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‘Shameful’ record on skills holding back Greater Birmingham economic boom, warns Street

‘Shameful’ record on skills holding back Greater Birmingham economic boom, warns Street

🕔05.May 2015

Greater Birmingham’s recovery from recession has been remarkable, but the region continues to be held back from achieving its full potential by a “shamefully” large workforce with low or no skills, GBSLEP chair Andy Street has warned.

In a keynote speech at the recent Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce annual dinner Mr Street said the West Midlands could become the country’s economically most powerful region but only if the triple challenges of skills, devolution and the role of the private sector were addressed.

Highlighting the recovery so far – the number of people claiming job seekers allowance in Greater Birmingham has fallen from 71,668 in February 2012 to 38,534, despite a larger workforce – Mr Street said: “Previous recessions have hit us hard, but this time the economic recovery is positive.”

He pointed out, however, that while there are 60,000 job vacancies in Birmingham and Solihull, there are also 30,000 people claiming unemployment benefit. Mr Street added: “Something is not right.”

Levels of productivity in the area remained hugely challenging, which was a reflection of a poorly skilled workforce, he said.

Treading a careful path between praise for the LEP’s achievements and candidly admitting that much more needs to be done to put Greater Birmingham on track for success, Mr Street reminded his audience that the region is first in terms of exports, inward investment and business start-ups outside of London.

But in terms of economic growth, the GBSLEP area is only the third best in the UK.

However, declaring that “this is genuinely our time”, Mr Street added pointed to the advent of HS2 which would be a “once in a generation opportunity” which had already begun to make a real difference to the area.

The Government’s decision to co-locate the National College for High Speed Rail in Birmingham was the first time in years that the West Midlands had won a national competition, he said.

He praised GBSLEP councils for agreeing to site the Enterprise Zone in Birmingham city centre “as they recognised that this would be the area that would drive the greatest growth” and underlined a £275 million investment plan funded against an uplift in business rates.

Work has started on the Paradise redevelopment and plans to take forward the Curzon, Snowhill and Smithfield areas have been well received and will be transformational.

There were three reasons why the GBSLEP area had moved from economic laggard to economic leader:

  • Great teamwork – the best of the private sector has come together with the best of the public sector to drive growth. “I must cite the role Jerry Blackett has played in this regard – he has been a tireless centre-forward for Team Greater Birmingham.”
  • Sector based approach – we have focused on the sectors where we have a real competitive advantage. Advanced manufacturing is the obvious ‘poster boy’, but there are other key growth sectors like creative and digital. Half of our new businesses are in this sector and Birmingham City University produce more graduate talent in this area than anywhere outside London.
  • The human story – people in business make decisions on human factors. Therefore our cultural offer is important, as is the choice of housing and the quality of our schools.

Mr Street continued:

The fact that more thirtysomething Londoners are choosing to move here than anywhere else in the country should give us huge optimism, as should Moseley being rated as the best place to live in the Britain by the Sunday Times.

So my message is one of potential and one of ambition. It is not, however, one of complacency.

He urged GBSLEP councils to “seize the moment” after the General Election and push the new Government for devolved powers and budgets, adding:

Business welcomes the commitment by local authorities to form a combined authority. We want it to reflect the full, natural economic geography of the area.

Business also needs to play its part in its development if we are to achieve the best outcome.

Greater Birmingham benefits from great public sector leadership as demonstrated by Sir Albert Bore’s and Bob Sleigh’s decision to pool resources from Birmingham and Solihull councils to form a Joint Economic Unit.

Some private sector companies have also stepped forward, including those of the LEP Board Directors, but we still need to work through how the wider private sector can contribute, as currently the offer is fragmented.

We are on the cusp of something very exciting. We have every reason to be ambitious and confident. We must not allow others to seize the headlines.

If we can answer our triple challenges of skills, devolution and the role of the private sector not only will we lead the region, but we will be the region leading Britain and leading internationally.

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