Birmingham stands on the brink of one of the most crucial periods in its history.
Plans are being forged which could transform transport, revolutionise air travel, breathe life into city centre businesses and give skilled jobs to thousands.
It is vital that we do not let this opportunity slip through our fingers – shocking unemployment figures reveal the serious challenge currently facing our city.
The long-awaited decision on Lord Heseltine’s plan to put billions of pounds in the hands of local councils through a Single Local Growth Fund administered by the local enterprise partnership – with Birmingham named as a potential pilot location – is due on June 26.
Meanwhile, three key city centre projects this week won a share of £40 million as part of government handouts, on the back of Birmingham’s position as the largest enterprise zone in the country, proving economic innovation is alive and well.
In an interview with the Post, council leader Sir Albert Bore recently unveiled plans to draw up root and branch reform of the city’s transport network over the next decade – moving away from short term solutions.
Today the Post reveals how London Mayor Boris Johnson is backing Birmingham Airport’s dream of expansion with a new runway to create a “mega hub” airport.
All of this is happening while the UK’s major success story – Jaguar Land Rover – continues to drive a manufacturing renaissance in the region. This week we reveal 1,000 jobs in a new automotive centre, while thousands more are likely with progress on the firm’s Castle Bromwich plant.
However, the latest unemployment figures provide a stark warning of what failure to build on and seize these opportunities will mean. It is unacceptable that the West Midlands has shown the biggest quarterly drop of people in employment in the country – an increase of 19,000 on the three months to this January, meaning 259,443 people are out of work. This is 38,000 up on the same period last year, with the unemployment rate at 9.4 per cent, second highest in the UK.
The past few years have been difficult for the entire nation, not least the West Midlands. But the future can be bright – but only if the city rallies around innovation and the forward-thinking initiatives which aim to turn the situation around.
In fact, the region is faced with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create jobs and prosperity. It’s down to a confluence of exciting developments all coming to fruition at once. But while there are opportunities, there are also threats. Recognising an opportunity is only half the challenge. You then need to make the most of it.
First, let us look at the positive changes coming to the city. As we report, the enhancement of Birmingham city centre is continuing – with a series of projects receiving extra funding this week, including the Masshouse site, Arena Central and the Argyle Works.
Between them, these will bring new housing, offices, shops and leisure facilities, as well as high speed internet services.
In fact, Birmingham has the largest city centre enterprise zone in the UK.
And this comes on top of developments which have already brought enormous benefits, such as the new Bullring, and some which are beginning to make their mark, such as the refurbished New Street Station.
Another major enhancement to the city centre will be HS2, the planned high speed rail line which includes a new station.
High speed rail has been controversial. It’s supported by business leaders in Birmingham and most – not quite all – of the city’s politicians. But critics have asked whether it provides good value for money, and local authorities outside Birmingham have worried they might not share in the benefits. Realistically, those arguments have nowhere left to go. It’s clear government has made up its mind and high speed rail is happening.
We also have the ambitious proposals set out by Birmingham Airport for a second runway, reported in detail in this week’s Post. It’s great to see the region’s civic and business leaders backing the airport, which can play a major role creating jobs and economic growth.
How is industry doing? Well, businesses could ask for better trading conditions, with the economy continuing to grow slowly.
But that hasn’t stopped them succeeding. Exports from the West Midlands in the first quarter of the year were up by eight per cent on the same quarter last year.
And automotive manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover is, by some criteria, the nation’s most successful business, as we report.
The region has even gone some way to developing effective leadership.
While individual council leaders and professional bodies may have performed admirably in years gone by, they traditionally struggled to form effective partnerships across local authority boundaries.
But the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership seems to have found a way to bring councils together. Even the potentially provocative “Greater Birmingham” label hasn’t caused problems.
So the opportunities are there. But now the region needs to grasp them – and so does central government. For the West Midlands, despite the success of the LEP, the greatest pitfall remains disunity. Manchester benefits enormously from the willingness of local authorities to work in partnership, led inevitably, to some extent, by their regional capital. But the West Midlands has never achieved that level of unity. The Black Country and Coventry, for example, have their own LEPs and there is little evidence of partnerships co-operating across boundaries.
Of course, Wolverhampton and Coventry are important cities with their own strong sense of identity. They will never agree to be eclipsed by Birmingham. But however challenging it is, civic leaders across the region should look for ways to strengthen co-operation.
For central government, the challenge is to make good on plans to devolve power and finances to the regions, in the face of inevitable opposition from vested interests in Whitehall. Lord Heseltine’s proposals to let LEPs lead the way in a range of policy areas connected to economic development could be the most exciting change to the way England is governed in a generation or more.
It will require improvements in the way LEPs operate and make themselves accountable, although Greater Birmingham already has a massive head-start in this regard.
But it will also mean ministers and civil servants letting go of some of their empires and trusting the regions to make decisions.
We’ll find out in the spending review on June 26 whether George Osborne is serious about putting Lord Heseltine’s ideas into practice – and about helping regions such as the West Midlands fulfil their potential.
It will be a test of nerve for the Government. It is time to let Birmingham and the West Midlands off the leash and let the city and the region show what it can achieve, and once again become the country’s economic driving force.
Key initiatives and challenges for the region
Comprehensive Spending Review:
On June 26 George Osborne will unveil his plans for government spending from April 15 onwards. The last review took place in October 2010 and saw Mr Osborne unveil some of the biggest UK public spending cuts for decades. Fears have been raised that it will put Birmingham City Council under even greater financial pressure and leading figures such as West Midlands police and crime commissioner Bob Jones are warning of serious concerns over front line services.
Single Local Growth Fund:
As part of the spending review Mr Osborne will reveal if Lord Heseltine’s ambitions scheme to see local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) put at the heart of regeneration get the green light. If approved it could see the ‘Greater Birmingham’ LEP receive extra funding in the billions.
A second runway is most definitely back on the cards as chiefs launched plans to create a ‘global hub’ capable of dealing with 70 million people a year, as many as Heathrow currently carries. The airport has unveiled new plans this week which it hopes could be included in future government aviation blueprints.
The Birmingham city centre enterprise zone aims to create 40,000 jobs by incentivising new business start-ups by offering rate relief to companies worth up to £275,000 over five years.
The city council will be allowed to borrow against future business rates, which means a potential £70 million annual boost to the coffers. The zone is the largest of its kind, covering 26 sites and 68 hectares.
Jaguar Land Rover has announced plans to invest £45 million in a new £100 million automotive campus in the Midlands, creating up to 1,000 new jobs. But the employment crisis the Midlands faces is stark – new figures show that unemployment rose by 19,000 in the first quarter this year in the region.
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