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The Engine is becoming well-tuned

The Engine is becoming well-tuned

🕔15.Apr 2016

It would have been unthinkable just 18 months ago to have experienced an event where politicians, agency directors, academics, business groups and private sector leaders were genuinely on the same page talking about progress to date and exciting opportunities for city region devolution.

But that is what happened at a breakfast briefing organised by Insider magazine and staged at Birmingham Business School yesterday morning.

For those at the Edgbaston campus who have been following the progress of Greater Birmingham’s devolution journey here on Chamberlain Files and elsewhere will have learned very little. There was even less to justify the title of the event – Next Step. But that shouldn’t take away from an informative and intelligible series of contributions.

For those not paying attention at the back, it would be easy to get confused between LEPs, the West Midlands Combined Authority and Midlands Engine, not to mention the likes of Midlands Connect or the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority (WMITA). Recently promoted executive director and GBSLEP stalwart Katie Trout gave a very clear explanation – WMCA as the statutory body and Midlands Engine as a wider, looser, informal collective, essentially a brand on which to hang things.

I suggest Ms Trout gets from behind that desk and away from all those interminable meetings more often. GBSLEP and WMCA could do with good communicators like her being ever more visible.

If there was one dominant theme, it was of course the challenge of bridging the productivity gap. Strategic Economic Plans (SEPs) at LEP level, a Super-SEP at WMCA level and the creation of a Dynamic Economic Impact Model (I’m not making these names up by the way!) by City REDI at the University of Birmingham and KPMG aim to help resolve this conundrum and work out where best to intervene in areas like skills and transport and where the region really has competitive advantage.

No mention, though, of public sector reform which was the big idea in the WMCA prospectus. Arguably, a more efficient public sector will have a direct impact on wider productivity.

Ann Lucas, the Coventry leader who has demonstrated brave leadership in bringing her city into the West Midlands fold, took the opportunity to inform the audience, on more than one occasion, that politicians really were “grown ups”. Who knew? But Bill McElroy, managing director consulting at professional service practice Turner & Townsend, paid tribute to Cllr Lucas as an unusual politician who had managed to convey the importance of power and responsibility, pragmatism and productivity in her approach to devolution.

Cllr Lucas also managed to remind us, lest we forget, that she was “not ever so keen” on the idea of a mayor. Oh well.

But Cllr Lucas, as well as Sara Middleton from the Black Country Consortium, said the media (she didn’t mean the Files, surely?) had made more of alleged behind the scenes squabbles and difficulties in securing the combined authority and devolution deal than was really the case. The press “never let the facts get in the way of a good story” suggested Lucas.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Up to a point, Councillor Lucas.

As we have pointed out this week, WMCA really is going to have to step up to the plate in terms of communication and engagement – more in respect of a culture of openness than necessarily on PR spend levels.

Yesterday’s performance was on a par with the ones Manchester has been pulling off for years – politicians and officials might (or might not) be arguing in private, but apparently we too can now put on a united front for the outside world.

Most of the panellists would probably point out that there is more rhetoric than substance to the Northern Powerhouse, whilst WMCA and Midlands Engine are well grounded, catching up and will take the lead. They may have a point.

But you can’t have it both ways. Cllr Lucas said that WMCA’s devolution deal was the biggest yet – and yes, bigger than Manchester. But as Chris Game has pointed out on these pages, including yesterday morning just as Cllr Lucas was speaking, any analysis of the deals taking account of population shows our city region may have secured the best deal available, but not the biggest.

To be fair, Cllr Lucas was also right to point out this is merely the start. The success or otherwise of devolution in these parts will be determined by future deals – over powers and money – in devo rounds 2, 3 and beyond.

If there was one sliver of contention at the breakfast love in, it was on engagement with business, in particular over what a mayor and the LEPs might plan to do on supplementary business rates (SBR).

Henrietta Brealey, the impressive director of policy and strategic relationships at Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, was right to point out there is more for WMCA and GBSLEP to do on communications and engagement, to make it clear how businesses can engage and calling for more discussion before the LEPs are asked to sign off SBRs.

Brealey also pointed out that the region had been talking about the skills gap for years and years. She had even found a Chamber press release from 20 years ago making the very same points. Shocking? That Chamber press supremo John Lamb is still knocking out releases with more than passing similarity to those of two decades ago does not come as a surprise to some of us!

Transport, of course, featured strongly with Birmingham Airport’s Jo Lloyd able to point to more flights, more routes and more airlines. With Heathrow effectively full, further delays to runway decisions in London and HS2 becoming a reality day by day, there is a sense that Birmingham’s time had come and that proximity to London will now be an asset rather than a barrier. Laura Shoaf, of the WMITA, was also upbeat and underlined the point that Midlands Connect is the cornerstone of the Midlands Engine, driving transport strategy with a single voice and robust evidence.

There was little by way of debate or two-way conversation with the audience. Insider editor and event chair Kurt Jacobs asked almost all the questions of the nine (yes, nine – it needed two sittings) panelists. He was not letting go of that microphone without a fight. Jacobs was right to point out at the start of proceedings that there was a man missing from the line up. Darren Cooper, leader of Sandwell Council, had been expected until his untimely death a few weeks ago.

No single person is solely responsible for the region’s recent rise in devolution momentum. But Cllr Cooper played a significant role in bridging the Birmingham/Black Country divide and the ability of Insider’s breakfast panellists to sing the same tune was a fitting tribute to the man who would have been the combined authority’s vice chair.

In Cllr Lucas we may have seen another bold leader and, possibly, the WMCA’s new VC at work.

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