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Birmingham’s ‘Super Week’ could conclude with Devo Deal

Birmingham’s ‘Super Week’ could conclude with Devo Deal

🕔21.Sep 2015

It may not be straying too far into hyperbole to suggest Birmingham could be experiencing one of the most ‘super weeks’ in its history and arguably more significant than the opening of the Library of Birmingham just two years ago, writes Kevin Johnson.

The re-developed New Street station re-opened yesterday, attracting very positive media coverage. When Sir Albert Bore is on the Today programme (BBC Radio 4) and BBC Breakfast (BBC One) moves its red sofa to the station, you know the national media read the release. Grand Central and John Lewis will follow on Thursday and the weekend really is party time with Birmingham Weekender, Style Birmingham Live and the Rugby World Cup all putting on a show.

Whilst perhaps not attracting the same level of excitement amongst the general public, the end of the week could also be a cause for celebration. Leaders of the seven metropolitan districts in the West Midlands could finalise a deal with Government on devolution.

During the course of two events around the formation of the Combined Authority last week, the feeling that business leaders feel less informed than they would otherwise like and that plans for closer co-operation across the city region are developing with minimum involvement from business was palpable.

But, I heard perhaps the most coherent, rational and compelling arguments for closer working and devolution from city leaders than ever before. And I’m a devolution nerd who goes to the opening of a paper bag if it has the word ‘devolution’ on it.

At Insider magazine’s West Midlands Power House Breakfast last Thursday, editor Kurt Jacobs had assembled a stellar line up (I use the term relatively). You have to say Sir Albert, Marketing Birmingham boss Neil Rami and Martin Reeves, chief executive of Coventry City Council, hammered away at the key messages, not least the agglomeration argument, the need to make up the productivity gap with London (46 v 70 GVA1000 per worker) and the ‘net debt’ to Treasury (the shortfall of tax raised and spent in the area).

Sir Albert Bore, Birmingham city council leader, highlighted a point that even those of us who talk of devolution on a daily basis glide over. The formation of a combined authority, that will need to go through formal public consultation, and doing a devolution deal with government are two separate processes. It will be worth keeping that point in mind when we come to compare our devo deal with other city regions who are already aboard the combined authority train.

Martin Reeves, chief executive at Coventry city council, took the opportunity to underline the city’s commitment to WMCA when responding to a question about Warwickshire’s recent refusal to join the club.

We won’t blink.

Whilst clearly supportive of the combined authority, bringing council and LEP leaders together, and the central importance of Birmingham, Black Country LEP chair Stewart Towe was not sugar coating it. Birmingham had to realise they were just one member of the club and he was having no talk of renaming the authority as Greater Birmingham. On the 11th Floor of Alpha Tower, in the centre of Birmingham, he had only one apparent supporter of that view in the-100 strong audience.

You sense that this partnership, whilst clearly far ahead of where we were just one year ago, has some way to go before there is full trust and harmony around the table.

Neil Rami, who has led an inward investment revolution at Marketing Birmingham and who has his sights set on a new competitive positioning, is a past master at steering through troubled political waters whilst trying to make progress on the image and economic fronts. He wanted to underline the importance of the scale, and the proposition it could support, that would be made possible by a combined authority and devolution deal.

HS2 is in effect our Olympic Games.

It might be said that whilst the spacious welcome and modern retail offer of a new New Street is important, it will be the capacity and connectivity of HS2 at Curzon Street and NEC/Airport that will make the real difference.

As Neil Rami did point out, all available evidence points to cities as the economic engines of the global economy, with mega cities (with 10M+ populations) and mid-tier (4m+) leading the way. With around 1M, for true international relevance, Birmingham has to harness the muscle of the wider conurbation to make the global mid-tier league.

It was left to Paul Thandi and the audience to point to the elephants in the room. What will the Combined Authority actually do? Where’s the vision? What are we going to do about the name thing? What are we doing about the mayor?

Why those leading on the development of WMCA can’t actually spell out that a metro mayor is, in principle, accepted and that, whilst WMCA is the official name, Greater Birmingham will be increasingly used in the market, just as it already is largely in inward investment terms for Birmingham, Solihull and the Black Country, is beyond me.

But the questions of vision, creating a narrative that engages people and having a process where people feel properly informed and engaged keep coming back. For people who are as intellectually credible and articulate in a room full of business leaders, it shouldn’t really be that difficult to empower a few marketing and communications brains to develop the kind of narrative, messages and campaigns that will cut through fears of creating additional levels of bureaucracy with an understanding of the benefits.

Martin Reeves, who was perhaps most exercised on the narrative issue over breakfast, popped up again on the same morning at the launch of the University of Birmingham’s City-REDI unit.

City-REDI is a new research institute focussed on “developing an academic understanding of major city regions across the globe to develop practical policy which better informs and influences regional and national economic growth policies.

Reeves, who is leading on the economic workstream for the WMCA, was in the company of two esteemed academics, Birmingham’s own John Bryson and Geoffrey Hewings from the Regional Economic Applications Laboratory at the University of Illinois.

City-REDI is working to develop a new econometric model for the city region and supporting the creation of a ‘super-SEP’ – the revised strategic economic plan for the 3-LEP WMCA area, built on the back of the SEPs published by the enterprise partnerships in the last year. As the Super-SEP needs to be in place by the end of 2015, the opportunity to include new academic thinking, evidence and modelling is severely limited.

The common theme from the two professors was the importance of ‘knowing your patch.’ There was an implicit criticism that SEPs and Regional Economic Strategies from the old regional development agencies did not really have a deep and granular enough understanding of the assets, connections and challenges in the economic make up of the area. Reeves and the academics, including City-REDI boss Simon Collinson, impressed the need for long term analysis, having embedded capacity and focussing on the impact of policy interventions.

The Super-SEP would be, according to Reeves, the single most important driver of the success of WMCA, “not headline stuff like a Metro Mayor.” The challenge, he said, was the balance between the sheer pace of change, including the political calendar, and the need to invest in academic rigour over time.

The devolution deal is shrouded in more secrecy than a meeting of the National Security Council. Everyone involved is a breath away from saying “I’d love to tell you, but if I did, I’d have to shoot you.” They like to blame the Chancellor, but in reality it probably has more to do with a lack of trust for their devolution partners and political backbenchers and a fear of opening a lid that can never be closed.

Distinctiveness and differentiation are going to be critical to the success of the new combined authority and making a devolution deal work. The Super-SEP, and the versions which follow, along with the competitive positioning and narrative work from Marketing Birmingham, are going to be the critical underpinnings.

But, if political, business and other stakeholders are to make the settlement work, there needs to be a whole new approach to transparency and engagement.

Insider magazine will be covering the West Midlands Power House Breakfast in more detail in its next edition.

If you would like a detailed briefing on devolution and the development of the Combined Authority from RJF Public Affairs, and what it will mean for your organisation, please contact: kevin.johnson@rjfpa.com or 0121 213 4716.

Image: New Street station, Network Rail

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