The Prime Minister and Chancellor have denied Birmingham is being ignored in favour of the North after one MP claimed the city was “just a place they pass through”.
The Tory vision for the region outlined by Chancellor George Osborne last week appeared to fall well short of his noted “Northern Powerhouse” proposals, prompting wide criticism.
The long-term economic plan for the Midlands set out proposals for 300,000 jobs over the next five years, as well as £5.2 billion of investment in transport and 30,000 new homes.
However, critics said it fell well short of last year’s announcement of plans in Manchester to invest billions to create a “great” city constellation in the North through investment in science, transport and infrastructure.
Prime Minister David Cameron and Mr Osborne both trumpeted their hopes for Birmingham in interviews in the Post last week.
However, Labour leader Ed Miliband, speaking on a visit to the region, said the Government was not delivering on devolution.
Mr Osborne said his Midland announcement was different, not inferior, to the Northern Powerhouse vision, and did not suggest he was putting all of his eggs in Manchester’s basket.
He said the main focus was on skills in the Midlands, largely working with the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) on a radical new matching service for local workers and creating more skilled apprenticeships.
“This says ‘this is what the Midlands is capable of’ and that is a real tribute to the talent that you have got here,” he said, in an interview with the Post.
“But let’s invest in the skills. Your local enterprise partnership in Birmingham and Solihull has come forward with this really interesting idea on skills, which is not something that other local enterprise partnerships have come forward with in the country.
“There is a big investment in transport. Of course Birmingham is going to be at the centre of HS2 and the redevelopment around Curzon Street will be fantastic.
“On top of this you have these brilliant big companies. One of the strengths of the Midlands compared to the rest of the UK is you do have your Bombardiers, your Siemens, Rolls-Royces and of course Jaguar Land Rovers.”
But a column by Post politics editor Jonathan Walker on birminghampost.co.uk (printed on page 31) sent both the Tory and Labour PR machines into overdrive as they sought to promote their regional credentials.
He suggested the Government was backing a new economic powerhouse – but it was all centred around Manchester. Already, Manchester has agreed a historic deal seeing £1 billion worth of powers, on top of significant moves like basing the £235 million National Institute for Materials Research and Innovation in the city.
Following that, Labour’s Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart said: “It seems to me that there isn’t a vision for the Midlands. It seems they see it just as a place you go through when you’re travelling somewhere else.
“It seems like they have a plan for the Northern Powerhouse but nothing like that in the Midlands. You don’t get a sense of that rebalancing of the English economy.
“It’s like the BBC – investing in Manchester, Bristol and Cardiff but the Midlands seems to be missing out.”
However, following on from Manchester’s growth deal, Ms Stuart accepted that unless an accord was struck across the West Midlands, the Government would not be won over.
While Greater Manchester has a combined authority, bringing together 10 constituent councils, that has not been possible in this region with Solihull unprepared to join Birmingham and the Black Country in an accord. Before that, any such deal would be impossible and Ms Stuart said it was holding the region back.
She said: “There is a challenge for us. For example, at the moment the dithering by Solihull over whether to join a combined authority or not and the question over Coventry.
“The truth is, the more we dither in the Midlands the more others will prove their case.”
Mr Osborne chose engineering firm Bombardier, in Derby, to outline a “detailed plan” for the Midlands should the Conservatives retain power.
Its principal aim was to improve long-term growth, adding an extra £34 billion to the Midland economy in real terms by 2030, equivalent to more than £3,000 per person.
The announcement followed his visit to Yorkshire, to unveil another long-term vision, but received little of the fanfare for his plans in the North.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said on a visit to the West Midlands this week that the Government was failing to live up to promises on devolution. He promised greater controls over areas like transport and skills, similar to those handed to Greater Manchester.
He told the Post: “That is the problem with this Government’s approach. They preach about devolution and giving local people, like the people of Birmingham, more powers and responsibility, but do not deliver. It is window dressing.
“We will give Birmingham and the Black Country proper powers over transport, the economy and skills for our young people. A proper deal for Birmingham. We have already announced a £30 billion devolution package across the country from which Birmingham will get its slice of the action.”
Mr Miliband added that although a Labour Government would not raise spending on councils, Birmingham would still get a fairer share of the budget.
He said: “It is not right that George Osborne’s own area has faced ten times less cuts than other areas. We would introduce fair funding for the benefit of all the country.”
Perhaps the showpiece of the Government vision for the region was a new approach from the GBSLEP to match people with job opportunities, supported by 100 new job coaches.
The £5.2 billion investment would also see more of the M1 and M5 converted to four lanes and “developing a case” for electrifying the rail lines from Bristol to Birmingham and Derby to Birmingham.
On a visit to the Post’s Fort Dunlop headquarters, Prime Minister David Cameron said: “The point about the Northern Powerhouse is that through the cities of the north of England, all of whom are smaller than Birmingham, we can achieve a better balance in the country if we link them together.
“That’s not anti-Birmingham, that will be good for Birmingham, not least because, it’s going to be the hub for HS2 going from London to Birmingham and Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds.
“Don’t for one minute think Birmingham is going to be forgotten in all this.”