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Forget the Jaws of Doom: Try Triangle of Wealth and Opportunity

Forget the Jaws of Doom: Try Triangle of Wealth and Opportunity

🕔05.Jun 2015

Labour city councillor John Clancy picks up on the Single Investment Vehicle mentioned this week as part of announcements around the creation of a combined authority. The serial challenger to group leader Sir Albert Bore suggests leaders should seek to be more ambitious and independent and set up a regional Sovereign Wealth Fund. 

We need to think big when it comes to the West Midlands’ public and private assets. There is some mention in the West Midland Combined Authority latest plans for what it calls a ‘Single Investment Vehicle’.  It is, though, mentioned as a side issue, it seems to me. This was also mentioned by the leader of Solihull council, Bob Sleigh, when indicating a more positive attitude to joining a combined authority.

I hope it isn’t a side issue. It can actually be the real driving force for the whole region. I suspect we need to be much more ambitious than a ‘single investment vehicle’. How about we aim for a West Midlands Regional Sovereign Wealth Fund?

I have been arguing in articles, books and blogs for years now that what we need to do in Birmingham and the West Midlands is to try be much more innovative and creative about our assets. They are mostly unmined, unexploited and unsweated. They sit as a wasted network of resources which should be unlocked and exploited.

They rest in a loose mosaic of unconnected and under-utilised assets which rarely see the light of economic day. And any other assets which might be attached, backed or consolidated with them are spirited away from the region to London and the wider global capital for lack of local financial systems and know-how.

In will propose further and specific detail as to how the regional Wealth Fund can be established and the legal and economic mechanics of getting there, but for now I would like to put the general case as a principle.

We need to use these great assets in the region to back up a much wider Regional Wealth Fund over which we have control and which we do not have to go cap in hand to London for, whether to George Osborne or the London Financial pump primer. And to use them on our own terms, not others.

There seems to me to be three corners of this dynamic West Midlands triangle of wealth.

Firstly, there is the vast amount of publicly-owned assets across the full range of public bodies right across the region. Councils, certainly, but also land and physical assets in the ownership of other public agencies in sectors such as health, environment, education, law & order, highways and (importantly for them) the arts. Third sector and charity assets can fall within this side of the triangle too.

Birmingham City Council alone owns more than £6 billion in assets. The land and property owned (excluding council houses, heritage assets and community assets) stands at about £2.5 billion.

Secondly, there are the mighty regional pension funds – most importantly of all the West Midlands Local Government Pension Fund. At well over £10.5 billion in invested assets it is without doubt the major financial anchor institution of the entire region. Whilst it obviously has a public sector aspect to it (with council taxpayers and ordinary taxpayers funding it as employers) it is essentially the private wealth of over 275,000 active, retired and ex-local government employees.

Thirdly, the wealth of the private sector in the region and whatever further private sector investment from outside the region which can be leveraged into the engine of wealth which the regional fund can become. The fund can draw into it such investment which currently goes elsewhere for want of a regional investment vehicle at present or which inevitably finds its way into the London financial, banking and commercial mixer.

This triangle of wealth and opportunity should not be seen as some sideshow in a combined authority: it should be its engine. The engine for the ‘Midlands Engine’ as it were.

It can be a generator of economic activity which can rival any region of its size anywhere. It can be something the region owns and has control over, though the financial instruments, bonds, and economic pathways which it can create. It can generate new investment routes into and within the region. One which some of its citizens can, and must, demand a real say in how it works, especially through the 275,000 pension savers.

I mention the crucial aspect of, for example, arts organisations, because they can, disconnected from the wealth of the region, become a disparate, even desperate, archipelago of active, individually dynamic worlds, but forever drifting in a sea of uncertainty.

Their assets (often physical buildings, as it happens) joined within a wider sovereign wealth fund which recognises the wider economic impact of the arts can of themselves be part of a new wider way of generating arts funding. Arts Bonds or Arts Impact Bonds issued by a regional sovereign wealth fund can be a way ahead for sustainable arts funding.

There has often been laid at the door of those proposing municipal banks and the like, that it’s difficult to set up the financial reality and the financial instruments, bonds, mortgages and investment packages based upon municipalities themselves. That may be the case. Indeed with perceptions of dire revenue positions of municipal authorities it hardly helps the emerging UK muni-bond industry.

So a much more substantial body or fund with significant real assets in investments may be the better vehicle for such bonds and investments opportunities to be issued by.

The Combined Authority working with a Regional Sovereign Wealth Fund can start to put its assets to work across the region generating economic activity and building long term investment in our region’s economic clout. George Osborne’s engine of growth from the Midlands can have its drive, its fuel, indeed its very momentum from the region’s own wealth.

It can be part of a dynamic pattern of new investment in building the housing (especially the affordable social housing we desperately need) in infrastructure, education, the arts and in long-term patient investment in our region’s own small and medium sized enterprises and traders.

Let’s think bigger. Let’s do it before Manchester. Let’s not start looking at a vehicle. Let’s have a great convoy, a great traffic of West Midlands investment to form the triangle of wealth and opportunity – and made in the Midlands.

A version of this article also appeared in The Birmingham Post. 

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