There has long been a differing view between counties and districts on key issues.
Districts say counties don’t understand the needs of communities at the coal face, and counties say districts don’t get the bigger picture. There is constant friction between the different levels of local government and combined authorities have brought these differences to the surface.
Combined authorities in the West Midlands are welcomed by many as a solution to these differences. We have the opportunity to create powerful, dynamic city regions.
Many national economies operate on the principle of core cities fuelling the growth of a wider 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 structures of local government.
In the West Midlands we have several big cities such as Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton, as well as economically active surrounding regions including Walsall, Sandwell, Dudley and Solihull. All these unitary authorities were created from the former West Midlands County Council.
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 many commuters who travel into the cities. In Tamworth we refer to ourselves as a commuter town, not shy to the economic reality. Tamworth has little in common with its county town Stafford and more in common with the greater Birmingham region than Staffordshire. Our economy, along with our South Staffordshire neighbouring towns, very much points 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, such as the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.
Commuting patterns show 95% of workers in the Coventry, Greater Birmingham & Solihull and Black Country LEPs stay within these three combined areas. Tamworth has little economical interaction with the north of our county but while formal partnerships often stop at county boundaries, for years the many districts in the West Midlands region have joined the various West Midlands LEPs.
Our residents have much to gain from a thriving economic block that stretches across our borders. This is why Tamworth was a founding member of Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP and didn’t join the Stoke and Staffordshire LEP, despite being in Staffordshire. Several Staffordshire councils have dual membership of a West Midlands LEP or sole membership of neighbouring counties’ LEPs; a position not endorsed by the county.
The Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP offers its members the simple and fair principle of one member, one vote. We were given the same voting power as Birmingham.
By contrast, the Stoke and Staffordshire LEP would not give Tamworth a vote. I am not seeking to criticise the work of Stoke and Staffordshire, but our economy does not stop at Staffordshire’s historical borders.
The districts believe 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 it compete with the economic powers that drive surrounding district economies?
Perhaps the devolution process is painful for county administrators; the downward power-shift means decisions, previously strategic, are to be taken by districts. This kind of working has delivered success: there is almost full employment in Tamworth and that is because of our connectivity with a prospering West Midlands on our door step, not with north or central Staffordshire.
In Staffordshire there is almost no economic activity straddling the north and south of the county and no transport connectivity. 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.
The joke between politicians in Staffordshire is that the districts are behaving like an unfaithful partner who has run off with a lover and who will soon return to the open arms of the county. However, the reality is that we have married our new lover, leaving the county at risk of being left alone.
On so many issues, especially health and social care, we still need the county to lead. It will have support from districts to do so. However, counties must accept that the districts must align to their neighbouring economic centre.
Robert Pritchard (Con), deputy leader, Tamworth BC