Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin councils reacted with frustration this week at not being included for major funding as part of the Government’s levelling up agenda, saying they had been “overlooked” and “taken for granted”.
It has now emerged that future bids may require the creation of a ‘combined authority’ for the area – potentially made up of both Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin councils, or by joining with other authorities.
It could mirror the West Midlands, where mayor Andy Street heads a region that includes the Black Country, Birmingham and Coventry.
Mr Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, has written to Shropshire Council’s leader Councillor Lezley Picton to suggest talks over the council’s plans in the context of “our plans for a new form of combined authority model”.
Although there is no suggestion Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin Councils would have to merge, the government’s levelling up paper does talk about the creation of combined authorities that may cover a “whole county geography”.
But Shropshire Council says it does not want an elected mayor for the county, or a merger with its neighbouring authority.
The comments come after Mr Gove rejected a Shropshire Council bid to be considered for a 'County Deal' – major levelling up funding which nine other areas of the country were selected to pursue this week.
There are suggestions that to access the funding Shropshire would need a 'combined authority', with even potentially an elected mayor.
Suffolk and Norfolk are two areas that have been invited to negotiate a County Deal, which could include a mayor, if they want one.
Larger areas of the country such as the West Midlands and Manchester already have elected mayors as part of a devolution process.
The mayors, such as Andy Street and Andy Burnham, have considerable spending powers over major infrastructure redevelopment and infrastructure projects.
A letter from Mr Gove to Shropshire Council's leader, Councillor Lezley Picton, outlines how those areas wanting county deals will have to embrace further devolution.
He said: "The Government's intention is to continue this process of concluding County Deals with the ultimate aim that, by 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution."
Mr Gove said he wanted further discussions with the council over devolution plans as part of talks on a County Deal.
His letter said: "My team and I look forward to working constructively with you over the coming months as you continue to develop your proposals. As a first step, it would be helpful to meet to discuss your proposals again in the context of the devolution framework and our plans (subject to an appropriate legislative opportunity) for a new form of combined authority model, both of which are referred to in the Levelling Up White Paper published today."
In response, Shropshire Council said it was keen to work with its neighbouring council on ways to be more successful in funding bids – but not through a merger of services or the creation of a mayor.
Councillor Ed Potter, deputy council leader and cabinet lead for economic growth, said: "We will continue to work with neighbouring local authorities to understand how we may be able to work together in developing a joint approach to securing future funding and devolution from Government.
"At the same time we remain clear that we do not believe we need a new and unnecessary layer of an elected mayor, as Shropshire is a unitary council with clear political leadership.
"Likewise, we also see no mileage in forcing councils to merge or pool services. We have been clear about this previously and our view has not changed.
"Shropshire, for example, is very different from Telford and Wrekin – it is large, rural and sparsely populated with different needs and challenges, however there is much common purpose in our respective agendas for investing in such things as key road, rail and digital infrastructure.
"Our focus is to ensure Shropshire secures its fair share of resources and initiatives that can help accelerate our economic growth and recovery from the pandemic."