Is expanding the West Midlands a case of strength in numbers or a grab of votes?
Since its inception seven years ago the region’s combined authority has stayed with the same seven members that it started with.
But that could all change over the next 12 months, with moves afoot that would see up to four new local authorities join Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull as full members with voting rights and decision-making powers.
The Star has been told that informal discussions have already taken place at senior level between West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) representatives and a number of councils.
Shropshire, Telford & Wrekin and Warwickshire – which all currently have non-constituent membership of the WMCA – are all possible new recruits. Staffordshire County Council is another that could potentially look to come on board.
It may all sound a little technical, but the move matters to people who live in those areas.
They will come under the leadership of an elected mayor for the first time. And while those in favour of the move will point to the increased power for a larger regional body, critics will say the likes of Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin and Staffordshire may lose a piece of their independence too.
Should they be accepted as members, each council would form part of the wider metropolitan area.
In exchange for an annual fee of around £650,000, they would be handed a seat at the table, with voting rights on matters including investment on infrastructure, housing and transport.
The areas would also be led by a Mayor, currently Conservative Andy Street. He won the region’s first two mayoral elections and is expected to stand again next year as he seeks a third term at the helm.
Under legislation laid down when the WMCA was formed in 2016, any move to take in new members into the organisation would currently require the unanimous backing of the seven council leaders of the combined authority and the Mayor.
However, this is set to change under the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament and is expected to become law soon.
Ministers in central government are now actively encouraging the expansion of regional authorities as they look to ‘drip down’ decision making to politicians across the UK. Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, is said to be a firm believer in a model of local government that aims to get the best out of devolution.
While some authorities have previously rejected the notion of joining a ‘super-council’, ministers believe there is a growing view that larger, more powerful bodies are more likely to attract investment that those who decide to go it alone.
Some local leaders believe expansion would also allow more a more connected approach to region-wide schemes, particularly when it comes to housing and transport.
The WMCA is keen to point out that no formal talks have taken place, and insist that no expansion plans are being pursued from their end.
A spokesperson told the Star: “Authorities across the wider West Midlands will regularly review their alliances and links to ensure they continue to be best placed to serve their residents.
“However, the WMCA has received no formal application for new membership and no process is underway. Furthermore, the WMCA is not actively pursuing any expansion or new membership.”
Behind the scenes in the West Midlands a political row is already brewing, with cynics in the Labour Party accusing the region’s Conservative mayor of foul play.
They claim any expansion of the WMCA will see cash taken away from deprived areas such as the Black Country and ploughed into the wealthy shires. They have also branded the move an attempt by Mr Street to flood the WMCA with Tory voters ahead of the 2024 mayoral elections.
Former John Lewis boss Mr Street won the first two mayoral elections in 2017 and 2021, with the latter poll seeing him finish eight per cent clear of his Labour rival in the second round of voting.
However, should his party’s troubles on a national level continue then Labour would be warm favourites to lead the WMCA for the first time next May.
In 2021 Mr Street received nearly 300,000 votes out of a total of 614,000 votes cast, but currently the numbers are not good. Bringing a few traditional Tory areas on board would certainly enhance his chances of victory in 2024, should he stand.
In the last Shropshire Council elections in 2021 the Tories won 43 of the 72 seats, with Labour on nine, while the Conservatives also dominate Staffordshire County Council, taking 57 of the 62 seats at the last elections.
Councillor Steve Simkins, deputy leader of Labour-run Wolverhampton Council, said: “This is both a democratic outrage and a real concern to residents in the West Midlands.
“During the Tory leadership contest Rishi Sunak boasted of taking money out of ‘deprived urban areas’ and moving it to wealthy rural towns. Andy Street is doing all he can to deliver that policy. I worry that much-needed funding for Wolverhampton will end up in rural shire towns as a result of this.”
Richard Parker, the former corporate lawyer at Pwc who is Labour’s candidate for West Midlands Mayor, has also piled in. He said there was no “economic justification” for expansion and claimed Mr Street “clearly doesn’t think he can win on the current boundaries”.
“Andy Street should focus on trying to deliver for the people of the West Midlands instead of gaming the next election,” he told the Star.
For both Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin there are obvious benefits to membership, with increased access to funding and opportunities for development – particularly with transport projects.
Shropshire Council’s Conservative leader, Councillor Lezley Picton, said that informal discussions had taken place with Mr Street over the WMCA’s future plans.
She said her council is looking at how they can secure the “best” for residents, but hinted it may make more sense to look to counties such as Hereford and Worcester for a union, rather than the Midlands.
She said: “Shropshire Council has been a non-constituent member of the West Midlands Combined Authority for seven years and, given the Government’s recent announcements around the future of Local Enterprise Partnerships and the expectation of further devolution deals for Local Government, we must rightly look at whether this arrangement continues to give us good value. We are now considering how Shropshire can get the best for its residents and businesses and a number of potential options that could succeed the Marches LEP or open up devolution deals are being explored. This includes looking at a variety of options with our neighbours, as well as the WMCA.
“It’s no secret that Shropshire naturally has more in common with those areas that share more similar characteristics, opportunities and challenges, but at this stage we cannot rule anything out.
“As we look at the different approaches Shropshire could take, I met informally with WMCA Mayor Andy Street to hear about the WMCA’s future plans for both constituent and non-constituent members. This is simply another step to help inform any decision we may take in future and to ensure that whatever the set-up is, it is the best for Shropshire.”
Telford & Wrekin Council’s Labour leader, Councillor Shaun Davies said it had spoken to the WMCA about future partnerships. He also categorically ruled out the prospect of Telford & Wrekin Council supporting any separate combined authority made up of Shropshire, Hereford, and Telford & Wrekin – a move that could be seen as paving the way for a merger of Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin Councils. He said such a plan would not be in residents', or businesses', best interests.
He said: “The Government has made clear that in the immediate future more devolution powers and resources will come through regional bodies such as combined authorities or mayoral combined council areas.
“Despite the wishes of some we are absolutely committed to ensuring there is not a mayoral authority for Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin, as that would not be in the best interests of Telford & Wrekin residents or businesses. So we have sought to understand from the combined authority, their appetite for future partnership working.
“However, any such decision about next steps would be subject to Telford & Wrekin residents giving their views. There is therefore no immediate plan for us to join the combined authority, but we have been clear with the government that under no circumstances would we support a combined authority for Shropshire Telford & Wrekin and Herefordshire.”