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Life after Street: who’s in the economy hot seat if GBSLEP loses its mercurial chair?

Life after Street: who’s in the economy hot seat if GBSLEP loses its mercurial chair?

🕔31.Aug 2016

With the odds narrowing on Andy Street securing the Conservative nomination to run for West Midlands’ mayor, chief blogger Paul Dale considers what impact the departure of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP chair may have on the region’s devolution vision.

General agreement is a difficult concept in the Birmingham political world, but you would be hard pressed to find any politician with a bad word to say for Andy Street, the first and so far only chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.

Street, the highly acclaimed chief executive of John Lewis, has led from the front since GBSLEP was formed, hugely impressing council leaders with his drive and enthusiasm, destroying completely grumblings when he got the job that he might be a London-based part timer.

In fact, Street hails from Birmingham and wants everyone to know about his passion for the city. As for his appointment six years ago, the LEP has surely gained immeasurably from his high-level contacts at Government level.

Such is his dominance of GBSLEP, and growing influence at the West Midlands Combined Authority, it would be astonishing if the region’s council and business leaders were not worried about just how difficult it would be to replace Mr Street should he step down.

It will become clear in a month or so whether Andy Street has been selected as the Conservative candidate to run for West Midlands’ metro mayor. He appears to be the hot favourite, but could face stiff competition from veteran Dudley councillor Les Jones.

It seems certain that Mr Street will have to quit John Lewis and stand down from GBSLEP if he does decide to run for mayor since he will have shifted from independent administrator to ambitious politician.

Less clear are any conditions that might be attached to a decision to leave GBSLEP. Could Mr Street, perhaps, ask for a temporary break, leaving GBSLEP in the hands of vice chair Steve Hollis, and hope to return after next May’s mayoral election, assuming of course that he does not become mayor?

This seems highly unlikely. Eight months is a long time for the chair of any organisation to stand aside and then expect to return and carry on as normal. Even if he wanted to do that, would the Labour majority of council leaders on the GBSLEP board allow him to come back, or might they take the view that having entered the political game the Conservative Mr Street has crossed the great divide and must for ever remain a politician?

All of this is of course conjecture, but what is clear is that the uncertainty about the future leadership of GBSLEP may not be particularly helpful as the partnership ponders a new version of its Strategic Economic Plan, setting out a 14-year vision to create jobs, generate wealth and improve workforce skills.

Public consultation on the draft SEP ends on September 9 and GBSLEP officials are stressing they want to hear from as wide a cross section of businesses, organisations and citizens as possible.

The pledges set out in the draft SEP are predictable enough – to address the chronic West Midlands productivity shortfall by increasing GVA to at least the Core Cities average, increase working age qualifications to the national average and create 250,000 private sector jobs by 2030.

What’s not really spelt out is how these promises might be delivered, although the huge economic stimulus from the arrival of HS2 in Birmingham and at Birmingham Airport/NEC is routinely described as a game changer.

Ambitious targets to increase productivity across the Greater Birmingham area set out in GBSLEP’s first strategic economic plan published six years ago were not met by some distance, neither were pledges to improve skills.

The gap in GVA between Greater Birmingham and the national average has actually increased since 2010 by £443 per person, while the number of people without NVQ3+ skills has also increased, by half a per cent.

On a positive note, GBSLEP is the leading LEP out of all of the Core Cities LEP for increasing GVA and workplace skills, but still lagging way behind the national average.

The new draft SEP sets out a vision to turn Greater Birmingham into “a global elite: a truly global city by 2030” and talks about the “once in a generation” opportunity for growth presented by HS2.

“Nowhere else in Europe can boast of two brand new high speed rail station sites within touching distance of a major airport, at the heart of the strategic road and rail networks and with a series of nationally significant economic assets already in place. To say this is a game changer is an understatement.”

There are also bold plans to build on the region’s growing reputation for advanced manufacturing and life sciences, “leveraging major investment from global pharma and driving growth while accelerating patient access to new treatments”.

Lurking behind the scenes lies preparatory work on devo2 and devo3, the next two stages of the WMCA devolution strategy. Discussions with the Government are under way, and Mr Street has suggested that Ministers are keen to hear about “radical” ideas from the West Midlands and that the combined authority and three LEPs should think big.

Naturally, as with any strategic economic plan, success or failure will depend largely on macro-economic factors driving unemployment and inflation. But partnerships like GBSLEP can make a difference locally if they, and the West Midlands Combined Authority and metro mayor, have the powers to make decisions around skills, schools and colleges rather than merely make proposals.

There are serious questions to be answered in the West Midlands, and in other English city regions, about the capability of the Government’s devolution plans to put control of schools, further education colleges and even universities in the hands of combined authorities and mayors. Only in this way, it could be argued, will it be possible to devise appropriate local strategies to address skills shortages.

Much the same can be said about housing. The WMCA has set up a commission to identify requirement for new housing and sites, but as things stand the metro mayor will have no powers to force councils to approve CPOs or grant planning permission. Only a supreme optimist, or someone with no knowledge whatsoever of previous failures to deliver house building targets, would put any money on this being a huge success.

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