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Why Midlands Engine needs re-fuelling after Sajid Javid stays in London

Why Midlands Engine needs re-fuelling after Sajid Javid stays in London

🕔05.Jul 2016

Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and skills, sent his apologies to a meeting of the Midlands Engine partnership. He could no longer be the main speaker as he was in London engaged on urgent Government business.

The announcement prompted a ripple of laughter from an audience of council officials, business leaders and academics. Everyone thought they knew exactly why Mr Javid was in London rather than Nottingham – he preferred to be close to the action of the Conservative leadership election rather than spend a morning promoting the Midlands as a great place to do business.

Small Businesses Minister Anna Soubry came in his place. Mrs Soubry, a Midland MP, delivered a speech about the challenges facing the country following Brexit, a rising tide of disillusioned youth who wanted to give the establishment a good kicking, and the referendum Leavers who didn’t really want Britain to get out of the EU but had registered a protest vote because they felt “left behind” and feared they would never get a decent job.

Mrs Soubry spoke passionately and with conviction. But you couldn’t help thinking this wasn’t really a speech crafted for the Midland Engine’s core purpose – to attract investment and create jobs and wealth for the Midlands – and was perhaps her off the peg post-referendum speech delivered at short notice.

Perhaps I am doing Mr Javid a disservice. Maybe something truly important had happened at BIS. There again, given the Government’s failure to do anything much to promote the Midlands Engine, perhaps the Secretary of State’s absence was a sign of things to come.

The Midlands Engine meeting at Nottingham Trent University was rather grandly described as a ‘summit’ and a chance to review progress since the launch of the organisation’s prospectus in December 2015, which set out a target to generate £34 billion for the Midlands economy by 2030 and create 300,000 new jobs as well as to transform the transportation infrastructure.

Well, the clock is ticking towards 2030 and it is pertinent to ask just who is running Midlands Engine, and who is fuelling the project?

The communications strategy is woeful. It is true that the Cabinet Office kept up a stream of Tweets from the meeting, but neither the Department for Business nor the Cabinet Office has posted a single item about the Midlands Engine summit on the media sections of their websites. As for the Midlands Engine, it doesn’t appear to have a website. If it does, could someone forward me a link?

The impression is given of things being put together piecemeal and on a shoestring, especially when contrasted with the Chancellor’s much-promoted Northern Powerhouse partnership which the Midlands Engine is designed to match.

You’d have had to be living in a cave in 2015 not to know all about the Northern Powerhouse and its sweeping infrastructure projects led by the Trans-Pennine railway and HS3. Not quite so much has been heard about our friends in the north of late, possibly because Mr Osborne has weightier matters on his mind. As for Mr Osborne, who will take on the mantle of devolution champion if he is no longer Chancellor or disappears from Government when the next prime minister emerges?

The first thing to note about the Midlands Engine is the sheer size of the project. The area covered includes 11 local enterprise partnerships, upwards of 40 councils, 24 universities and 54 further education colleges. Stretching from the Welsh border to Lincolnshire and Nottingham to Warwick, this area accounts for 15 per cent of UK GVA and has one fifth of the country’s workforce.

This leads naturally to wondering how to prevent such a sprawling organisation descending into a talking shop of conflicting interests, and how on earth anything much is ever going to be achieved if the agreement of all partners is required to draw up a list of priorities.

Sir John Peace, Midlands Engine chair, is a respected and hugely impressive industrialist who captured in a few pithy sentences the issues faced by the Midlands – that is to say, our image problem is that we don’t have an image, and self-deprecating Midlanders simply don’t like to blow their own trumpets.

He spoke convincingly about the type of brand the Midlands needed to develop, marketing itself as a centre for advanced manufacturing and engineering, taking advantage of trading opportunities offered in China, India, Africa and America. He pointed out that Germany exports seven times as much to China as the UK, rather putting paid to the idea that this country is blazing a trail in trade with the Far East.

A Birmingham city council officer working on the authority’s China desk responded to this by pointing out that the Chinese find it very difficult to conceive of the Midlands being a region, given its minute geographical area compared to regions in China. That is a point worth bearing in mind, I feel.

Sir John, though, was merely rehashing the work of the many that have gone before him in bemoaning the lack of a Midland brand. Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency, spent time and money in the early 2000s developing all manner of branding initiatives and encouraged high profile business leaders – Digby Jones and Tim Watts to name but two – to act as ambassadors for the Midlands, with emphasis on trade with the Far East and America.

This is not to suggest that nothing much is happening. On the contrary, there are plenty of reasons why the Midlands should be optimistic about the future.

HS2 will indeed be a game changer, sucking in regeneration and creating jobs along its route, bringing Birmingham and London almost within touching distance of each other.

The West Midlands Combined Authority is starting to put together some of the funding required to at last expand the Midland Metro tram services, most importantly connecting the Black Country, Birmingham city centre and Birmingham Airport. Communities will be able to use fast efficient public transport to access the jobs that will be created off the back of HS2.

Midlands Connect, the transportation arm of Midlands Engine, has bold plans to transform rail services linking the west and east Midlands, a project similar in scale and importance to the trans-Pennine railway.

And yet, the WMCA, Midlands Connect and the Midlands Engine, for all of their good intentions, cannot expect to succeed without direct Government backing and funding.

The transportation infrastructure improvements required, in particular, are hugely expensive. Simply providing a four track layout on the Birmingham-Nottingham rail corridor between Water Orton East Junction and Castle Bromwich Junction along with signalling and platform improvements will cost up to £250 million according to Network Rail. Reintroducing passenger rail services from the south of the city to Birmingham Moor Street could cost £375 million.

It was Norman Price, chair of Birmingham Science City, who made the most astute comment at the Midlands Engine summit when he said:

This is a great region but it needs support from within London to recognise that while we can do it and we will do it, we need help to do it. We need the support of London. We have the rights. We need to have power and resources.

Well said, Norman. Over to you, Mr Javid.

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