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A Greater Story: Jobs, Investment and a ‘Fundamental Re-positioning’

A Greater Story: Jobs, Investment and a ‘Fundamental Re-positioning’

🕔11.Feb 2014

LEP WeekJerry Blackett, Chief Executive of Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, reflects on the progress of LEPs, localism and lessons learnt.

It will be four years this summer since the government invited business and industry to lead on the creation of new partnerships with local authorities, charged with creating economic visions and priorities for local places. In Birmingham, Solihull and Southern Staffordshire the Chambers of Commerce with important support from the Federation of Small Businesses took up the pen with gusto.

We had fought a hard campaign to retain the Regional Development Agency, conscious of the £300 million per annum that was coming into the region via this organisation. We were unconvinced that a London-centric Whitehall machine would maintain this level of spend in places north of Watford. But there was no point in sulking about the demise of RDAs – there was a new game in town.

I remember summer 2010 vividly. Plans for holidays had to be suspended and weekends disappeared. Hundreds of businesses turned up at Chamber-led events to have their say about what sort of economy Birmingham and the area might become and to identify barriers to enterprise. Saving his blushes, the Editor of the Chamberlain Files was one of a number of businesspeople who gave a huge amount of their time pro-bono to writing chunks of what became the blueprint for the Greater Birmingham LEP. It was business people in Solihull and Southern Staffordshire that insisted to their political leaders that their economic future lay in a partnership with Birmingham. The ‘travel to work’ data and the movement of goods and services proved the rationale for this choice of economic geography.

Colleagues from local authorities proved just as enthusiastic. Birmingham City Council in particular was very generous in seconding (at no cost) their best people into providing a secretariat.

We concluded we would become “the easiest place in Europe in which to set up and run a business”.

The Chamber’s past President, Bridget Blow, agreed to Chair and form a ‘Shadow Board’ for a year. The purpose of this board (consisting of local authority leaders and invited businesspeople) was to design and embed governance processes that would be best-in-class and to create a process for creating a board proper. It was also during this year that Bridget and the board agreed the name should be led by the phrase ‘Greater Birmingham’ – symbolically important in making sure we lifted our eyes beyond individual local authority boundaries. Businesses don’t recognise administrative boundaries and investors from China, India etc. certainly don’t.

Adverts were placed in regional newspapers inviting businesspeople to apply to join the board. We were incredibly fortunate that Andy Street, MD of John Lewis, who was brought up, went to school in Birmingham and was back in touch with the City again because of the plans to open a new John Lewis store over a redeveloped New Street Station agreed to chair the LEP.

Four years on, the LEP should be praised not just for its dogged persistence but also for what it has done. For example, the £200 million investment levered into the national automotive supply chain; the investment into the life sciences sector. The ‘Growing Places’ projects initiated across the three Districts of Southern Staffordshire. The promotion of the M42 corridor (where the Chamber played a massive role by winning £17.5 million of Regional Growth Fund money which was necessary to complete the funding necessary to extend the runway at Birmingham Airport). The growth in private sector jobs creation – the best of any English Region outside of London. The terrific upsurge in inward investment with around 5,000 jobs created or safeguarded.

Unsurprisingly, it has proved hard to lever power and control from Whitehall. But business leaders from brands such as John Lewis, Kraft, Jaguar Land Rover, National Express and KPMG working in partnership with local authority leaders and heads of our Universities and Colleges undoubtedly upped the impact of Greater Birmingham in Whitehall. We even caught the eye of Lord Heseltine who chose Greater Birmingham to pilot the implementation of his ‘No Stone Unturned’ recommendations on how great city-regions could be set free from the dead hand of national government.

What lessons have we learned? In hindsight, I wish we could have pushed on with the opportunity to build a ‘first-stop’ business support signposting service for local businesses at the time that Lord Heseltine was keen to pilot this last Spring. I think there was a national pilot window at least half-open, but for various reasons this was not possible. That said, everything has its time and it is good to see the LEP now prioritising this as part of its expected use of European funds.

I also think we have learned not to underestimate the sheer resource challenge of tooling up the LEP to deliver. In the early days, the LEP had to borrow (and sometimes beg) resource and this really stretched things. I sense that there is now much more investment coming along to maximise delivery. Again, a function of timing, it is only now that the LEP is getting accountability for some significant delivery.

To the casual observer, the achievements to date might look modest. That would be a major under-estimation. The last four years have been about a fundamental re-positioning of Greater Birmingham in the eyes of government and internationally. The foundations laid are now about to deliver a step-change in the resources our local area enjoys. The LEP has submitted its Strategic Economic Plan that will be the basis for competing for a chunk of the Heseltine single pot for 2015 of £2.2 billion. I think the plan is strong and compelling and we must be optimistic about the outcome. In addition, the LEP has submitted proposals for how it will direct c. £600 million European funds, which should become available before the end of this year.

Localism is now thankfully irreversible. The pace will still frustrate us but all political parties acknowledge its desirability. That we have got this far is a credit to the LEP and all of us who have worked so hard on this cause.

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