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Manchester’s northern unity steals a march on Birmingham with some priceless ‘top table’ publicity

Manchester’s northern unity steals a march on Birmingham with some priceless ‘top table’ publicity

🕔30.Jun 2014

Here’s a question for you. When was the last time Birmingham and the West Midlands benefited from a hugely complementary article on the op-ed page of the Financial Times?

Sorry, have to hurry you. Come on, come on.

Actually, that was a trick question. This city and region, to the best of my knowledge, has never been lauded in the op-ed columns of the FT. Well, possibly back in the 1960s or 1970s, I suppose, but certainly not in the post-2009 financial crisis era.

So it was with great surprise, and no little admiration, that I opened the weekend Financial Times to be greeted by a picture of Manchester City Council chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein alongside an article he had written with the headline: “The north is an engine of growth that is ready to run.”

There followed, as you might expect, a lively commentary from Sir Howard on how Greater Manchester and the cities of the north are getting ready to benefit from the Chancellor’s announcement a week ago about devolving funds and powers and creating an “economic powerhouse” to rival London.

Sir Howard, setting out his stall brilliantly, went on to advise Mr Osborne (who does read the FT) about how much more the north could achieve if only the Government would be prepared to agree 20-year investment plans rather than follow “a piecemeal approach, with fragmented funding pots working at cross purposes”.

He presented an image of unity, where a vast industrial region stretching from Liverpool and Manchester in the west to Leeds and Sheffield in the centre and Hull and Newcastle in the east, are working together to create jobs and wealth through a joint economic plan.

You can’t buy this sort of positive publicity and marketing in a newspaper that really is read at the top tables by the country’s business and political elite. That is to say, the business and political elite largely based in London, who thanks to Sir Howard now know the north of England is a region that is confident its time has come.

It would be possible to substitute the words ‘Birmingham’ and ‘West Midlands’ for Manchester and the north in much of Sir Howard’s contribution and the article would still make sense.

He declares that nearly two-thirds of the next decade’s economic growth will come from cities, and it is therefore imperative that governments empower city regions because that is where tomorrow’s jobs are going to come from. He points out that European cities like Munich and Barcelona enjoy far greater levels of autonomy than Manchester, or Birmingham for that matter.

He shows how fragmented and piecemeal funding decisions taken in Whitehall have often hampered rather than speeded regeneration, using as an example the refurbishment of Manchester Piccadilly Station in 2002.

It took about 20 years to get financial approval for the refurbishment of Birmingham New Street Station, but the final decision was taken by government in isolation which meant that the arrival of HS2, changes to Moor Street Station and expansion of the Midland Metro system had to be fitted in at a later stage.

He bangs the drum for HS2, just as Birmingham is doing, but warns that rail freight links from the northern cities to ports must be improved assist exports and to drive forward the revival of manufacturing. Exactly the same argument can be made in the West Midlands.

Sir Howard also talks about the importance of science and innovation in unleashing prosperity in the north. He wants to challenge orthodox thinking which routinely awards the bulk of funding to Oxford, Cambridge and London universities while other institutions are left “fighting for scraps”. It’s the same story in the West Midlands, where Warwick and the Birmingham universities can justly claim that they do not receive a fair slice of the funding cake.

But there is one important section of Sir Howard’s article that is out of step with Birmingham and the West Midlands. That is where he talks about the political unity of the north, partly through the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, but also through a willingness among city leaders to work together on a regional basis.

He says: “The north is more confident today than I have ever known it. We have the imagination and the talent we need to succeed – and we are much closer to having the institutions we need too. Our great cities will not offer a counterweight to London but a complement to it.

“But we have to work at the right scale. Individually, northern cities such as Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield have distinctive characters and advantages. Together we can take on the world.”

No one could write that about Birmingham and the West Midlands and get away with it. There is still no real sign that the Greater Birmingham local authorities are anywhere near moving to Combined Authority status, even though the Chancellor has made it pretty clear that this is a pre-requisite if regions want to benefit from devolved powers and budgets.

The closest thing we have to a regional approach is the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, overseen by a supervisory board of local council leaders. GBSLEP, significantly, does not encompass the Black Country councils or Coventry and Warwickshire, which have their own LEPs.

There are signs that the West Midlands LEPs are getting better at joint working. There is a shared Regional Growth Fund that could be worth £125 million, for instance. But it would be wrong to claim that the West Midlands is anywhere close to matching the collaboration shown by local government in the north.

A week today the Chancellor will unveil awards from the Local Growth Fund, probably in Birmingham. Mr Osborne is expected to reprise his Manchester northern powerhouse speech by setting out how he sees the West Midlands benefiting from greater devolution.

He may dangle all kinds of goodies at his audience of local politicians and business leaders. And if, as some say, Mr Osborne has truly become convinced about devolution, the prospect of some form of Greater Birmingham regional body, perhaps under an elected metro mayor, could be hinted at.

The Tory Chancellor is by no means the only one pushing devolution. Labour leader Ed Miliband is expected tomorrow to confirm that he would transfer £30 billon from central government to Local Enterprise Partnerships through the Local Growth Fund. That’s £10 billion more than Mr Osborne’s promised £20 billion, which in itself is double the current £10 billion.

Mr Miliband will make his announcement in Leeds which is another indication that, for the time being, the north of England is the major devolution player as far as the two main political parties are concerned.

That could change fairly quickly, of course, if the West Midlands can show some real unity and there’s no doubt that the Osborne-Miliband debate represents an opportunity for this region to get a powerful message out there.

We must hope that Mark Rogers, Birmingham city council chief executive, who likened himself to Sir Howard Bernstein when he was appointed, is sharpening his pencil and preparing to send off 1,000 pithy words to the editor of the Financial Times on the subject of the West Midlands, a sleeping giant ready to awaken.

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