West Midlands Combined Authority: Why Shropshire is ready to join Birmingham and Wolverhampton
Missing out on joining West Midlands Combined Authority could look like Shropshire Council is "ignoring a local opportunity", its chief executive has warned.
In a report put forward to the council's cabinet members, Clive Wright has set out his case for joining 12 other councils in a combined authority.
He believes the authority – which will cost the council £25,000 in membership fees a year – will benefit from the project and could allow it to collaborate with other stakeholders including central Government.
In the report, which will be discussed by councillors on Wednesday, he said the council wants to "do business" with others and central Government on issues including transport, housing, broadband and mobile infrastructure, expansion of high level manufacturing, housebuilding growth and skilling up of the workforce across all ages.
West Midlands Combined Authority's full members are Birmingham City Council, City of Wolverhampton Council, Coventry Council, Dudley Council, Sandwell Council, Solihull Council and Walsall Council.
The full members have ultimate voting rights, can only be signed up to one combined authority and pay an annual fee of £500,000 to be part of it.
As part of a devolution deal with the Government last year, the authority will now be handed down an annual contribution of £40 million for 30 years to spend and designate it how leaders see best for the area. It will be led by an elected mayor, who will chair a cabinet of local authority leaders, who will each lead on a particular priority.
An open invitation has been extended to other councils in the West Midlands to join as members.
Should it agree to join, Shropshire would be a non-constituent member of the West Midlands Combined Authority – joining Telford & Wrekin Council, Cannock Chase Council, Nuneaton and Bedworth Council, Redditch Borough Council and Tamworth Council.
Shropshire's chief executive Clive Wright would represent the county in any discussions and negotiations while liaising with political leaders.
It would not be bound by the West Midlands mayor, or have any of its powers taken from it.
Stratford-upon-Avon District Council is to join as a non-constituent member later this year.
He said: "Becoming a non-constituent member of WMCA will allow the council to further collaborate with stakeholders at a regional and sub-regional level, and with Government at a national level, in order to maximise the opportunities for the county to realise its policy intentions for the long term.
"One risk of not taking this opportunity for closer formal affiliation with the constituent bodies of WMCA is that it could weaken the other efforts we are making to influence national policy, particularly around infrastructure, skills and economic growth.
"Another risk is that it could be seen as ignoring a local opportunity to be in at the beginning of efforts to direct investment where we feel it would be warranted."
Shropshire would have "non-constituent" status – the same as Telford – which would see it given a vote and a seat at the combined authority table but not a share of any new powers devolved from the Government.
Joining West Midlands Combined Authority would not stop Shropshire working with other neighbouring authorities, its leader insisted today.
Councillor Malcolm Pate said the cabinet would next week discuss whether or not joining the authority would help residents in Shropshire, but assured people joining would not rule the county out of working with other devolution programmes.
A previous idea, championed by former leader Keith Barrow, was for Shropshire to work together with Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. He said talks were under way to form a partnership that could rival the West Midlands authority.
That idea appears to be off the agenda. But Shropshire already intends to work as part of Marches LEP, or with Cheshire, Staffordshire, and Newcastle-Under-Lyme as part of the Northern Gateway Partnership, which cabinet agreed to sign up to at a meeting last month.
Councillor Pate said: "I have got a view that I want to maximise devolution to benefit our Shropshire people and that there may be more than one way to do that. It may be working with a number of areas – Chester, Staffordshire, WMCA, Marches LEP. I think it will be a lively discussion. If the case that it will benefit Shropshire people to do it is put forward, then it will be best to do it. But only if it makes the case to do it." The non-constituent status would mean Shropshire would be free to operate alongside others. If it joined as a constituent member, it would not have the freedom to do so.
Clive Wright, chief executive of Shropshire Council, said in his report to cabinet that WMCA will be one of the most "significant combined authorities in terms of its size and composition".
He said it would allow the council "to continue to work closely with Herefordshire and Telford & Wrekin councils and local businesses as a member of Marches LEP".
Eight larger councils, including Birmingham and Wolverhampton, have signed up as constituent members costing £500,000 a year but enjoying ultimate voting rights.
Mr Wright said that the funding for 2016/17 and 2017/18 membership would be met with existing economic growth budgets, but has not said where money would come from following the two years.
The current projects that have been assigned funds include city centre regeneration in Coventry and £4.4 billion for the HS2 Growth Strategy.
Mr Wright said: "A key principle is that, while everyone will benefit, not everyone will benefit at the same time or in the same way. By becoming a non-constituent member of WMCA, the council will similarly be well placed to capitalise on its own geographical position as a bridging authority between the north west and the West Midlands, with its proximity to Wales and the importance of its arterial transport routes through to Ireland via Holyhead. This will further strengthen the status of Shropshire as a council with whom others wish to do business."
Telford & Wrekin joined the authority in October last year and councillors said it would allow the council to be at the table when decisions are made affecting the area.
The council said it would help the area to make the most of links with manufacturing businesses but some, including Telford MP Lucy Allan, feared it could lead to the area becoming a "poor relation" in the scheme.
At the time, speaker and elder statesman of Shropshire Council David Lloyd, who also serves on Selattyn and Gobowen Parish Council, said rural areas run the risk of being marginalised as urban councils unite.
Today, he said: "We have got to have a working relationship with the others as otherwise we will be out in the cold. We have got to be cautious, but if there is some benefit then clearly we should look at it."
- The decision will be made at a meeting of Shropshire Councils cabinet on Wednesday at 12.30pm in Shirehall, Shrewsbury.
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