Is a West Midlands merger Warwickshire council’s ‘best option’?

GV - Shire Hall, Warwick. NNL-161201-211317009
GV - Shire Hall, Warwick. NNL-161201-211317009

After news that Stratford district has opted in to the emerging West Midlands Combined Authority, calls are in for Warwickshire to follow for a stronger future - but what has changed since the last vote.

Less than six months ago, Warwickshire’s county councillors rejected a motion to be part of an emerging West Midlands Combined Authority.

Cllr John Whitehouse.'Ref: 08DEC16

Cllr John Whitehouse.'Ref: 08DEC16

Faced with no facts about the benefits or the financial implications, and news that the county would be given just one vote to be shared between its five districts - Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were united in its rejection of the move.

But just months later and the Lib Dems are now planning for an extraordinary meeting on February 23 to take a very different vote and press on with “urgent action” to take its place in the new authority.

In the turnaround decision Warwickshire’s Liberal Democrats calling for the council to join forces and “face the music” and say that joining the emerging authority as a constituent member by the end of 2016 is the best option.

Cllr John Whitehouse (Ken), who chairs the council’s all-party devolution working group said: “The Lib Dems voted not to join the first phase of the new WMCA in September because we had very few hard facts and advantages for Warwickshire were not obvious.

It is clear that Warwickshire could fit inside the new combined authority as a strong and equal partner

John Whitehouse

“However with the strong support that the WMCA has now received from government, and with the geographical and regional rationale on which it is based, it is clear that Warwickshire could fit inside the new combined authority as a strong and equal partner to its other constituent members.

“The county council needs to decide its future direction without further delay. The Conservative leadership has been dragging its feet on this vital issue, and the time for action is now.”

The emerging WMCA to date includes Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull and Walsall. This month, Stratford district made a U-turn decision to join the authority and has now been welcomed by its new leadership.

Nuneaton and Bedworth is also a possible addition and Coventry is likely to make the move - all factors which the council is now being urged to consider to not get left behind.

The WMCA is now entering its second phase, with growing support from the government which is now due to approve the merger and funding.

As well as councils, any merger would have a major impact on police, emergency services and businesses.

Rejecting WMCA proposals last year, Warwickshire councillors felt sure that they could retain existing business links with Coventry - but this is looking increasingly unlikely as the city proceeds with the West Midlands merger plans.

Speaking after a decision to rule out the authority last year, Cllr Alan Cockburn, deputy leader of the council, said they would continue to look at all proposals - and that this remains the case.

He said: “We rejected a very specific proposal in September as it was not good for Warwickshire. But that does not mean that we will refuse all talks on this in the future. If a new plan comes to us then that will be fully looked at, as was the last.”

Coventry and Warwickshire businesses were last year told by the Enterprise Partnership that their interests will be at the “centre of the action” as a combined authority moves towards reality.

The WMCA is now consulting on its proposed role and functions, and it is proposed that a mayor would be elected in 2018.