Special report: ‘This isn’t about handing our powers over to Birmingham’

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Concerns have been raised about nearby Coventry ‘becoming a suburb of Birmingham’ as part of a new devolution powers. Others say it is a complex issue that will actually provide more power to the region. 
Now Leamington, Warwick and Kenilworth are keeping an open mind about joining the party. Barbara Goulden reports.

The idea of Warwick District Council potentially becoming part of a new super-authority is not something that would simply signal “Hello to control from Birmingham.”

This is one thing council leader Andrew Mobbs feels sure of.

No decision will be made in a hurry or without the majority of the district council being in agreement.

Even so, next week he will be joining the leaders of other urban and semi-rural authorities at a meeting in Coventry to discuss the Government’s idea of devolving wider decision-making powers to “Greater Combined” groups of towns and cities.

Manchester has already agreed to the idea and the word is that Coventry is all set to merge with Birmingham and four towns in the Black Country.

And Coventry might well like the idea of widening the net still further to incorporate Leamington, Warwick and Kenilworth as a way of securing not only far greater powers but a far richer slice of Government cash.

Cllr Mobbs (Con, Kenilworth), says: “This is a complex issue on which I have an open mind. At this point I have asked officers to undertake more research.

“However, we need to be clear that a Combined Authority is NOT about creating unitary Local Government structures.

“Nor is it about handing over all our powers to Birmingham City Council or anyone else.”

But with the Coventry Gateway scheme now waiting for the final Governmental green light - or not - Cllr Mobbs accepts that Warwick is unlikely to be able to stand alone.

He said: “A Combined Authority is where a group of local authorities agree to share work on a limited range of activities that contribute to the economic performance of the area and the prosperity of its residents - something we should all have an interest in doing. These activities are generally economic development and inward investment, along with strategic planning, transport and highways and developing the skills of the workforce.”

Already across Coventry and Warwickshire, district officers have been working with their opposite numbers on Coventry City Council, Warwickshire County Council and other districts and boroughs to examine how they could organise themselves differently to address these very issues.

At this point this would not be through forming one Combined Authority but through joining in what is being described as an Economic Prosperity Board.

Cllr Mobbs added: “These discussions are at an early stage but they are relevant to the debate about a wider Combined Authority.”

As well as his meeting with Ann Lucas, leader of Coventry City Council, next Thursday (Dec 4), Cllr Mobbs stresses that he will be holding more discussions with neighbouring authorities.

Any final decision on the matter would rest with the full district and is unlikely to be made until after next year’s elections. But with the district and city council sharing such joint enterprises as the airport, the Gateway scheme and Warwick University, the two authorities alone already have more in common that the traditional antipathy towards the “poorer” north and the more prosperous “south” housing divide.

One councillor, Glenn Williams (Con, Warwick North) suggested such an important matter would need to be the subject for a public referendum.

A straw poll of people in the district suggests many fear being swallowed up by a huge urban super-power.

One local non-political activist commented: “This is the very opposite of the Government’s much-vaunted localism. We might be swallowed up.

“On the other hand there would be fewer, much stronger local authorities, carrying much more devolved responsibility.

“Or would this all be just the business community dictating to the Government what it spends its money on?”

District Labour leader John Barrott said the whole council needed far more information before any decisions or recommendations on Combined Authorities could be made.

Cllr Barrott (Lab, Willes) said: “Personally I’m not in favour of Greater Birmingham at the moment although we do need to have a strong voice for our future economic strategy.

“Our members need to know a lot more about what this entails.

“It may be we have more in common with Solihull or Northamptonshire than Coventry or Birmingham.

“We can also look at other options.”

The district could determine to stand alone, although even Cllr Mobbs thinks this highly unlikely.

It might also decide to throw in its lot with Coventry where city councillors still have to make a final decision about merging with Birmingham.

City leader Ann Lucas believes a Coventry merged with Birmingham, the Black Country, Solihull and Warwickshire would be “invincible”.

Those says for Coventry, in the middle of Warwickshire, not to merge could cost the city and surrounding areas millions of pounds worth of investment in jobs and transport.

But right now, even though Manchester has made a decision, it’s still very early days for the Midlands.