe (Con) said she would “watch with interest the emerging conversations around combined authorities and support the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP as the basis for focusing opportunity locally”.

Coventry and Solihull’s announcements come less than a week after chancellor George Osborne outlined plans to give “major” cities greater control of transport, housing, skills, policing, and health and social care as long as they “choose to have a directly elected metro-wide mayor”.

In December Cllr Lucas voiced opposition to the elected mayor model and said she could “promise” Coventry “will not have a mayor running business for us from the council house in Birmingham”.

Talking to LGC yesterday, Cllr Lucas said Mr Osborne referred to “metro mayors” in his speech and she did not know what that meant for the region. “That’s very much up for debate,” she said. “If not’s right for Coventry, we can walk away.”

Proposals to form a West Midlands combined authority have proved problematic since plans were first unveiled in November. While Birmingham, Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall, and Wolverhampton signed up to the proposal when it was announced, Coventry and Solihull did not want to make a decision until after the elections.

Also, in December Sir Bob Kerslake, the then outgoing permanent secretary at the Department for Communities & Local Government, published his review of Birmingham City Council’s governance  which recommended that Birmingham should form a combined authority with Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, and Wolverhampton by July 2015. Coventry was not included in that list, although Sir Bob’s review did leave the door open for other authorities to join at a later date.

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