Taking a keen interest in foreign affairs can be a tricky business, even for prime ministers who are supposed to involve themselves with such matters. So when the leader of Britain’s largest local authority sets off on regular globe-trotting trade missions, you can be certain that criticism from some quarters will be sharp.
Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby has been on trips to China almost every year since 2005. He has also visited India, the Middle East and America, and is a regular at the annual MIPIM property fair bash at Cannes, in an effort to drum up inward investment and to position Birmingham as an international business destination.
It is difficult to know to what extent Coun Whitby’s foreign policy initiatives have delivered real jobs, and at what cost to the taxpayer. The most obvious example of success is probably the presence of Chinese car maker SAIC at Longbridge, where 300 people are employed in production and research and development.
The council leader has often taken credit for the decision by Deutsche Bank to bring 550 jobs to Brindleyplace, although in an official press releases the bank failed to mention the council and instead heaped praise on former regional development agency Advantage West Midlands and £1.6 million of grants which helped oil the wheels.
Coun Whitby feels strongly that his close relationship with Chinese provincial governments enabled the Longbridge deal to be concluded in Birmingham’s favour. If sophisticated relationships with the Chinese had not been in place when Rover collapsed then the “lift and shift prediction of a local tabloid newspaper” might have come true, he pointedly told a crowded reception in London.
Certainly, the council leader was in his element when addressing more than 150 guests at the House of Commons Terrace Pavilion. Never knowingly under-hyped, the Global City Parliamentary Reception was billed as an opportunity to demonstrate how Birmingham is “converting civic ties into tangible economic growth, inward investment and job creation”.
A stellar cast list included Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, Cities Minister Greg Clark, and Transport Secretary Justine Greening, as well as many Birmingham business leaders and MPs.
And although Coun Whitby’s speech was both lengthy and passionate, it was not big on statistics. There was no attempt to specify the number of new jobs created as a direct result of international trips, and as far as I am aware the council has never published the figures, nor has the topic been investigated by a scrutiny committee.
Sutton Coldfield MP Andrew Mitchell, who was hosting the event, paid tribute to Coun Whitby’s “global city with a local heart” initiative, although wisely he did not attempt to analyse precisely what, if anything, this mantra actually means.
He referred to Birmingham’s “extraordinary success” in wooing the fast-growing economies of China and India, before concluding: “People in Birmingham don’t always realise how much we are admired and respected. Birmingham is this big community, very international, very diverse, very successful, making a huge contribution reaching out attracting investment from overseas.”
Mr Mitchell also reminded guests, perhaps unwisely, that although the event was jointly organised by the council and Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, the council would be picking up the bill for the reception.
No one should jibe about spending a relatively small amount of money on wine and canapés, if Coun Whitby’s contention that Birmingham’s global ambitions are delivering economic recovery is correct – and if this can be backed by facts. But rumblings of discontent are already beginning to be heard at a time when Birmingham is gearing itself up for a possible mayoral election contest.
One topic of conversation revolved around the relevance of certain guests, Conservative councillors with no direct link to economic development for example, and even one Tory election candidate who would like to be a councillor but isn’t yet.
Former city council Director of Governance, Mirza Ahmad, who is considering standing for Mayor of Birmingham, was quick off the mark on Twitter. Dr Ahmad wrote: “Who is picking up Whitby’s cost of enchantment? Birmingham taxpayers, of course. Were there more Conservative supporters than others, I wonder? And what was the cost to Birmingham?”
And for good measure, Dr Ahmad warned: “Whitby must be watched/scrutinised to make sure no council funds are used on his bid to become mayor.”
Sniping from the sidelines will not worry Mike Whitby, who regards regular trips abroad as key to selling Birmingham on the world stage. He told guests at the reception: “We are a great city that has repositioned itself. No city in the UK has a divine right to succeed, it has to be globally relevant and if it is not then the international business-makers and the financiers will pass us by.”
Labour councillors, who expect to take control of Birmingham following the May elections, were noticeably absent at the reception. Group leader Sir Albert Bore, a prospective mayoral candidate, has made it clear that he has doubts about whether the money spent on improving Birmingham’s international image has delivered any tangible results.
Coun Whitby says this is symptomatic of Labour’s lack of ambition for Birmingham, and continues to chide his opponents with tales of the way the city appeared to the outside world in 2004. “I used to come to council-organised receptions at Westminster and they were dire. Hardly anyone of any significance turned up, you certainly wouldn’t have got a gathering like the one we have had tonight because Birmingham simply wasn’t on the radar,” he told the Chamberlain Files.
His aim is to propel Birmingham into the top 25 world cities as listed in the Mercer Quality of Life Index. We are in 52nd position at the moment, and only one other UK city features in the top 100, and that is London in 38th place.
Does this matter? Does it make any real difference to the Birmingham economy? It certainly does according to Mike Whitby, even if there are plenty of others who think he is wasting his time.
- Mirza Ahmad guest post: I’ll put Birmingham first if I’m elected mayor (thechamberlainfiles.wordpress.com)