Worcestershire takes new lead in devolution debate

Birmingham Council House
Image caption Should decision making be taken away from Westminster and be given to Birmingham?

"What about us?"

A chorus of 'me toos' echoed across the land when David Cameron declared, in the wake of the Scottish Referendum result, that "we must re-empower our great cities".

Inevitably, attention focused on how the Birminghams, Manchesters and Newcastles might be granted new powers to compensate for yet more political muscle being devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This has intensified still further with the publication of the RSA City Growth Commission's study calling for 15 major cities including Birmingham to be given a greater say in tax and spending which, it says, could boost economic growth by £79bn by 2030.

Economist Jim O'Neil, who led the study, confidently expects the plans for big cities to generate more spending power for themselves and rely less on government grants will be the centrepiece of Chancellor George Osborne's Autumn Statement on 3 December.

Eager not to miss out, the shire counties are sharpening their message that in any general decentralisation of politics, they too should have a share of the action.

Within the Local Government Association (LGA) representing 400 council in England and Wales, the County Councils Network (CCN) is a cross-party group voicing the the special concerns of the shires.

Its West Midlands members are the county councils of Gloucestershire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire as well as the unitary authorities in Shropshire and Herefordshire. The CCN points out that English counties together represent over 50% of the country's population and account for 40% of Gross Value Added to its economy.

The LGA's new chairman, Councillor David Sparks, the Labour leader of Dudley Council, has already told me how he will be pressing for councils to be given a greater say in how they raise taxes and have more freedom over how they spend the proceeds.

Fault lines?

But as so often, it's one thing to sign up to an idea in principle, another altogether to tie down how it should be implemented.

Take for example, the idea of city regions.

Image caption Should greater powers be devolved from Westminster to the shire counties?

Wyre Forest in North Worcestershire, on the outskirts of the West Midlands conurbation, is an enthusiastic member of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Economic Partnership. But it is also one of the county's most densely populated areas and also belongs to the Worcestershire Local Enterprise Partnership.

So when I talked to Wyre Forest's Conservative MP Mark Garnier recently, he expressed concerns about the possibility that city regions could make the urban areas unduly dominant so far as surrounding counties were concerned.

Were the fault lines already starting to appear even before the serious negotiations about 'devo England' have begun, I wondered?

Absolutely not, according to Adrian Hardman the Conservative Leader of Worcestershire County Council. He sees no contradiction between boosting cities and similar measures for the counties. Indeed, he believes the two can go hand-in-hand.

'World class Worcestershire'

"Empowering the city regions is essential to any new English devolution settlement," he tells us, "But the great counties of England have an equal role in ensuring the economic success of the UK.

"Worcestershire is one of the fastest-growing areas outside the South East with a track record of business innovation and better than average new business survival rates.

"Our commitment is always to keep Worcestershire 'Open for Business' and I do not intend to let us fall behind.

"I want us to reap the benefits of driving growth. We are world class Worcestershire and that will harness the same economic possibilities that would become available to our cities."

If we detect a hint of defensiveness in councillor Hardman's comments, it is understandable.

Above all, he clearly wants to guard against the danger of Worcestershire not being among the 'Names in the Frames' in any devolutionary process. But with a general election fast approaching, this is also a question of timing.

Bargaining power

The CCN says it wants to support which ever government is in power after next May to "transform public services and deliver sustainable and balanced economic growth; reducing costs to the Treasury and delivering more cost-effective and efficient service to residents."

In other words, it is suggesting a bargain with the political parties as they prepare their election manifestos: "You give us more clout for us and we'll deliver value for you".

The Liberal Democrats have been championing the cause of decentralised politics for 150 years. But this could be the moment when all the parliamentary parties, after a century of centralisation at Whitehall and Westminster, could have the sincerity of their newly discovered devolutionary instincts put to the test.

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