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Send for Allardyce! We’re topping the wrong league tables

Send for Allardyce! We’re topping the wrong league tables

🕔22.Feb 2018

As you’ll have noticed, it’s the awards season. We’ve had the BAFTAs and the Brits, there’s the Oscars on March 4th, and climactically, just four days later, it’s the Birmingham Mail/TSB Pride of Birmingham awards – presented nowadays in the University of Birmingham’s ‘iconic’ Great Hall, where I used to lecture and invigilate exams, writes Chris Game. 

My reason for mentioning the Mail/TSB awards, though, is that I was reminded recently of a Mail ‘puff-piece’ for a previous presentation, listing some of the myriad Birmingham inventions that originated in our city and would become part of people’s everyday lives.

A couple, I felt, stretched things a bit – like claiming a slice of the World Wide Web, developed in Geneva by London-born Tim Berners-Lee, on the strength of B-L’s Birmingham-born parents. But it was still an impressive list, from James Watt’s proto-photocopier, Rowland Hill’s postage stamps and Dunlop’s pneumatic tyres to smoke detectors, microwave ovens and skateboards.

So, my question is this. If there’s something about our city that makes us so great at inventing stuff, why, in the most recent comparable (2015) statistics, were just eight patents registered per 100,000 Birmingham residents, compared to Coventry’s 118 – a ratio of 1:14?

Not surprisingly, even Coventry is in the slipstream of Cambridge’s 341 – but it’s way ahead of everyone else, including Oxford’s mere 80. So what’s happening just down the A45?  My suspicion is they’ve somehow adapted Max Boyce’s legendary Welsh rugby outside-half factory to churn out inventors.

Striking as it is, though, Coventry’s inventiveness is less my concern here than what economically and industrially is happening to Birmingham – which is what first took me to Cities Outlook 2018, the annual ‘health check’ of the UK’s 63 largest cities by the independent think tank, Centre for Cities.

CfC have a fascinating toy, or data tool, which ranks the cities on about 50 indicators: jobs and employment, business and innovation, skills, wages and inequality, and so on.

Birmingham can be a pain in these exercises, because many indicators are just surrogate measures of scale: the bigger your population, the more of it – whether good or bad – you’re likely to have. I wanted more useful indicators, and particularly any that had Birmingham either interestingly near the top of a list, or – as with patent applications – in the relegation zone.

First, therefore, under business and innovation, was a Business Churn Rate of 7%. Read quickly, at least in Arial font – Business Chum Rate – it sounds like an index of possibly dubious male workplace bonding.

Actually, it’s churn as in turnover: the difference between, for Birmingham, an encouraging business start-up rate of 65 businesses per 10,000 population and a probably acceptable closure rate of 43 businesses per 10,000.  Which produces, after an abstruse calculation, a Churn Rate of over 7% – double the national average and top place among the comparable cities.

Unfortunately, high positions in these tables aren’t necessarily to be coveted, and some of Birmingham’s stats that look at first glance like places on the podium prove instead to be on the naughty step. Like high claimant counts.

These are inherently controversial, with the Resolution Foundation estimating recently that over £20 million of weekly benefits go unclaimed by those eligible for them. But Birmingham’s December 2017 figure of 3.7% of the working age population claiming out-of-work benefits was, like our churning, double the national average and currently highest of any city in the country.

By chance, the proportion of the city’s 16 to 24 year olds claiming benefits was also 3.7%, putting it this time in sixth place – the only English city in the top 16 south of Manchester.

Birmingham is also at the duff end of the education qualifications tables. Barely a quarter (28%) of the working-age population have NVQ4 (degree-level) qualifications, 10% below the national average, giving a table ranking of 49th.

And the 16% of the working-age population with no formal qualifications at all is twice the national average and highest in the country.

The trouble with these last figures is not whether they might possibly be fake news, but that they’re not really news at all. For years now, the regular parliamentary constituency rankings have shown Birmingham and the West Midlands city region as about the worst area in Britain for educational achievement.

The distinction between education and skills training is necessarily blurred. Understandably, therefore, with schools remaining the responsibility of the region’s predominantly Labour councils, Andy Street gave the E-word a wide berth in last May’s metro-mayoral campaign.

He committed himself only to “invest in apprenticeships and skills training”, doubtless confident that his Conservative Government would, as negotiated in the West Midlands’ devo deal, have fully devolved at least the Adult Education Budget from August 2018 – giving him, if he became Mayor, 20 months to achieve something of substance for his May 2020 re-election manifesto.

Of course, Street did become Mayor, and, as the Files editor recently reminded us, assured his party’s Annual Conference delegates that addressing the skills challenge was his priority.  But not a great deal else has gone right in what should be a major policy testbed of this Government’s seriousness about devolution.

First, the West Mids had already been the one Combined Authority (Cambridgeshire & Peterborough included) that, for somewhat obscure reasons, was not given local responsibility for managing the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers of 16- to 24-year-olds.

Second, in the Government’s much vaunted Industrial Strategy White Paper, there were fine words about establishing a technical education system that “rivals the best in the world”. But, as the editor didn’t mention, not even the money that had been pledged – not yet, anyway.

A key commitment in pretty well all the devolution deals was (p.10) to “fully devolve the 19+ adult skills budget to the Combined Authority from academic year 2018/19” (i.e. August 2018).

That it didn’t include funding for apprenticeships was disappointing enough. But it now turned out that Ministers – who now probably wouldn’t have to face re-election themselves until 2022 – had been just sooo busy arguing about Brexit that they hadn’t had a moment even to lay the required Orders before Parliament, so unfortunately that rather crucial bit of devolution would have to be postponed for a year. Sorry about that.

Finally, although in truth it almost certainly wouldn’t have gone towards skills funding, the Mayor had his proposed £12 charge to council tax bills rejected by local council leaders.

My conclusions? One, that our Prime Minister has no more interest in, commitment to, or understanding of the importance of serious devolution than she had a year ago, before she received the barely fantasised gift of four Conservative elected regional mayors.

Two, if we’re serious about getting off the foot of those educational attainment tables, forget her and sign Sam Allardyce.

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