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Never Knowingly Oversold

Never Knowingly Oversold

🕔12.Feb 2014

In an exclusive interview with the Files, GBSLEP Chair and John Lewis boss Andy Street sets out his stall for chief blogger Paul Dale and is in the business of expectation management.

Andy Street, the chairman of Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, has firmly dismissed any suggestion that his organisation should join forces with the Black Country LEP.

Mr Street said he was “definitely not” in favour of a formal merger and added that the urban-rural mix of GBSLEP was working well because it accurately reflected the Birmingham travel to work area.

He accepts, however, that the six West Midlands local enterprise partnerships must work closely together to promote matters of mutual interest. The LEP chairs already meet quarterly to discuss areas where they can co-operate, and are drawing up plans for a Regional Investment Fund.

Mr Street’s firm opposition to amalgamation would appear to put paid, at least for the time being, to the idea that that GBSLEP and Black Country LEP should merge to form a single economic colossus.

The possibility of joining forces has been floated by Birmingham city council leader Sir Albert Bore, who hosted a dinner with GBSLEP and the Black Country LEP chairs to discuss closer cooperation.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Files to mark almost three years of GBSLEP, Mr Street said he feared a larger LEP with Birmingham at its centre would create new problems around the difficulty of trying to please too many different constituent members.

He also revealed that:

  • he cannot be sure whether jobs growth in the GBSLEP area since 2010 is the result of LEP initiatives
  • GBSLEP councils understand fully that economic recovery must concentrate on Birmingham
  • he does not consider a 100,000 new jobs target between 2010 and 2020 to be ‘modest’.

Mr Street said: “GBSLEP is small enough in terms of geography for it to be specific. If you are dealing with the whole region you have to balance all sorts of interests. With us, the economic area is considerably smaller and that makes a difference.

“If you are asking me should GBSLEP and the Black Country amalgamate? Definitely not.

“What we have to do is work really effectively together.”

He does not regard as “odd” the make-up of GBSLEP, which consists of urban Birmingham and Solihull councils along with largely rural Lichfield, Tamworth, East Staffordshire, Cannock Chase, Redditch, Bromsgrove and Wyre Forest.

He insists there have been very few tensions between the big city interests of Birmingham and the other LEP members, adding that the likes of Lichfield, Tamworth, East Staffordshire, Cannock Chase, Redditch, Bromsgrove and Wyre Forest understand that they are in the Birmingham travel to work area and therefore have a vested interest in creating jobs in Birmingham.

He added: “If you look at how the economy works a huge proportion of the residents in these outlying boroughs work in Birmingham and Solihull, so there’s an economic logic to it. The old fashioned county boundaries don’t truly represent the travel to work area.

“As far as the Enterprise Zone location in Birmingham is concerned, all nine councils agreed. They all ‘got it’ and understood that the faster Birmingham city centre is regenerated the better it is for all of them.

“The really good thing is that we have glued everyone together. The nine different councils that form the LEP, the private sector, individual companies, and the representative bodies are all on board.

“In terms of Birmingham and collaboration, a very good job has been done. I don’t want to comment on what happened before, but it’s a fact that people feel part of this rather than that it is a separate organisation.”

Mr Street, whose ‘day job’ is being chief executive of John Lewis, has recently signed on for a further three years as chair of GBSLEP, a decision  that he says was made easier because of the “fantastic team I have around me”.

He talks about laying “strong foundations” during the early days of the LEP, but admits that the “job remains undone”. And Mr Street has a clear message for critics of GBSLEP, or indeed of any LEP – it is a matter of “expectation management”.

The whole Heseltine affair, with Lord Heseltine basing himself in Birmingham to see how his ideas about devolving powers and budgets from Whitehall to the LEPs could work in practice, was great for promoting the West Midlands at Government level but inevitably raised expectations “that were never likely to be met”, Street thinks.

He adds: “Anyone who has run a business knows that things don’t turn around very quickly. Certainly the issues around expectations about winning devolution have been unrealistic.

“The BBC ran stories saying ‘billions of pounds on way to the region’ and I thought ‘Oh God this just isn’t going to happen’. When you look at the situation the Treasury is in it is obvious this isn’t going to happen.

“People’s expectations are somewhat unrealistic.”

He thinks the coalition Government is serious about localism and devolving budgets and points to the Regional Growth Fund and enterprise zones as examples of this.

“The Government didn’t have to make LEPs responsible for drawing up economic strategy, for implementing enterprise zones and for dealing with European funding. They could have given these responsibilities to the big city councils.

“We have leveraged a significant amount of money through the Regional Growth Fund. The City Deal has given us things that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. We are working to put together a distinctly local economic plan.

“Does that mean there’s suddenly going to be a move by Government departments to increase revenue spending? No. You have to be realistic about what change is going to occur.”

And on the subject of managing expectations, anyone who thinks that the Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) currently being discussed with Cities Minister Greg Clark is going to contain lots of exciting new measures around regeneration and job creation is likely to be disappointed.

In reality, the SEP will outline how GBSLEP intends to press ahead with many of the initiatives already in place.

These include promoting the Birmingham city centre Enterprise Zone and making the most of the arrival of high speed rail by putting in place regeneration around the planned HS2 Curzon Street terminus station in Digbeth and an interchange station close to Birmingham Airport and the NEC. The interchange station rather neatly fits in with GBSLEP’s UK Central concept – an economic regeneration area around the M42 corridor where thousands of jobs are to be created.

Mr Street explained: “This is not about new things but about making the most of the opportunities we have already identified.

“The Enterprise Zone and high speed rail constitute game changing opportunities. We are asking questions like ‘what can we do around UK Central at the interchange station?’”

Does he not think, though, that GBSLEP’s target to create 100,000 new jobs across the entire LEP area by 2020 is a little modest, particularly in the light of a recent Centre for Cities study showing that Birmingham alone needs 112,300 new jobs simply to rise to the average UK level for the percentage of people in employment?

“Well, the figure of 100,000 didn’t seem modest when we set it in the depths of recession,” Mr Street replies. He accepts, however, that there may be a case for “stretching” the target, which he insists GBSLEP is well on the way to meeting.

It is inevitable during a period of recovery from recession that new jobs will be created. A big question for supporters of LEPs is how many of the new jobs that have appeared since 2010 are the result of initiatives pursued by local enterprise partnerships, and how many would have come on stream in any case?

Mr Street is refreshingly honest. He simply doesn’t know. And he doesn’t care much either, because all he is interested in is job creation, and if that is happening then all well and good.

“How can I be sure it is the LEP that is creating these jobs? This is an impossible question to answer and in a sense it is completely irrelevant. I have never said to anyone that the LEP is creating these jobs. What is important is the outcomes. Jobs are being created.”

And finally, displaying his considerable diplomatic skills, Mr Street says the precise location of the proposed HS2 manufacturing skills college doesn’t matter. What’s important is that it comes to the GBSLEP area.

Whether or not Birmingham Council leader Sir Albert Bore, who very firmly wants the college in the city, is happy about that remark remains to be seen. Sir Albert chairs the new supervisory board of council leaders overseeing GBSLEP’s activities. The board is designed to provide public accountability, and Mr Street says he is fine with that.

“It certainly doesn’t second guess decisions of the LEP. We have the best of both worlds”, insists Mr Street, who is clearly on a mission to let it be known that everything is sweetness and light in the world of GBSLEP.

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