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LEP-speak and what money can’t buy for Birmingham

LEP-speak and what money can’t buy for Birmingham

🕔13.Aug 2012

Do you suppose that the joyful energy and friendliness of the Olympics, powered by thousands upon thousands of volunteers, is telling us something economically important?

That what money can’t buy really matters.

And now for something completely different. LEP-speak. Not just from our LEP, it’s a national thing.

The recently published 2011-2012 Annual Report by Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBS LEP) epitomises it. Many photos (nearly all of middle-aged white blokes), splurges of colour, computer graphics of yet-to-be-built places among phrases like “transformational bold ambition” plus quite a lot of “focus”, “clear strategy”, “world class” etc etc.

The GBS “vision” is

to create and support a globally competitive knowledge economy with Greater Birmingham and Solihull recognised as the natural home for Europe’s entrepreneurs and wealth creators”.

Unlike most LEP-speak, GBS does give a (very) few figures, as does the Greater Cambridge and Greater Peterborough (GCGP) LEP. Here they are for comparison:

Is it likely that GCGP will up their job tally by over 20% and that 40,000 “major businesses” — and that’s assuming the 60K already there are “major” — will somehow arrive in the area within the next 13 years? Major companies? With, on average, a mere 4 employees apiece, fewer if existing companies expand their workforce? Even with Cambridge in their midst, a town stacked top or close to it in the Centre for Cities Outlook 2012 tables?

Would you bet on GBS creating 100,000 jobs (net) in the private sector plus increasing GVA by £8.5bn or 30% (whichever takes your fancy), all within less than eight years? No, neither would I.

There are three other items on our LEP’s wish list. “Boost indigenous and inward investment”, “achieve global leadership in [unidentified] key sectors” and “build a world class workforce”, presumably alongside Albert’s Youth Unemployment Commission here in Birmingham.

Dermot Finch reported a “stark fact” in the Centre for Cities Report on Birmingham (2009):

“between 1997 and 2008, total private sector employment across the wider Birmingham economy actually fell by 50K jobs — and over the same period, public sector employment increased by more than 80K jobs.”

Ask yourself why, given the severity of the post-2008 recession, the private sector should suddenly ride to our rescue, and in such numbers, when LEP “goals” are highly unlikely even in affluent, economically resilient Cambridge and its environs.

In contrast to individual LEP-speak, the LEP Network Annual Review is grounded in evidence. A sobering read. Stats, maps, tables, mostly ONS stuff plus a sprinkling from the likes of Experian and BIS.

Add into our local mix the 2008-2010 employment news or, more accurately unemployment news in the Review (p15, see left).

Can you imagine that somehow we’ll morph into “the natural home for Europe’s entrepreneurs and wealth creators”.  More to the point, could lots of Europe’s entrepreneurs and wealth creators?

Our GBS Deputy Chairman makes this rather sweet admission on page 4 of the Annual Report:

As a Board we reflected on these objectives. It was evident that the Greater Birmingham and Solihull economy has had no lack of similar ambitions over the years and there has been no shortage of high quality regional economic growth strategies from a number of venerable and august bodies.

Why had these not fully delivered the ambition they promised?

Well . . .

In mitigation, LEP people as their predecessors may think, possibly correctly, they must trot out this kind of language in order to get swadges of Government largesse for this or that; that’s no promise, though, that it’s a less of a fiction than previous “high quality regional economic growth strategies”.

Let’s assume the national pundits and Boy George are right. Economic growth won’t be on the agenda in 2015. It’ll be 2017 or beyond. Then it’ll be catch-up time nationally. For some regions, notably most of the UK’s former industrial cities, economic growth, if it happens, will only come with a long, slow economic restructure.

So let’s assume this, too, if only for the time it takes you to read this article. From 2015 Birmingham will continue to lag behind most of the UK. Sluggish economic growth for us, if it starts at all, might only begin in 2020 or so.

Poverty. Ill-health and obesity. Food banks. Homelessness. Unemployment. NEETs aplenty. Ever bigger inequalities. Crime, a riot or two if it doesn’t chuck it down with rain. Weak investment. Even more graduates leaving, even more city centre workers disappearing into the shires every evening.

Other than thanking our lucky stars we’ve got such superb medical care in Birmingham, plus a prayer that other university research might come into play, the LEP, if they still exist then, would be hard pushed to know what to say.

So here’s a thought. Here in Birmingham let’s go for what money can’t buy.

Here’s my list of a dozen “aims” we could easily achieve by 2015. We could “fully deliver the [small] ambition they promise” and they might even prove “transformational” for the physical face of the city.

By 2015, Birmingham will have:

  1. 3 more wildflower meadows within the city boundaries. (Have you seen the wild flowers along the verges on Lee Bank Middleway and along the Bristol Road? Where else are they? Another few miles of them too!)
  2. Another 300 trees (net) planted to join the 94K already on our streets. Or if not on the streets, then in our parks and gardens. (We’re in the northern edge of the ancient Forest of Arden. That, and our philanthropic forebears such as the Nettlefolds and the Cadburys, means Birmingham is already a city of trees; s.a. Birmingham Trees for Life. Let’s celebrate them all!)
  3. How about 300 fruit trees as well? Plus 3 more community orchards. And 3 more companies like Urban Harvest turning the harvest from your fruit tree into juice fit for our Michelin-starred restaurants.
  4. Another 300 allotments in the city, giving us well over 7.5K of them, along with all the conviviality that goes on in such places — and their importance to help feed families without anyone in work.
  5. 30 more veg patches in schools. (Did you know that if a primary school has a veg patch, magic happens — kids’ literacy rates go up, obesity and truancy goes down? There are even veg patches in some of our nursery schools. Oh yes! See DEFRA taskforce info here.)
  6. 3 market gardens growing high-value food stuffs like coriander, rocket, herbs, peas. (I personally know of two potential takers for such a space, so there’s another easy-peasy target.)
  7. Close the city centre (Middle Ring Road inwards) to cars for 30 Sundays in 2015 (so trials from next year), opening it up to walkers and cyclists as well as public transport, pedestrians with right of way on the roads, then cyclists, then the buses. (Do likewise for the A38M? Too daring to close an actual motorway? Oh, go on, do it! Just once.)
  8. 30-miles of our A-roads with dedicated cycle lanes (taking up either the road or the pavement, but keeping bikes separate from pedestrians and motors). Plus a target that by 2025, all roads will be bike-friendly and, importantly, women-cyclist-friendly.
  9. 3 more schools with well-used bike-sheds and 30 others being planned. (The way this can be achieved is to give first priority on our roads to to cyclists over motorised vehicles — so, as in Holland, if a car hits a bike, it’s always the driver’s fault.)
  10. 30 streets where cars are banned from moving between, say, 1530 and 1730 so kids can play safely with lots of others outside. (About the Bristol exemplar, see here.)
  11. 30 busker licences for the city centre, including welcomes at our stations. (By the way, are you going to the freebie Flyover Show next Saturday, 18th August?
  12. And finally, one more bioenergy reactor being built, and two more well on in the planning stage, and 30 planned to be in place by 2030. (For those of you who don’t know, Aston University technology has the potential of generating perhaps as much as 50% of the city’s energy requirement. If that happens, it’s a game-changer for the city, and other cities too . . . there’s not even a passing mention by LEPs about how we can meet our energy requirements, either nationally or locally, urgent though that’s becoming.)

Sure, some of this would cost. But we’re talking a few thousand quid, not mega-millions, with a return of inestimable value.

(An exception is last on the list, the bioenergy reactor. That’s low millions; a great investment for the city and, more importantly, a great potential investment for and by local communities giving them a psychological ownership as well as a financial shareholding — inestimable value.)

That’s just for starters, off the top of my head. What’s in your head? In Olympics follower heads? Youngsters’ heads?

Maybe, just maybe, an emphasis on what money can’t buy might make this place hugely attractive not just to those of us who live here, but also to new graduates, inward investors, entrepreneurs, wealth creators.

But we need start with the uncomfortable acknowledgement of where we are, not with yet more hyperbole.

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