#4. A combination too far

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15 April 2016

The leadership of Shropshire Council is intent on pushing through central government’s transformation of local government by taking us into the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), a process which, for a rural county like Shropshire, could be seriously flawed.

Where devolution is concerned the decisive voice in all discussions is the Treasury’s. However the shots are called, it’s about how much money can be got out of the Treasury and you can’t get any more centralised than that, so localism is an illusion. The Treasury sets objectives and performance indicators and it’s the Treasury that ultimately approves whatever package the proposed constituent authorities come up with.

My concern is the question of local legitimacy. Labour’s ill-fated attempt to secure regional devolution and the Con-LibDem coalition’s attempt to create city mayors were both based on referendums that at least created the illusion that local communities had a say in the process. But the current proposal to take us into the WMCA is based around a small group of Shropshire councillors and business leaders; the people of Shropshire have not been consulted. But would it matter if they had been?

There is good reason to be concerned. On the matter of democracy the record of the person pushing what could turn out to be a vanity project bigger even than ip&e does not have a particularly good track record when it comes to observing the will of the people. In 2009 Shropshire’s District Councils and County Council were taken into a unitary council despite 84% of the people of Shropshire voting against the idea. The Leader at that time was the same Leader who is so keen to see us signed up to the WMCA.

It’s worth remembering that Keith Barrow’s rejection of Shropshire’s involvement with the West Midlands Combined Authority was wholly supported by senior council officers and cabinet members; had Keith Barrow not bailed out we wouldn’t have gone within a country mile of the WMCA, yet those same senior council officers and cabinet members are not so much engaging in a significant u-turn as doing a spectacular hand-brake turn.

Meanwhile, an uninformed public has very little, if any, idea that something fundamental to the governance of their county is happening, nor are they likely to, given the haste with which Shropshire Council is pushing the deal through.

The WMCA itself is based on an economic geography covering natural partners with a clear economic identity, making perfect sense as a unit in terms of the type of industry and services, training needs, commuter travel, etc. There is a common set of interests. But if you widen the area to include Shropshire then you’re bringing in agriculture and tourism, and that simply doesn’t fit in with the city regions. In that scenario, any investment in growth will be in the city areas, not the rural shires.

Whilst the WMCA is attractive to areas that share good growth prospects natural to urban conurbations, you don’t have to look hard for the obvious problems in developing the same kind of growth in areas like ours, with high adult social care needs, an ageing population, and a vast area south of the Wenlock Edge distinctive in having logistical “disadvantages”.

The decision to take us into the combined authority raises serious questions about whether we have an administration capable of formulating the policies this rural county so desperately needs to survive in its present form, let alone succeed, because that’s what we’re talking about here, faced as we are with vicious cuts both to statutory services and to those leisure services that sustain the quality of life that makes it all worthwhile, the services that answer the question: “Why bother?”

A more detailed report was given to the Parish Council on the same theme, earlier in the month…

COUNCILLOR’S REPORT

The Cabinet have recently outlined their plans for the Council to become a ‘non-constituent’ member of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), arguing that it will bring economic growth benefits to the county whilst ignoring dangers that place the Council at a disadvantage to its economically powerful neighbours and further distances the decision-making process from the electorate.

Background.

The WMCA comprises the seven metropolitan boroughs of the West Midlands, the three Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) covering the geographical area, and a current total of five non-constituent members, including Telford and Wrekin Council. Stratford upon Avon District Council is to join as a non-constituent member later this year. The Police and Crime Commissioner and the Fire Service for the West Midlands hold Observer status.

Whilst there are minimal ongoing financial implications in becoming a non-constituent member, £25,000 a year, the big hitting primary constituent members pay a fee of £500,000 per annum. Serious thought needs to be given to why that is and the weight that greater payment gives to the “constituent members” in view of Shropshire’s relatively diminutive status as a “rural county”.We know what it already costs us to be surrounded by economically more significant, largely urban, neighbours.

The reason for the Cabinet’s unseemly rush to sign us all up has to do with the closeness of the WMCA’s going live on 1st June. The next application to join the WMCA couldn’t be made until 2017. Personally, I’d prefer to wait until this proposal has been fully explained to the people of the county and put to the vote by the 310,000 population of Shropshire, not just the 10 cabinet members who are presuming to know best.

In their indecent haste, the administration gets to avoid consultation on a move that will see Shropshire subsumed into the neighbouring industrial and commercial conurbations, with the added significance that it is also signing up for the election of a ‘metro mayor’ that only the West Midlands will have any say about.

Whilst it is claimed that Shropshire “would remain independent, retaining all its current powers and would not come under the remit of any future West Midland Mayor”, what particularly angered me was the statement that “Cabinet agreement is sought to implement the membership proposal”, as if anyone on the Cabinet was likely to oppose either the will of their political group Leader or the collective will of their party political colleagues on the Cabinet; they are all aware that their place is wholly dependent on their maintaining the goodwill of their Leader.

And it doesn’t end there. Cabinet intend to give authority for the Chief Executive, “in liaison with” the Leader of the Council, the Deputy Leader and Portfolio Holder for Business and Economy, to sign us up and then represent Shropshire Council on the Combined Authority.

I take little comfort from the statement that “Cabinet agrees to receive a progress report on devolution developments at regional and national level at a timely future date, at which point further recommendations may be tabled.”

Nowhere do I see anything that reassure me.

When transport is mentioned it can only have to do with the road networks in North Shropshire. Talk of “support to business including expansion of high level manufacturing; for housebuilding growth and other efforts to optimise land assets including public sector land; and for skilling up of the workforce across all ages and a range of sectors”, is meaningless for us because any trickle-down effect of investment in developments in the existing commercial and industrial areas of North Shropshire will go no further south than the suburbs of Shrewsbury.

The authors of the report to Council (not, remember, consulted upon) assess the “risk of not taking this opportunity for closer formal affiliation with the constituent bodies of the WMCA” on the basis that failing to act will adversely affect Shropshire Council’s efforts to influence national policy “around infrastructure, skills and economic growth where we have been proactive in submitting evidence to the National Infrastructure Commission and to parliamentary select committee inquiries”. Believe me, that “influence” is and will remain minimal in the context of central government’s reduction in funding – policy that the government is insistent will continue.

Remember, this is the same Council that until my actions provoked the exit of Keith Barrow would still be claiming that ip&e was the best thing since sliced bread whilst actively working to close down Shirehall and making the case AGAINST joining the WMCA.

Much is made of Shropshire Council’s becoming a member of the Northern Gateway Partnership with Cheshire and Staffordshire, a decision again made by the 10 members of the Cabinet without consultation (any of you aware of it?). This has particular regard to my earlier comment about what benefit will trickle down to South Shropshire because it is worth taking careful note that this Partnership is intended to capitalise on “the Cheshire/Staffordshire region’s position as the bridging link between the Midlands Engine and the Northern Powerhouse. The Northern Gateway sets out to deliver significant economic growth and regeneration across the region on the back of HS2 investment at Crewe. It aims to unlock major new growth and investment opportunities to deliver over 100,000 new homes and 120,000 new jobs across the area by 2040.” (My italics and bold font.)

The report goes on to say: “By becoming a non-constituent member of the 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.(Again, my italics and bold font.)

Point to any of the county’s “road links” south of the Wenlock Edge that are likely to play a part in any of that load of old…..

And as for having “our” voice heard?

Against this load of big hitters?

  • Birmingham City Council
  • City of Wolverhampton Council
  • Coventry City Council
  • Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council
  • Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council
  • Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council
  • Walsall Council

If we needed a lesson in how it’s all likely to pan out we need look no further than the economic impact on Shropshire of the establishment of Telford and Wrekin.

I’m beginning to think I should have kept my mouth shut about Keith Barrow because it looks as if the old saying: “Be careful what you wish for because it might happen”, has the ring of truth.

Dave Tremellen

5 April 2016