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New approach needed for investment across region

New approach needed for investment across region

🕔06.Nov 2017

In my previous piece, I set out how the Government should be radically redefining the economic model through nationalising key industrial sectors, whilst businesses should be looking at the social line as well as the bottom line. In this post, writes Waheed Saleem, I aim to set out how the state should be leading public policy interventions to support inclusive growth in local communities.

The awful tragedy of Grenfell Tower laid bare the failure of public policy. The Government, Council and society let down residents and continue to let down ‘hidden’ communities, trying to survive under the radar, under enormous financial pressures, often having to work two or three jobs just to survive, with considerable mental and psychical health challenges, living in sub-standard housing with children not having a decent meal and with some people resorting to drugs and drink to escape their plight.

The increasing number of homeless people on our streets starkly demonstrates our collective failure.

The extensive debate that ensued after the dreadful incident bought to the forefront the stark disparity of power and wealth that exists in society, as well as neglect of the needs of the residents who were housed in substandard high rise flats, living next to multi-million pound apartments.

The residents of Grenfell Tower and other social housing accommodation were left to fend for themselves, with the Council and management organisation not listening to their concerns; using the cheapest material to refurbish the outside of the building to make it look aesthetically pleasing, but neglecting the interior and not investing in fire evacuation.

Public outcry resulted in the Government setting up an inquiry. Without extensive media and political pressure, I suspect this tragic incident would have been forgotten quicker than the time it took for the smoke to clear.

Unfortunately, the disparity of wealth laid bare in council areas like Westminster and Chelsea is the same in many of the other major cities across the UK, from Birmingham to Manchester.

Although the differences are not as stark – in that you don’t have as many £1m apartments on sale in Birmingham – whereas in London the average price is £1m, there are significant differences of living standards even in small areas. Ladywood constituency is one of the most deprived areas in the country. However, just a ‘stone’s throw away’ from the high rise Council flats are expensive new apartments.

I am not advocating against regeneration of the city centre, not least as I was once a dweller of one of these expensive apartments, albeit as a tenant.

But we must consider why significant regeneration is not benefiting local people on the outskirts of the centre. In the 18th Century, the investment was made in other areas; Matthew Boulton built his factory in Soho not in the city centre.

I understand businesses wanting high rise offices in the city centre, both for access and convenience. However, the existing inward investment strategy needs a fundamental review to attract investment in the outer areas of the region.

We need to attract manufacturing; warehouse distribution centres and call centres which require large spaces outside the city centre to invest and build in areas across the region. We need to provide a compelling offer to international companies to consider taking office spaces in areas other than the city centre, where land is scarce.

This requires excellent, reliable and cheap transport links, ensuring goods and people can move easily, without getting stuck in endless queues of traffic. We need a skills and training strategy that targets training toward the most needed to enable them to aspire to and attain high skilled jobs in the city centre as well as other areas.

The Mayor needs to develop a strategic economic plan that provides a clear steer on attracting investment across the region, with tax incentives for recruiting and training local people, investing in areas outside the city centre, paid through a levy on businesses based in the city centre, either directly or through a car parking levy. This will ensure a better distribution of resources to areas still suffering from the industrial decline since the 1980’s and more importantly across society more generally.

The regional Mayors and local authorities can play a significant part in providing place-based leadership to ensure none of their citizens are left behind. However, this requires national Government to devolve resources and power. I can hear the hollows from the streets of Birmingham ‘they can’t keep our streets clean never mind look after our economic well-being.’ However, this should not distract from the significant part that they can play in place-shaping.

The Mayor and West Midlands Combined Authority can, for instance, issue place-specific bonds to raise money to support the economic regeneration of the local place. They can raise funding through issuing bonds for specific areas, backed by increases in business rates and local authority assets, with the funding used to regenerate and attract significant investment.

The Hall Green (or any other area in the West Midlands) bond can be used to invest in transport infrastructure, revitalise shopping districts and build new homes and refurbish dilapidated houses through compulsory purchase orders on a grand scale. This will ensure the economic viability of the local area, creating jobs, improving skills and developing a co-ordinated approach to public sector services and investment.

Through strong local leadership, Hall Green and other constituencies can flourish and compete regionally, nationally and internationally.

It is unfortunate that public sector thinking is too narrow at present to think outside the box and make things happen.

However, I can understand the predicament the sector is facing with austerity, jobs cuts, significant challenges in delivering public services and increasing demand. Therefore, they require additional support and thinking from outside to lead and help shape ‘out of the box’ thinking to support the bigger challenge of redefining the public policy discourse.

Waheed Saleem sits on several public and charitable boards in the West Midlands, including the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner’s Strategic Policing and Crime Board.


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