Next April Fools’ Day will see the establishment of a new West Midlands Combined Authority. This involves the coming together of Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Dudley, Walsall, Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull councils and members from each will sit on the board.
The new organisation is proposed to give joined-up thinking on issues such as: transport (Centro will be included as part of the structure), marketing, economic investment, regeneration and some other public services. As part of the ‘devolution’ agenda, set out by Lord Heseltine, and which George Osborne is pushing, the WMCA will likely have an elected mayor.
Whilst we often bemoan the lack of co-operation between neighbouring councils, and this new authority may be advantageous when it comes to a number of issues, in particular infrastructure, there is also the potential for this new authority to go awry in certain areas.
It is always worth being suspicious of new organisations set up without grassroots support and the public clamouring for it. It would be interesting to know what percentage of people in the region have even heard of the WMCA but I bet it would be in single figures, making it fundamentally undemocratic from the start. And, without public knowledge or awareness of this plan, it means that the very national politicians we don’t trust to do practically anything right are able to design political structures in their own image and inevitably for their constituent’s (bankers and oligarchs) interests.
It would be great to have a truly democratic confederacy between people in the West Midlands. There is no reason why such structures couldn’t be designed, and the Greater Manchester CA has to be given a fair amount of credit, in particular for its organising of transport links. However, I suspect that George Osborne’s definition of ‘devolution’ (as opposed to the dictionary definition) is more what the West Midlands Combined Authority represents, and their website has a predictably corporate and top-down feel about it.
A senior councillor at the recent Local Enterprise Partnership conference admitted that there was a history of metro/city mayors becoming quite dictatorial, but these things ultimately come down to levels of public participation, so BFoE and others must work to build that as far as possible.