Northern Powerhouse? Midlands councils combine forces

John Hess
Political editor, East Midlands

image copyrightGoogle/Getty
image captionCould Nottingham emulate the great northern powerhouse centred in Manchester?

Significant new powers over transport, housing and the local economy are to be devolved to Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire by the government.

It's the biggest shift in powers from Whitehall in generations, but the deal requires local councils to combine into one super authority. So what could it all mean?

One thing's for certain: it's a real attempt by political leaders in the East Midlands not to be outflanked by the "Northern Powerhouse".

There's been growing concern in the midlands of ending up in the devolution slow lane, especially after the latest shift of NHS budgets from Whitehall to Greater Manchester.

Council leaders from both East and West Midlands have joined forces via the lobby group Midlands Connect to give the midlands some more political clout.

That explains the moves in the East Midlands in creating "combined authorities".

So take a look at the local government map for Derbyshire: 10 councils, including Derby City and the county council.

image captionNottinghamshire County Council leader Alan Rhodes would welcome more power to the regions

What if they came together: A stronger, unified voice to Whitehall and Brussels perhaps? More cost effective? That's exactly the thinking of setting up a combined authority, a new super council sharing know-how, officers and priorities for government investment.

Initially, not all councils in Derbyshire were sure. Conservative-run Erewash had concerns over decisions - especially on housing and planning - being foisted on it. It almost scuppered the big get together. It's now signed up.

Its leader, councillor Chris Corbett, said: "We've had discussions with other council leaders and the chairman of the District Councils Network, and have now received confirmation of the protections and safeguards that will be in place."

The combined authority will be run by a board of council leaders. Unlike the Greater Manchester model, there'll be no directly-elected Mayor to run it all.

The new structure will need parliamentary approval, making Derbyshire the first combined authority outside of the big northern cities.

Nottinghamshire is next in line.

'This is a body of equals'

"With a combined authority, there is a huge potential in attracting the funding for important infrastructure projects such as highways," said the county council leader, Labour's Alan Rhodes. He's also sensitive to the concerns of smaller districts being railroaded by big city and county interests.

"What's important is that all the councils have an equal say. This is a body of equals.

"It's also key that the district councils have influence over areas which they haven't got now."

So could this be the template for the rest of English local government in the shires? Maybe. But time is running out.

Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire are working to a tight parliamentary deadline of 30 March.

If the combined authorities fail to get a legal rubber stamp before the general election, they'll have to start all over again in the next parliament.

And the "Northern Powerhouse" cities will have stolen a significant march over the midlands.