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‘Midlands is the only M word that matters’ – Rogers, Page & Carr take WMCA’s greatest hits on tour

‘Midlands is the only M word that matters’ – Rogers, Page & Carr take WMCA’s greatest hits on tour

🕔24.Aug 2015

The fledgling West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) staged a consultation event with Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce last week, writes Kevin Johnson with additional contributions from Patrick Willcocks.

Mark Rogers, Nick Page and Mike Carr, supported by new Chamber boss Paul Faulkner, have hit the road with their greatest hits in a tour that takes in the Chancellor’s 4 September deadline and winds up with the 25 November Autumn Statement.

Mike Carr, programme delivery director at GBSLEP, made the economic case for a Combined Authority.

He stressed the unique qualities (rather than the challenges), of the three-LEP model, stressing there were strong foundations on which to build. Carr, mainly drawing on GBSLEP rather than pan-LEP figures, pointed to the creation of 43,000 jobs; export growth and being the number one region for inward investment  – even bigger than London. He also pointed to £630M of growth deals in GBSLEP area.

There are three key challenges, Carr suggested:

  • The international challenge facing all cities because of the trend toward global urbanisation;
  • Some of the figures are not as good as we would wish – still need to rebalance away from London with a ‘Midlands Engine’.
  • A regional challenge reflecting structural issues within the Midlands economy. The region is a net taker from the Treasury, not a net giver. Output gap is £16bn; public sector deficit £3.4bn.

Key benefits of the three LEPs:

  • 4 million people;
  • £80bn GVA;
  • 20 local authorities; and
  • 90% self-containment.

The term being used is Economy Plus – more than the sum of the parts. Through a strong private/public partnership, WMCA would:

  • Facilitate the Midlands Engine;
  • Accelerate agglomeration benefits; and
  • Close the productivity gap.

2030 is the target date for achieving these goals.

The Emerging Deal

Mark Rogers and Nick Page, chief executive of Birmingham city council and his successor at Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council, went onto to describe the emerging proposal.

Rogers suggested there was lots of focus on governance, but he wanted to talk about the content of the proposed deal.

Midlands is the only M word that matters – as in #midlandsengine.

Rogers again stressed the importance of the 3 LEPs, stating it was a non-negotiable model. That might be more because the Government has more faith in the LEPs than the Councils, not least GBSLEP chair Andy Street.

The Birmingham chief executive was at pains to say the Combined Authority will not take powers away from local councillors.

Councils will decide what powers go up to the WMCA.

This isn’t the end of Walsall of Solihull!

Working principles were set out as:

  • Collaborative working on the creation of WMCA;
  • Prize is strong economic growth;
  • Smart investment focussed on the biggest outcomes;
  • Growth will be accompanied by innovation and public service reform;
  • Commitment to collaborative working with the private sector; and
  • All communities will benefit from growth but not necessarily at the same time or same way.

The priorities would be:

  • Develop a strategic economic plan for the 3 LEPs;
  • Access to finance and a collective investment vehicle;
  • Get the transport offer right;
  • Economic intelligence and policy
  • A joint programme on skills.

Solihull’s Nick Page said the devolution deal would be earned and staged. It would specify:

  • The offers of power, funding and freedom;
  • In return for the reforms the West Midlands needs to deliver.

Page stressed they were doing a deal with the Chancellor.

Closure of productivity and public funding gaps were key and two sides of the same coin, suggested the Solihull boss. There is “no point in creating an accelerating economy if we do not connect it to the people in the region.”

Priorities included:

  • Driving growth through connectivity;
  • Transforming the education, employment and skills system. Triple devolution. Post 16 onwards. Personal budgets for those with problems;
  • Ensuring land supply for employment and revitalising housing; and
  • Closing the public funding gap and transforming public services. Redesign services…more bespoke.

Three principles:

  • Empowerment;
  • Outcome focus;
  • Lower costs/higher productivity.

There would be initial focus on a few interconnected, big ticket items such as:

  • Education, employment and skills; and
  • Mental health commission. 70% in criminal justice system have mental health issues, causing significant cost to the public purse. Research in Solihull showed that people with mental health issues had to engage with 22 separate agencies.

Discussion at the event included our old favourites – the name of the combined authority and whether it would feature a Metro Mayor. The now standard answers were given, with a strong sense yet again that a mayor will end up in the deal and that ‘Greater Birmingham’ will get through for marketing and inward investment purposes.

The staging of the deal and the need to earn devolution was again stressed.

Debate topics also covered skills, the need for greater collaboration and intelligence and whether WMCA is being ambitious enough.

The Department for Communities and Local Government requires that the formation of a Combined Authority has included appropriate consultation, so the council and LEP officers will now be able to say they have consulted the business community.

Pic: courtesy Elliott Brown

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