WARWICKSHIRE has voted to join a West Midlands Combined Authority – despite concerns decisions affecting county residents could be made in ‘Greater Birmingham’ and by an all-powerful regional elected mayor.
Tuesday’s decision by Warwickshire County Council was a U-turn for the Conservatives in power at Shire Hall.
But Tory council leader Izzi Seccombe expressed fears over the possibility of power being taken away from elected Warwickshire councillors to make decisions on behalf of county constituents – and passed to a super-council controlled by seven West Midlands predominantly Labour councils.
Decisions concerning Warwickshire on major economic redevelopment plans, transport and housing could be taken by the combined authority should the county decide to become a full member next year.
The county council’s controlling Conservatives voted to change their position after the Liberal Democrats, supported by some Labour councillors, urged a review of last year’s refusal to join the WMCA.
Coun Seccombe had until now said Warwickshire would be better to join Coventry in a smaller combined authority, reflecting historic borders and people’s identity with the sub-region.
The council voted to become a “non-constituent member” of the emerging WMCA – which essentially means it will not be able to vote on most matters but will be able to take part in key discussions.
A draft ‘devolution deal’ between the government and the interim West Midlands Combined Authority proposes that the WMCA will take control of £36million over 30 years.
It is claimed it amounts to a £1billion investment fund for jobs and transport, which could rise to £8billion with borrowing and other powers.
The seven leaders of the seven councils which are so far full members – Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull, Wolverhampton, Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall – have insisted it will solely mean the transfer of pots of money and decision-making powers from Whitehall and Westminster to the West Midlands region.
But a leaked draft devolution deal document last September revealed provisional agreement for some powers to transfer from councils to the new West Midlands super council, which is expected to be fully operational next month.
A Warwickshire County Council document before councillors in Tuesday states full members would have to hand over budgets for transport – specifically “maintenance budgets”.
Green county councillor Keith Kondakor continued to insist this week that Coventry and Warwickshire would be a better proposal.
He called for a referendum which would give Warwickshire people the chance to decide if they wanted to join the West Midlands Combined Authority.
Coun Seccombe said she and her group – which has no overall control at the Shire Hall – had changed its position because the Lib Dems’ switch meant they did not have the numbers to continue with opposition to the WMCA.
But she added: “As long as I’m leader of the council I have to commit myself to getting the best deal for Warwickshire out of the combined authority and government.”
“If 62 members in Warwickshire are not the people making decisions we will need to talk to residents first.
Stratford District Council, which also had reservations, agreed for its leader Chris Saint to sit on the WMCA Shadow Board to monitor progress.
Neighbouring Warwick District Council has opted not to join, fearing the interests of people living in towns and rural areas could come second to those living in cities.