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West Midlands County Council Revisited

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After months of being sold the idea that the West Midlands Combined Authority represents a brave new world we should all want to be part of, it appears the cracks are starting to emerge.  Is it beginning to unravel?

Perhaps, but unravel it will, because nothing we have seen so far suggests this will be any different to the West Midlands County Council, the memory of which makes most Coventrians shudder.

Reports this week suggest that far from being a vehicle through which the city will be able to fill its coffers, it may be that the city loses out in certain key funding areas.  Changes to the way business rates are collected, care grants received from central government – it doesn’t really matter, because what these reports highlight is the shocking lack of forethought and planning.  The fact we are already talking in terms of ‘red lines’ suggests all is not well.  And why are we having these discussions now?

We were sold the idea in very simple terms – more money and more control of it.   Neither seem likely – so the question is surely this, what exactly is the point?

Coventry is geographically, economically and culturally distinct from the main West Midlands conurbation.  It is the hub of its own economic sub-region stretching from Nuneaton in the north to Warwick/Leamington in the south, with many of this region’s largest employment sites straddling the border between Coventry and those neighbouring authorities.  It has its own LEP, Chamber of Commerce, its own BBC radio station – it is a region, which while geographically close to the sprawling Birmingham conurbation, has never been less dependent on it.  The fact that as many people commute from Birmingham to Coventry than do in the other direction suggests that relationship between Coventry and Birmingham is vastly different to that of Bolton and Manchester.

As recently as last week The Guardian ran an article that attempted to unravel the reasons why the economic fortunes between Coventry and Wolverhampton contrast so greatly – particularly in relation to youth unemployment.  It appears Coventry is doing pretty well, a change in fortunes that appears to have coincided with a period of time in which Coventry and Warwickshire have forged closer ties and are working to together more than ever, creating a clear sense of an autonomous region forging its own path.

So what of these benefits.  More control?  Well this has yet to be demonstrated – surely it is simply the case that monies previously allocated by central government will now be distributed via a Birmingham-centric Combined Authority.  More money?  Again, no evidence of that either.  The prospect we actually face appears to be a loss of control, a loss of identity, loss of autonomy and a loss of democratic accountability.

This always appeared like a stitch-up – a project driven by political motives rather than economic ones.  Time will tell, but despite all the bluster and gnashing of teeth by those who dismissed the objections as small-minded and naive, it appears we are heading head-first for a return to the West Midlands County Council model.  It seems we learnt nothing from that debacle and will simply repeat the same mistakes.

The needle returns to the start of the song and we all sing along like before.

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