With less than a year to go before the new West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) comes into force, there is still plenty of debate over what effect it will have on the region's business and political landscape. The Birmingham office of law firm Trowers & Hamlins hosted a West Midlands leaders' round table event, bringing together senior public and private sector figures to discuss four keys areas authority will be expected to address.
* Peter Axon, chief finance officer, Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Trust
* Suzie Branch-Haddow, director, Greater Birmingham Professional Services Academy
* Jonathan Browning, chairman, Coventry & Warwickshire LEP
* Paul Kehoe, chief executive, Birmingham Airport
* Coun Ann Lucas, leader of Coventry City Council and board member of Coventry and Warwickshire LEP
* Mike Lyons, programme director, HS2
* maria Machancoses, programme director, Midlands Connect Partnership
* Ian Oakes, deputy vice-chancellor, University of Wolverhampton
* Kevin Rodgers, chief executive, WM Housing Group
* Coun Bob Sleigh, leader of Solihull Council and chairman of WMCA shadow board
* Amanda Tomlinson, chief executive, Black Country Housing Group
* Karl Tupling, executive director Midlands, Homes and Communities Agency
* Jeremy Vanes, chairman, Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust
* Pam Waddell, director, Birmingham Science City
* Amardeep Gill, partner (public sector commercial), Trowers & Hamlins
* Tonia Secker, partner (housing and regeneration), Trowers & Hamlins
* Rebecca McGuirk, partner (employment), Trowers & Hamlins
* Yetunde Dania, partner (housing management), Trowers & Hamlins
* Hilary Blackwell, partner (housing and regeneration), Trowers & Hamlins
* Jeremy Hunt, partner (housing and regeneration), Trowers & Hamlins
What role does transport infrastructure play in enhancing the economic success of the region and what benefits can be derived from HS2 and the projects proposed as part of the region's devolution agreement? What impact will a devolved transport budget have on the region and how will the various projects be brought together to deliver the best outcomes?
Mike Lyons: In terms of connectivity, HS2 is absolutely key and it is clearly established now in Birmingham with a team that is rapidly growing at Two Snowhill. In the next few weeks, we are due to launch the largest civil engineering procurement in Europe worth £7 billion of which approximately £2.5 billion will be related to this region. We are working closely with people here to ensure we don't just deliver what's in the HS2 Bill itself but making sure our plans are integrated to those of Solihull and UK Central and also Curzon Street and the Eastside regeneration.
Paul Kehoe: HS2 is going to change the economic geography of not just this region but the whole of the UK. It's about building something which makes this country smaller. HS2 is a great opportunity but let's not forget West Coast Mainline and Stevenson's railway because HS2 will give us back the mainline and improve Coventry and the Black Country. It will help our freight get to the ports because the train lines are currently clogged with inter-urban expresses. It's three or four train paths an hour that could go to other uses.
Bob Sleigh: The hub around the airport, NEC, Resorts World and the stop on the HS2 line offers us a unique opportunity from a connectivity perspective to attract inward investment. We are already seeing people making choices to move to that locality because of the unique connectivity we have here.
Maria Machancoses: What devolution is allowing us to do here in the West Midlands is think about what comes next. This is about rebalancing the economy and supporting regional airports, taking devolution to the next level and empowering the combined authorities. Cities like Nottingham and Leicester are all coming together to seriously influence future investment programmes.
What are the housing infrastructure requirements for the region and how can the acute housing shortage be tackled? Will the new planning powers to be conferred on the elected mayor deliver change and what should the WMCA's land commission's priorities be?
Karl Tupling: I can't remember a time when we've actually had more money and opportunity with a government which has placed housing right at the top of the agenda. We can either spend a lot time working out how to weave that into a devolution deal or get on with building pipelines.
Amanda Tomlinson: When it comes to housing, what we've been lacking is some sort of masterplan or big strategic plan regionally. Each local authority will have its own specific housing development plans but the potential to link up what we do with housing on a much bigger plain is great. There's an annual need nationally of around 200,000 homes while we recently launched the garden city for Black Country which will deliver 45,000 homes up to 2020 although that still doesn't meet the need. It's great having these individual plans but linking it to the super economic plan is essential.
Kevin Rodgers: The overheating of the housing market and the crash that everyone's now forgotten about was driven by too much demand and not enough supply and for me the opportunities are around supply. In the West Midlands, it's not easy. We can calculate how many thousands of homes we need but then you say 'where are they going to be built?'. It's always politically poisonous as the easiest place to build is in the areas where you've never built before.
Karl Tupling: Broadly speaking, across the country something like 80 per cent of new homes are delivered by 20 or so of the largest housebuilders, meaning the remainder are built by small companies. If we to achieve the level of growth which is required, we have to find a way of harnessing the wealth of local and regional SMEs and locking them into a commitment to take on apprentices.
➤ HEALTH AND SOCIAL CARE INTEGRATION
Former health secretary Stephen Dorrell is to oversee the delivery of a five-year blueprint to transform health and social care. How will this initiative feed into the role of the WMCA and what benefits should be sought?
Jeremy Vanes: One of the positives, in terms of the scale of the combined authority, is the ambulance service is already there and has been for years so we have a perfectly natural and organised system. The five-year forward plan for the NHS is vague but it does say we need to get on and do some transformative stuff otherwise we'll run out of money even more than we are doing currently. The NHS in the region is very good at delivery and we have some world-class organisations here. But the NHS is run by an elite group of civil servants directly accountable to the secretary of state or the regulator. We're not very good and visible in normal political circles locally, let alone regionally.
Ann Lucas: The key players missing from this big agenda is the employers. More are getting involved but how many of them have routes so they can get their workers in if there are no buses and what shower facilities do they have? There are some things that are so easy to do but there doesn't seem to be the willingness or acceptance of whether employers can do that.
Peter Axon: The scale and breadth of conversations we're going to have over the next few months are absolutely critical. There's a lot more that needs to be done over the next 12 months to get where we realistically need to be in the partnership agenda. We've spent a lot of time in the NHS in the competition realms but I think now we've moved into a different world and with that creates a different culture and, of course, the hardest thing to shift in life is culture because that's moving hearts as well as minds on.
➤ SKILLS AND INNOVATION
The aspiration is for the WMCA is to create a coherent employment and skills strategy and support the region's science and innovation. How is it best to deliver these two agendas and how should they be linked to allow future growth? What is the role of academic institutions in delivery of this?
Jonathan Browning: There are many pragmatic lessons we see, day in day out, in Coventry and Warwickshire, a lot of it around the automotive sector but also in advanced manufacturing and engineering. There is an awful lot of work on the marketing and branding of apprenticeships to make them more appealing, not just to the individuals themselves but very much among parents. There's a bigger barrier among them than there is with the individuals themselves. As big and as complex as the challenge is, the output has to be that we've made it easier to do business in the West Midlands than it was before we had the combined authority. It cannot become more complex, more impenetrable. It has to be simpler, faster and easier to do business in the West Midlands as a result.
Pam Waddell: I would like innovation to be seen not as a challenge but as an opportunity. The role of the combined authority is to use the region's science and innovation capabilities to solve the challenges the combined authority has. Innovation doesn't just happen in the universities. It happens in all of the organisations we work in such as the NHS and big companies. It's getting those different sectors to work together that is the key.
Ian Oakes: We can't undertake research for research's sake, we have to bring about that knowledge for some kind of business benefit. The term 'skills gap' is used over and over again but it doesn't mean we have no skills or that our system is broken. It just means that, for emerging sectors, we haven't got enough young people or people in employment with the right knowledge to take that forward. One of the reasons we have a skills gap in advanced manufacturing is that, 20 years ago, careers advisers and parents were saying to young people 'Don't go into advanced manufacturing'. Nowadays, it has moved on hugely but we have to make up a lot of lost ground to get that message back into schools.
Suzie Branch-Haddow: Lots of the young population, once they've graduated, will go to the other parts of the world so what's essential for me is employers working with educational institutions in order to grow our own talent as a city and a region. Our professional services sector has not been very good over the years at engaging with young people in various wards and areas of the city so it needs to open up more. We can solve the problems through delivering apprenticeships and employer engagement. Our academy is around two and a half years old and we're starting to see young people, who never even knew our sector existed beore, progress to university or enter our sector. I walked some students recently down Colmore Row to attend a session on networking and they had never been down that street in their lives. If we make that work in this sector, which is quite a traditional one, and grow our own talent, then we can roll it out to all the other key growth areas across the region and actually have something really concrete. It's about staying global but also growing our own local talent.