A Combined Authority for the West Midlands?

As this is being written, it appears that, following the Greater Manchester initiative, the seven West Midland Metropolitan Authorities (Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Dudley, Walsall, Sandwell, Solihull and Coventry) are now bidding to create a combined authority for the West Midlands conurbation. A formal launch is tentatively scheduled for April 2016. It may not stop there, however. The seven authorities have made an open invitation to other authorities in Warwickshire, parts of Staffordshire and Worcestershire to join the combined authority and hence create a West Midlands economic region composed of the three existing Economic Partnerships, which cover the West Midlands Conurbation. You may recall that Lichfield District Council is a partner in one of these three "LEPS" - the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP.

For hardened retired professionals in local government, all this has a sense of déjà vu about it. In 1975 the government created a number of metropolitan county councils. Here, the West Midlands County Council embraced the area of our seven metropolitan authorities. Strategic, cross border planning was the name of the game. However, following not inconsiderable lobbying by the large metropolitan authorities, who saw metropolitan counties as interlopers, plus the Tory Government's desire to deal with Ken Livingstone's GLC, the counties were abolished in 1986, leaving a regional planning rump to deal with strategic issues like housing and planning. The then government distaste for "regionalism" ultimately led to the abolition of regional planning forums, with local authorities required to cooperate on cross boundary strategic issues. Now we are about to turn full circle and re-invent regional government!

But for Lichfield District Council, signed up to both the Staffordshire LEP and the Greater Birmingham one, there are dangers. Arguably a decision as to which one to commit to is one of Lichfield Council's most important decisions, for it will influence how Lichfield relates to neighbouring local authorities in the future. Lichfield is at a crossroads; is it to be part of the West Midlands conurbation for planning purposes, or should it be more closely allied with Staffordshire? The decision will influence the scale and nature of development and hence the character of Lichfield for many years to come.

Roger Hockney
August 2015