As Advantage West Midlands prepares to close its doors, former Minister for the West Midlands Ian Austin explains why he is so proud of its legacy.
I had to laugh when Gavin Williamson, got to his feet and invited the Prime Minister to welcome Jaguar Land Rover’s new £350 million plant in his South Staffordshire constituency.
JLR’s investment is, as the Prime Minister replied, “excellent news for the West Midlands and for British manufacturing”.
But they both failed to mention that the investment was only taking place after ten years hard work by the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, who bought the land, developed the site and worked with the company to plan the new plant.
And without AWM lobbying for government-backed loans in 2008, the company could well have gone under in the downturn.
It was the same story at an economic conference I spoke at in Coventry a few weeks ago when a local councillor praised his local economic partnership by highlighting a series of achievements which had all been kicked off by AWM.
And I was really surprised to hear George Osborne boasting in his Spending Review about the redevelopment of New Street Station which would never have happened without the agency’s leadership and expertise.
As Mick Laverty and his colleagues lock the doors at Priestly Wharf for the last time this week, people in the West Midlands should offer their thanks for everything he and his brilliant team have achieved over the last decade.
The Manufacturing Technology Centre at Ansty Park near Rugby could have a huge impact on the expansion of modern hi-tech manufacturing in the Midlands, but would never have got off the drawing-board without AWM.
Fort Dunlop stood empty for years but AWM got Europe’s largest regeneration project under way, bringing this iconic building back into use and creating hundreds of jobs
The Edgar Street Grid in Hereford, the new phase of Keele Science Park, finance for the new airport runway. Huge, complex projects that would never have happened if AWM had not unblocked them.
They helped get new college buildings under way in Stoke, Sandwell and Birmingham, developed sites right across the region in places like Hereford, Redditch, Worcester, Stafford and Telford and helped finance the redevelopment of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, a world famous cultural and tourist attraction.
They won inward investment from countries and companies right around the world.
More than 160,000 people have got better skills. 140,000 new jobs and 10,000 new businesses were brought to the region.
Don’t just take my word for their achievements.
In 2010 the National Audit Office rated AWM England’s best performing RDA. The agency also won the Midlands Excellence Awards. Independent evaluation showed AWM generated over £8 for every £1 it spent. And 96p in every pound went straight to front-line investment.
And when the region was hit by a crisis, who stepped in to help?
The AWM team supported our farmers through the foot and mouth disease crisis in 2001 and car industry workers through the Rover collapse five years later, establishing a task force which helped 95 per cent of the workers find new jobs. Regeneration continues to this day at the Longbridge site.
That’s a great list of achievements, but I think the agency really came into its own helping get the West Midlands through the recession triggered by the 2008 banking crisis.
We were the first region in the country to establish a task force bringing together employers’ organisations, government agencies, local authorities, trade unions and voluntary sector organisations to help families and the businesses they work for through the downturn.
Thanks to AWM we were the first region to extend lending to businesses and save thousands of jobs through a regional loan fund and we were the only region to increase available funding and extend lending to businesses in this way.
They bought banks and businesses together to try to get lending moving again. More than 500 businesses were offered loans worth more than £50 million in just a few months.
There’s been a lot of talk about work experience placements for young people recently, but the West Midlands was the first region to launch a programme of subsidised jobs, training places and low-cost university courses for graduates struggling to find work in 2009 – an initiative copied by other regions and extended by the Government nationally.
Advantage West Midlands and European funds were used to provide car component makers with specialist expertise and help through the automotive response programme. Workers at dozens of companies kept their jobs as a result. It’s fair to say Whitehall would never have backed the car scrappage scheme if AWM had not led the lobbying for it, but it resulted in hundreds of thousands of orders and helped save substantial parts of the automotive supply chain.
All of these achievements were only possible because RDAs were able to get government, business and local authorities, employers’ organisations and trade unions all working together for the good of the West Midlands.
AWM’s critics point to the region’s weak economic performance. It is true that high unemployment, weak private sector investment and low skills are all huge problems for the West Midlands, but they would all be much worse without the agency’s efforts this past decade.
The truth is that when it comes to economic output, the West Midlands has lagged behind the national average since 1976 and the only organisation which had a strategy to tackle the region’s problems, the ability to implement it and secure the resources that were needed was AWM.
Indeed, our RDA set the direction for activity to boost skills, innovation, enterprise and economic inclusion that are still being implemented by organisations in the region.
Thousands of people – many of whom will never have heard of AWM – are leading more fulfilled and prosperous lives and they’ll have John Edwards, Mick Laverty and their colleagues to thank for it.
This week, as Mick locks the doors for the last time, the rest of us should say thank you too.
Ian Dudley is Labour MP for Dudley North