The leader of the Labour party in Lichfield and Burntwood has called for discussions over a proposed new Greater Birmingham combined authority to be more inclusive.
Lichfield District Council’s Conservative leader Mike Wilcox was involved in discussions earlier this week with other local authority leaders from across the region about proposals to create a new ‘Midlands powerhouse’.
Media reports had suggested that a deal was likely to be agreed, but Cllr Wilcox insisted no decisions had been made.
But Cllr Sue Woodward, leader of the Labour opposition group, said there should be and end to “cosy meetings” where deals are “stitched up”.
“I was surprised to learn about this meeting on the Greater Birmingham proposal,” she said. “I’ve said before that there may be advantages for parts of Staffordshire to join because it’s our travel to work area and a focus for many local people in areas like Cannock Chase, Lichfield and Tamworth.
“But to read about discussions was a bit of a surpriase. I want to make sure that council leaders are discussing this with members though. After all, they know what’s happening on the ground and what communities think about the prospect of combined authorities.
“Rather than having cosy chats in private rooms amongst leaders, they’ve got to be a bit more inclusive about the way negotiations go forward.
“I’ve asked Robert Strachan, chair of the strategic overview and scrutiny committee, if it can be discussed as a matter of urgency next week because we all need to be involved in this discussion.
“There should be no deals stitched up in private meetings – I want to see details discussed correctly and openly.”
Chancellor George Osborne also spoke at the meeting in Birmingham to outline the choices on offer to councils.
Cllr Wilcox promised that no deal would be struck if there was nothing in it for Lichfield and Burntwood – and Cllr Woodward has said the implications of any agreement needed to be fully examined and understood.
“There are real opportunities being presented to all local authorities by the combined authority model,” she said. “I don’t want to throw out baby out with the bathwater and say we don’t want to benefit from these opportunities.
“But we need to look at implications. For example, if we do go in with a Greater Birmingham combined authority what will be the implications for us as a small shire district in a county on the fringe of the conurbation? Will it be that resources are sucked into more deprived and disadvantaged areas or will we get benefits too?
“What I don’t want to see are the likes of Lichfield District Council getting the disadvantages but none of the advantages in terms of transport networks etc.
“We’ve got to make sure that if a small district goes into a combined authority – be it Birmingham or Staffordshire – that we don’t miss out because we haven’t got the clout of the big metropolitan authorities.”
Discussions are set to take place with Staffordshire County Council to understand what their view is on the combined authority issue and what impact it could have on Lichfield District Council.
There are fears in some quarters that any move towards a Greater Birmingham authority could lead to Lichfield being used to meet the housing needs of other areas.
Cllr Woodward said these were the sort of questions which needed to be answered.
“I’ve got a liberal view about housing need,” she said. “If Birmingham or wherever needs them then it’s because people need homes. That’s a pre-requisite to a stable society and community.
“But we don’t want it to be a fait accompli that there’s a done deal on housing. There needs to be negotiations with all members so a genuine community view is being sought.
“There’s a flirtation with both Staffordshire and Greater Brimingham on the combined authority and one of the issues I raised regularly is whether or not we were right to be putting eggs in two local enterprise partnership baskets. I always received assurances that it was in Lichfield District Council’s benefit.
“There are some real threats to local government at the moment but some real opportunities as well – we need to make sure we cash in on the right opportunites.”