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Keys to the Engine? Resilience and leadership, topped with confidence

Keys to the Engine? Resilience and leadership, topped with confidence

🕔01.Dec 2016

Last week’s Keys to the Engine conference, organised by the Downtown in Business Birmingham business club, followed hot on the heels of the Autumn Statement which inevitably influenced some of the proceedings. But, the themes of resilience and leadership and an air of confidence dominated the event. 

With speakers including mayoral hopeful Andy Street, Birmingham Airport chief Paul Kehoe, Birmingham City Council CEO Mark Rogers and Transport for West Midlands MD Laura Shoaf, you are almost guaranteed a positive take on Greater Birmingham and current events. National growth, deficit and borrowing figures are somebody else’s worry when you have a Midlands Rail Hub, HS2 and business rate retention to focus on.

Autumn Statement announcements on a Midlands Rail Hub, more Local Growth Fund monies and mayoral borrowing powers were all seized upon.

There was much praise for the political leadership of West Midlands councils in pulling the Combined Authority together after years of distrust and poor working relationships, although recent disputes over contributions to the West Midlands Pensions Fund are threatening harmony around the WMCA table.

Mark Rogers said it had taken “humble leadership” from Birmingham city council and elsewhere to put the combined authority in place. The Council had turned around both its public and private conduct, although still with much room for improvement. Others councils must “play their hand” he said and “Birmingham’s importance should not be its self-importance” – we should be equally proud of other regional cities such as Coventry, Wolverhampton.

Paul Kehoe, who is also Chair of Marketing Birmingham and President of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, called for the business community to unite and ‘get involved’ as the WMCA and Mayor will soon be having “real impact.”

Mr Kehoe also backed up the suggestion from Midlands Engine chair Sir John Peace that the region was about to enjoy a “golden decade”, whilst Laura Shoaf pointed to Birmingham’s ascendancy, becoming a city with a “European-feel.”

Transport is a key issue for the region, including east-west connections, according to Ms Shoaf who pointed to its importance as an industry as well as local, regional, national and international connectivity. But capacity and resilience would be crucial to the region’s ability to put additional infrastructure and transport schemes in place and flourish. People and businesses will face significant disruption with the build of HS2, highways improvements and growing demand brought on by economic growth.

Mark Rogers highlighted a change which he thought, rightly we would suggest, of which many businesses might not be aware. The full retention of business rates revenue by local authorities by 2020 would put greater emphasis on councils supporting economic growth as it will have a direct impact on their budgets. Even stronger partnerships between public and private sector will be essential. However, he cautioned that business rate localisation should not to be confused as devolution, but simply a shift in funding streams.

Mr Rogers also hoped that the promised Midlands Engine strategy would not be imposed from Number 10, but would be based on conversations with the region and take the West Midlands Combined Authority’s (WMCA) Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) as its starting point. A strategy for the Northern Powerhouse was published alongside the Autumn Statement. The Midlands Engine version could be released before Christmas.

The Chancellor also revealed in his Statement that further devolution deals are being discussed. Birmingham Council’s CEO, who has taken a lead role in the negotiations, pointed to a more strategic approach to the discussions than previously with less emphasis on framing deals for the major ‘fiscal events.’ Chamberlain Files understands the next ‘devo deal’ for WMCA will follow some time after the local government finance settlement is announced in the next few weeks.

Conservative mayoral candidate Andy Street said that poor representation and leadership from the region’s representatives and ambassadors in London was a key reason for why other centres had got ‘ahead.’ Mr Street said he hopes to be a “collaborative and optimistic” mayor and positioned himself as the “centre forward” of the region.

Andy Street said that he wants the region to gain true independence and was hoping for a high turnout to give him a strong mandate as mayor. He would be using Facebook to reach those voters who he didn’t have chance to meet in person.

Confident of his chances in a metropolitan area traditionally dominated by Labour, he contrasted his approach with the “megaphone diplomacy” used by his main opponent, Siôn Simon. He said his approach would be more “strategic, business-like and realistic.” Given the opportunity to highlight positive aspects of his fellow candidates, Mr Street praised Beverley Nielsen and James Burn but struggled on Labour’s man, eventually suggesting that Mr Simon’s long political experience might be useful.

Mr Street said he wanted to build a bolder brand and narrative that’s matches the vibrancy and diversity of the city, including selling the softer parts of Birmingham’s appeal such as lifestyle, culture and an ideal place for bringing up families.

Main pic: Mark Rogers and Paul Kehoe, courtesy of Jas Sansi.

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