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Greater Birmingham has a good story to tell – no need for GBSLEP’s mid morning sofa

Greater Birmingham has a good story to tell – no need for GBSLEP’s mid morning sofa

🕔22.Jun 2015

Attending the annual meeting of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP is always a mixed blessing. You have to sit through an hour or so of people congratulating themselves before the main act crops up, and since the star attraction this year was Lord Heseltine the wait was worthwhile, writes Paul Dale.

Even at 83, Heseltine beats most of today’s politicians into a cocked hat. The man actually speaks in perfectly understandable English, for a start, and is one of the last of a generation of public figures able to speak entirely unscripted and get away with it.

Ed James, the disc jockey drafted in by GBSLEP, presumably to give the meeting a bit of crazy edge, asked Heseltine whether George Osborne had a hidden message for Greater Birmingham with his pronouncements about metro mayors. Heseltine, incredulous, perfectly timed three second gap, replied: “I haven’t the faintest idea”.

The audience fell about. Well, after 90 minutes of GBSLEP you need a laugh.

The setting at Birmingham town hall was meant to send out a statement. This was, after all, where Joseph Chamberlain, Birmingham’s greatest political leader, held court.

An empty stage save for a leather sofa and chair suggested, perhaps, a Pinter play with plenty of difficult silences, or more likely the LEP’s version of Abigail’s Party.

In the end it was more communications in the style of state television from the former eastern Europe bloc. Some pretty poor videos featuring various people praising the LEP and a series of ‘interviews’ of LEP board members conducted by chair Andy Street.

“So, Pat, tell us about all the exciting things you’ve been up to this year in the world of finance.”

Actually, Andy didn’t need the sofa at all, and the meeting could have been condensed into an hour.

Greater Birmingham has a pretty good story to tell, although it is a matter for debate how much of the current economic revival is down to GBSLEP and how much would have happened anyway thanks to economic recovery off the back of quantitative easing and initiatives such as HS2, the Birmingham enterprise zone and growth deals, which may have been pushed forward by the LEP but emanated in the first instance from the Government.

On the plus side, more foreign businesses invested in Greater Birmingham and Solihull in 2014-15 than any other LEP region. The area attracted 73 new FDI projects, nine per cent more than the next highest LEP. Investors included world-famous brands such as Jaguar Land Rover, KPMG, Virgin Media and Amazon.

This created and safeguarded a total of 6,104 jobs, nearly 1,800 more than any other UK LEP.

US firms were the most prominent investors, accounting for 22 per cent of all projects. Hydraulics manufacturer HydraForce, which is moving to Birmingham’s Advanced Manufacturing Hub, and Virgin Media, which recently expanded in the city, were among the biggest investments.

Overseas investment was primarily driven by advanced manufacturing, which represented 40 per cent of all projects, followed by business, professional and financial services (BPS) with a third and IT and digital, with 15 per cent. All three sectors have been heavily targeted as part of the region’s strategy to diversify its economy and create the greatest employment opportunities for the local workforce.

Significant investment from tech and creative firms reflects the region’s emergence as a hub for nimble high-tech firms. Retail giant Amazon has expanded in Rugeley, Staffordshire, while fellow US firm Uber recently set up an office in Birmingham, citing demand for local graduates and the burgeoning young professional community as major reasons for investing in the region.

GBSLEP is ahead of the game on a target to create 119,000 jobs by 2020 and to increase GVA by £8.25 billion.

However, there’s an ‘amber’ warning sign against a target to reduce unemployment to the national average and increase GVA to match the national average.

And alarm bells really should be ringing over Greater Birmingham’s ongoing skills crisis. The gap between the numbers of adults with NVQ3+ compared to the Core City LEP average is increasing and now stands at 3.1 per cent, up from 2.7 per cent in 2010.

Alan Volkearts, GBSLEP board member for improving skills, writes in the annual report that “significant progress has been made in 2014-15 against our skills agenda”. The figures, though, seem to suggest otherwise.

Mr Street unashamedly promoted the Greater Birmingham brand, and stated bravely that he felt the name ‘Birmingham’ had to be somewhere in the title of the planned West Midlands combined authority.

“Our ambition is to create jobs and grow the economy and re-establish Greater Birmingham and Solihull as a major driver of the UK economy outside of London. This is beginning to happen. It is a good story.”

He reminded the audience that four years ago GBSLEP had virtually no money. Now, the organisation has direct and indirect control of about £1 billion of investment funds.

No meeting of GBSLEP, or indeed its predecessor Advantage West Midlands, would be complete without some agonising over communications and the region’s image problems. Mr Street hinted at a major piece of work in the pipeline on “competitive positioning” to help Greater Birmingham better tell its story.

I can only refer him to a piece on the finance pages of the Daily Telegraph last week by reporter Alistair Osborne, offering Mr Street a back-handed complement on his recent CBE. “Oddly, it is for chairing the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership. Really? He’s obviously never been to Birmingham,” snorted Osborne.

There is indeed a long way to go to repair the image problem when such casual anti-Birmingham rhetoric can be slipped so easily into the pages of a national newspaper.

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