Special report: Could Rugby become part of a super authority?

Rugby Town Hall
Rugby Town Hall

Fancy living in a regional authority of four million people stretching from Worcestershire in the west to Rugby on Warwickshire’s eastern boundary?

That could be the possibility facing council tax payers and Rugby Borough, Warwick District, Stratford District and Warwickshire County councils.

I believe we should pursue a Coventry and Warwickshire authority that would not be so unwieldy and so help deliver good service to the local population and businesses

Cllr Andrew Mobbs, leader of Warwick District Council

The Government’s push to devolve more power on growth, infrastructure and jobs creation to combined authorities could see one set up for the West Midlands region.

As well as Coventry and Warwickshire, Birmingham, the Black Country, Wolverhampton and Solihull, it could also include Worcestershire and Staffordshire, taking in up to 25 councils.

Critics say that would make it unwieldy and a more logical partnership would be the seven county, city, district and borough council in Coventry and Warwickshire.

It would also include Hinckley and Bosworth Borough just over the border in Leicestershire because it is part of the Government’s City Deal area of Coventry and Warwickshire and its travel-to-work area.

But Coventry has agreed in principle to join with Birmingham-Black Country, which Solihull is also minded to join.

And it is “highly likely” Coventry would join a West Midlands Combined Authority if Warwickshire councils don’t, said a report to a meeting of Warwick District Council (WDC) last week.

WDC’s preference is for a city and county link-up, which would see existing councils remain but with greater partnership on such things as transport and infrastructure, but the report also stated that at present the only proposal “on the table to consider is for the wider West Midlands area”.

Rugby Borough Council said it would make no decisions until full details were revealed but would take an active part in discussions to get the best outcome for the borough.

Councils are taking part in discussions about partnerships, which could include a West Midlands Combined Authority, in what they were told was a “rapidly moving agenda” in which the Government is looking for a super authority to start in early April. As well as pooling sovereignty in a combined authority and more regional decision making, councils hope to get more money. It could include the retention of all business rate growth and what is known as Tax Increment Financing (TIF), which would enable councils to be more financially independent of Whitehall, but also allow councils to fund and obtain a return on infrastructure and economic development.

TIFs are used in many states and cities in the US, where it is a method to use future gains in taxes to subsidise infrastructure improvements.

The councils’ wish list could also include control of the Highways Agency and Network Rail building programmes, including their surplus assets.

Also, control of the Homes and Communities Agency’s affordable homes investment programme and assets.

Warwick District Council said it would like to see combined authority-run Job Centres and national welfare payments systems to allow a “local integration” of all benefits systems and job creation activities.

But it admits that asking for more power could prompt the Government to ask for an elected mayor for the authority – something which could face stiff resistance from many councillors in the region.

Both Cllr Michael Stokes, leader of Rugby Borough Council, and Cllr Andrew Mobbs, leader of Warwick District Council, agreed to meet with other senior councillors in the West Midlands to discuss combined authorities.

Cllr Stokes said: “I believe it’s in the best interests of Rugby for the council to be fully involved in these discussions. Only by engaging in the debate can we judge whether Rugby can benefit from joining.

“We’ll make no decision until full details are available, but by playing a full role in these discussions we can ensure we make an informed decision which is right for Rugby.”

While Cllr Mobbs said he attended last Thursday’s meeting on a “fact-finding basis, not a sign-up basis”.

“I believe we should pursue a Coventry and Warwickshire authority that would not be so unwieldy and so help deliver good service to the local population and businesses.

“All the local authorities would still exist in a first stage of devolution of power. Whether there will be a second or third stage has to be explored. I need to find out how this could impact on the future.”