Picture caption: Pictured at the NEC for the launch of the LEP bid are (from left): David Stovens (vice president of Solihull Chamber of Commerce), Michael Wilcox (leader of Lichfield District Council), Paul Thandi (NEC), Richard Grosvenor (Leader of East Staffordshire Borough Council), Mike Whitby (leader of Birmingham City Council), Steve Claymore (Tamworth Borough Council Cabinet Member for Economic Enterprise), Ian Hedley (Leader of Solihull Council), Elaine Clarke (Birmingham International Airport), Peter Farmer (chair of the Business and Economic Patnership (BEP) for Tamworth and Lichfield), Ponny Lo (of local enterprise Quintet).
Thirty-four years after the NEC’s opening marked a new spirit of co-operation between local government and businesses, council leaders returned to the iconic complex to launch a new attempt at collaboration. Public Affairs Correspondent Paul Dale reports.
No one could accuse the embryonic Birmingham, Solihull, East Staffordshire, Tamworth and Lichfield Local Enterprise Partnership of lacking ambition, although the cumbersome name hardly springs off the tongue.
An outline business plan published by the five councils and local chambers of commerce sets a challenging target – creating 100,000 private sector jobs by 2020 and boosting the economy by £8 billion.
In a submission to the Government, the organisation says it intends to stimulate growth, improve business survival rates, attract inward investment and build a world class workforce with the skills necessary for today’s industry.
It wants to work closely with schools to “excite young people about business” while also maximising the commercial potential of the region’s universities.
There are also plans to accelerate growth of businesses along the M42 corridor and in Birmingham city centre.
Should the Government agree to establish the LEP, a series of quick wins are proposed in the first few years including growing the Birmingham stock exchange Investbx, securing High Speed Rail and the Birmingham Airport runway extension and expanding support for businesses in Tamworth and Lichfield.
And yet, a great many questions remain unanswered about how exactly a LEP will take over the duties of the Regional Development Agency Advantage West Midlands – and how it will succeed where AWM failed by tackling the region’s chronic skills deficit and improving economic output until it at least matches the average for England.
The Government is yet to make clear what powers LEPs will actually have to push forward economic development, while council leaders in the West Midlands have already come to the conclusion that direct Government funding is highly unlikely.
Partners behind the Birmingham-Solihull-Staffs LEP talk about setting up an enterprise fund, but they won’t put a figure on this and in any case expect most of it to come from private sector businesses.
The extent to which businesses will be willing to put hands in their pockets in the current economic climate remains unclear.
There is also the matter of who will chair the LEP board.
Under rules laid down by the Government, the chairman must be a prominent business figure, but no one is prepared to speculate on who this might be.
As for the clumsy name, that may get even longer if attempts to persuade Bromsgrove Council to join the LEP succeed, this is indicative of the sensitivities and parochial loyalties held in the West Midlands.
It was noticeable that the official launch of the LEP submission was staged at the National Exhibition Centre, regarded as symbolic neutral ground it being the place where Birmingham and Solihull joined forces more than 30 years ago in an entrepreneurial show of force to found the National Exhibition Centre.
None of the uncertainties can dampen the enthusiasm of Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby, who regards the coming together of the five councils and business partners as a progressive milestone.
Coun Whitby (Con Harborne) declared himself an “unbelievably happy man” following the conclusion of sometimes frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations about the LEP between the councils.
He went out of his way to address critics who in the past have complained about what they see as Birmingham’s overbearing nature.
“I want to draw a line under this nonsense that Birmingham is a massive power that wants to subjugate its neighbours
“We all share a common dream. We want to grasp the region by the neck, shake it down and become an engine of growth,” he said.
And in a clear message to the Black Country councils, who refused to join the Birmingham LEP, Coun Whitby said: “It is one thing to proscribe partnerships but if people don’t want to work together you don’t get value for money for the public purse.
“We are willing partners, consenting adults. We haven’t been forced together.
‘‘We are coming together because there is real value in the strengths we bring to the table.”
And to underline the matter, he added: “This is a partnership of equals.
‘‘Let me repeat that, a partnership of equals.”
He believes his experiences since 2004 in leading a Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition in Birmingham stood him in good stead for negotiating the LEP partnership.
“The history of the Birmingham coalition has helped to bring this together.
‘‘If two political parties with proud histories can work together then Birmingham can work together with its neighbours.
‘‘The most important thing is there has to be trust,” he said.
Coun Whitby admits, however, that the LEP partners remain pretty much in the dark about the Government’s intentions.
In putting together the bid the council’s tried to imagine what ministers wanted to see from a LEP and framed the submission accordingly.
One thing the LEP will certainly ask for is a share of AWM’s substantial assets, including a huge redevelopment land bank.
Coun Whitby added: “This is all about job creation, upskilling and inward investment.
“We want to attract international investors.”