The West Midlands’ unique strength in industrial design – which ranges from luxury cars to world-class ceramics – should not be forgotten in the scramble to replace regional development agencies.
That is the view of leading figures in the world of design – including the chief executive of historic firm AGA Rangemaster and a key member of Birmingham Institute of Art and Design.
They have voiced concerns that the new bodies the Government is bringing in to support regional economic development could be too fragmented to provide an effective marketing platform for the region’s design strengths.
As the September 6 deadline looms for proposals to form the local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) that will replace regional development agencies like Advantage West Midlands, six separate entities are believed to be preparing bids in the region including individual submissions for Birmingham and Solihull, the Black Country and Coventry and Warwickshire.
The potentially high number of LEPs across the country has been a source of worry for business groups – including the EEF industry federation and the CBI – who fear they will be dominated by local vested interests and represent nothing but talking shops.
Beverley Nielsen, course supervisor on the MA Design Management course at Birmingham Institute of Art & Design and associate fellow of Warwick Manufacturing Group, echoed their concerns.
She said: “One of the USPs that we have as a region, which we seemed to have overlooked, is the fact that we have created and developed more lifestyle-branded products that any other region in the UK
“That means products that people buy because they associate them with their lifestyle – such as AGA, Rangemaster, Jaguar, Brintons Carpets, Pashley Cycles, Wedgwood, Emma Bridgewater, Bulmers and even Cadbury.
“When you put all that together, you can’t think of another region that has that element of productive skill and capability. It’s something unique to us and if you start to tear the region up into little pieces you don’t have that cohesive story any more.
“It doesn’t hang together once you’ve got separate bodies for Birmingham or Staffordshire or Worcestershire.
“The big issue is you need to collaborate and pull together to have a strength of voice to promote your strengths properly.”
AGA Rangemaster chief executive William McGrath said design was “built into the DNA” of the West Midlands and should form part of its marketing message. But he voiced concerns that if development support became too fragmented, opportunities for projecting that message outside the region would be lost.
“In the region you’ve got a lot of companies like ourselves who have a long tradition of design,” he said. ‘‘We need to focus on a few key selling features, of which we think design should be one. The marketing of the region could put a much greater onus on the traditions in the area in terms of design.
“I would come up with a line about design being built into the region – design is built into the DNA of the region.”