Business leaders urge support for West Midlands Powerhouse
BUSINESS leaders in Greater Birmingham have urged local authorities in the West Midlands to work urgently for a devolved combined authority.
Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce (GBCC) said it was essential that the seven authorities in the West Midland capitalised on the announcement by Chancellor George Osborne that he would give more power to those English regions “who want to take this bold step into the future”.
In his speech in Manchester, the Chancellor outlined how he saw the devolution picture developing and while giving his backing to the Northern Powerhouse he said he would support similar applications from other cities around the country.
However, in what could be construed as a veiled threat to Birmingham, he insisted that powers would only be granted to areas which adopt the model of a directly elected metro-wide mayor – something the city rejected in a referendum three years ago.
The various local authorities making up the region’s rich tapestry of councils have also shown reluctance to work together in the past, with those in the Black Country especially fearful of Birmingham getting the lion’s share of any powers that might be forthcoming.
However, the business organisation said it was now time to bury the hatchet and move on.
Birmingham chamber president Greg Lowson said: “Now is the time for the component parts of the West Midlands to work together to grab this tremendous opportunity being offered by the government.
“And we urge them to think carefully about the added value of having an elected mayor. The Chancellor has made it abundantly clear that only cities that have an elected mayor will be given control of local transport, housing and skills.
“Birmingham’s electorate rejected the idea of an elected mayor for the city alone, as Manchester did, but a mayor could unlock even more resources for a combined authority.”
A Cities Devolution Bill will be in the Queen’s speech later this month and leaders of Greater Manchester’s 10 councils have already agreed to the area’s first mayoral election.
Mr Lowson added: “The Chancellor’s unequivocal criteria for devolution makes it a whole new question for the West Midlands.
“We agree with Mr Osborne that trying to run everything in the country from London has made people feel remote from the decisions that affect their lives.
“This is not good for prosperity or democracy and it’s time people in the West Midlands were empowered to decide their own policies on important issues.
“We are encouraged by signs from some of the more reluctant areas in the region, like Solihull and Coventry, that devolution under a Greater Birmingham banner is becoming more acceptable.”
He said it was essential that all parties grasped the opportunity outlined by the Chancellor with “utmost speed”.
He added that soundings undertaken by the chamber had indicated widespread support from the region’s business community for such an approach.
In his speech in Manchester, Mr Osborne said the government’s intention was to close the economic gap between the north and the south by encouraging the largest cities in England, Wales and Scotland to take greater control of their own affairs.
“We will hand power from the centre to cities to give you greater control over your local transport, housing, skills and healthcare. And we’ll give the levers you need to grow your local economy and make sure local people keep the rewards,” he said.
“But it’s right people have a single point of accountability: someone they elect, who takes the decisions and carries the can.
So with these new powers for cities must come new city-wide elected mayors who work with local councils.
“I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.
“It’s up to local people and their elected representatives on councils to decide whether they are interested in their communities taking part in this new revolution in city government.
“But equally, I’m not interested in any more half-way house deals. We will transfer major powers only to those cities who choose to have a directly elected metro-wide mayor.”
Commenting, John Cridland, CBI Director-General, said: “We need to see the Government and businesses working together to foster growth in every corner of the UK.
“Under strong and collaborative local leadership, the devolution of key powers, like transport and planning, should give authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships the tools to develop ambitious plans for growth.”
Ian Cornock, lead director for the Midlands region of property consultancy JLL welcomed the Chancellor’s pushing forward on the devolution agenda.
“George Osborne is clearly committed to devolving more powers to the regions and it’s good news to hear from Sir Albert Bore today that Birmingham is only weeks away from progress on a combined authority,” je said.
“This can’t happen soon enough. Investors don’t see boundaries, individual cities or authorities. They look at a region and key indicators for growth such as an integrated transport system, investment in infrastructure and a strong skill base.
“A West Midlands wide authority would enable us to direct money to these areas with greater clarity and support key business clusters which can bring about innovation and growth.”