Full steam ahead for the West Midlands

By Heather Jameson | 04 September 2018

‘The West Midlands is where all the action is.’ The bold statement is the opening gambit for The MJ/ENGIE round table on the region. Sitting in the heart of Birmingham, surrounded by chief executives from around the region, it is easy to be biased. But where once Greater Manchester was the only major player in the devolution game, the West Midlands is rapidly catching up.

As one of our guests quips: ‘Manchester can swagger if it wants to, but on digital, we have it all here.’

With HS2 and the Commonwealth Games both heading for Birmingham, it has a lot to look forward to. The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) is out of the starting blocks and has collected up some of the biggest talents in the sector to push forward the renaissance of the region. Biased or not, Birmingham and the wider West Midlands is indeed a place of action.

‘It does feel like the place to be now. It is an exciting and mature part of local government,’ says one chief. ‘There is a huge opportunity in the region through the combined authority and with the Commonwealth Games, but we forget at our peril the people. The real question is, how do you make it really inclusive.’

It is a theme we keep coming back to throughout the debate. The West Midlands may have harnessed these great opportunities, but there is always the risk that opportunities are not there for everyone. ‘It’s great, but whose success is it?’ we are asked.

As local government tackles the physical renaissance of our cities, the gap between the wealthier and most disadvantage sections of the population is getting bigger. One of our debaters asks: ‘How can you drive inclusive growth and ensure the benefit of regeneration are spread more widely?’ Another suggests it’s more about adult education than it is about ‘shiny new buildings’.

‘It’s been 40 years of failed economic policy,’ it is suggested. A belief that investing in growth would create a trickle-down effect and boost all sectors of society has failed to materialise. So now there is a need for a ‘completely different economic model’ which throws up political issues. ‘It is a classic social mobility distribution problem,’ says one participant.

When it comes to regeneration in the city, one debater says: ‘We are catching up on three decades of under investment.’

At a time when Birmingham City Council is facing financial problems and is stripping back services, there is danger of a presentation problem if the public sees millions being poured into city infrastructure but without their noticing a direct benefit to their daily lives. ‘It’s the fundamental difference between spending and investment,’ says one participant. ‘It is one of our big arguments with central government. It’s not always apparent what is cost and waste and what is a long term investment which will pay in the future.’

Building credibility with central government, so you can be trusted to know the difference, is key – and building credibility with investors is even more vital. For now, the WMCA is still new and the trust is being developed. Even the partners involved need to understand that, while they may benefit from expenditure and investment, they will not all reap the rewards at the same level or at the same time. Does it matter if we have HS2 when you are living in dense social housing?

And for the areas outside the central conurbation of Birmingham, it’s an even harder sell to the public as the participants discuss. It is difficult to tell the public it is worthwhile to cut journey time to London when they can’t easily get to the HS2 hubs in the first place.

It is a further complication – it’s not just the socio-economic divide that needs to be bridged – it is geography too. For some of the authorities further outside the urban conurbation, the issues differ. One asks: ‘How do we climb onto the coattails of the city?’ How do we use the opportunity afforded by the Games to boost the area? ‘A lot of what needs to happen will be in the LEP areas around Birmingham.’ Another adds: ‘The danger for me is that we get polarised towards the town centres and ignore the other areas.’

There is another issue with central government: its definition of success is not always the same as it is for local councils and the combined authority. ‘The central goal of government is how you close the productivity gap,’ one debater says. ‘We may have a different way of doing that.’

In the West Midlands, there are housing targets, GVA targets and social aspects to what local government and partners are trying to achieve through regeneration and infrastructure investment. It’s not the same as increasing productivity.

So where are we going next with devolution? As one says: ‘Manchester and London have gone through waves of devolution, with housing, transport and health coming piecemeal to the process, but it’s not – or at least it shouldn’t be – a linear process. Instead it needs to be a conversation, continual dialogue to build trust. At the moment, we are told: “We still return to the parent/child relationship.” That needs to change.’

However, one of our round table guests is more vocal. ‘It’s not really devolution, with all due respect,’ he says. ‘Real devolution would be transferring powers from central to local government. That’s not really happened.’

Another issue is how to plan for a future that keeps changing. As one debater says: ‘We are still seeing a huge amount of leakage of our graduates from our places. There needs to be a strategy that makes the West Midlands an attractive place to live and work, but we hit on another challenge. We are designing places based on the way we live now, and city centres will be fundamentally different.

High streets are morphing from shopping centres into social zones, and highways face a future with autonomous vehicles – but it is just the start.’ Another adds: ‘There is a danger we provide the new accommodation on how we live today. How we live and work is changing and changing quickly.’

Millennials live differently. One participant says: ‘Millennials have few assents so they rent their homes, their cars – even their clothes. But we are stuck in an area where we are still offering 4G phones to people who only have connectivity fit for half a “G”. We are living 21st century lives in Victoria architecture and we haven’t imagined how it needs to change.’

Another adds: ‘As a nation, we think we are being innovative, creating autonomous vehicles and looking to the future, but on a global scale we are behind. We need fully connected places, across the full life cycle of residents so they can take advantage of all the opportunities on offer. We have better analytics than we have had before. We are getting there but there is still a way to go.’

Round table attendees

Ian Miller, Chief executive, Wyre Forest DC

Jerry Hutchinson, Chief executive, North Warwickshire BC

Martin Reeves, Chief executive, Coventry City Council

Dr Helen Paterson, Chief executive, Walsall MBC

Jonathan Tew, Assistant chief executive, Birmingham City Council

Gareth Bradford, Director of housing and regeneration, West Midlands Combined Authority

Angela Probert, Chief operating officer, Birmingham City Council

Eleri Roberts, Assistant director, communications, Birmingham City Council

Dave Sheridan, Divisional CEO, places and communities, ENGIE UK & Ireland

Haydn Scarborough, Business development director, places and communities, ENGIE UK & Ireland

Michael Burton, Editorial director, The MJ (chair)

Heather Jameson, Editor, The MJ

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