Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has vowed to offer more devolution to the West Midlands if Labour seizes power next year.
Decision makers in the region want to take greater control of how money is spent here, including keeping the benefits from key schemes like Curzon Street Station and UK Central in the region, and Mr Balls told the Post he will not derail that push.
The Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) wants to increase the city centre enterprise zone, to grow the amount of revenue it retains through business rates, and see Single Local Growth Funding increase, to allow the region to stand on its own feet more economically.
That will require funds and authority to be switched out of Whitehall – a move not popular with London civil servants – but Mr Balls said he was squarely behind that plan.
However, Mr Balls said the country had “gone backwards” on regional economic development – citing an end to Birmingham and the Black Country “bidding against each other” through different local enterprise partnerships (LEPs).
He said: “I want more devolution and more economic levers and power being handed away from Whitehall to the West Midlands – to businesses and local authorities working together.
“To be honest with you, I think we have gone backwards a lot in the last few years. I think abolishing Advantage West Midlands was a big mistake, I think the LEPs at the moment don’t have the resources or the power to really do the job and so if there is a fund of money controlled in Whitehall and LEPs are bidding into that then fine, but we could do so much better than this.”
The push to devolve power from Whitehall is backed throughout GBSLEP and Birmingham City Council.
The Post reported earlier this month that decentralised funding was at the heart of bids for £561 million of public money over the next five years towards 94 projects.
The Structural Economic Plan submitted to government would see the region directly tied to the success of the Curzon Street HS2 station development and the UK Central work around the M42 corridor, with uplift in business rates and land value being returned.
Meanwhile, with talk in recent weeks of greater integration of Birmingham and the Black Country – including several council leaders calling for a metropolitan authority – the Shadow Chancellor said there needed to be more cohesion in terms of economic development.
Speaking to the Post on a visit to Grendon Billesley Nursery and Family Centre, Mr Balls said: “The fact is when Birmingham and the Black Country work together that is better than Birmingham and the Black Country bidding against each other for money.
“You can’t really think sensibly about transport or skills unless you are working across the city region and I would much rather see local authorities come together.
“If local authorities are working together and involving businesses we would like to see more resource and more powers so decisions can genuinely be made in the region.
“I think that means going further in devolution on employment policy, skills in particular, and on transport. So far the current government has been centralising and we would like to see more power handed down so decisions can genuinely be made in Birmingham and the West Midlands in the interest of jobs and investment and people here.”
Elsewhere, Mr Balls again reiterated criticisms of the costs of the HS2 development.
While the Labour Party supports the scheme, the Shadow Chancellor has consistently criticised the management of it, and said savings would have to be made.
However, with much of the city’s development intertwined with HS2 – not least Curzon Street Station acting as a catalyst for a once-in-a-generation change to the city centre – its progress is key to the city’s plans.
Mr Balls said he hoped Birmingham would see knock-on benefits, but the wider costs of the scheme were his priority.
He said: “The important thing is it has got to be value for money and the costs have got to be under control.
“As this legislation goes through the House of Commons there has got to be a tight control on costs and it is my job as a Labour Shadow Chancellor to keep a really close eye on the finances and to make sure that it is being properly controlled.
“We want to see this investment go ahead, as long as it is done in a proper way.
“We have always been clear about that. I don’t want to see Birmingham miss out.”
Speaking in advance of the HS2 boss Sir David Higgins’ report on the scheme, Mr Balls attacked the Government on its management of the scheme.
He said: “The fact is David Cameron and George Osborne have really mismanaged this project.
“They have let the costs get out of control, they have not properly made the case, so we will see what Mr Higgins reports.
“I hope he has got a grip on costs and I hope he is going be able to show that his is a project that will deliver value for money and solve the capacity problems, which are an issue.
“We have always said we want to see this investment go ahead, but I have always said the costs have got to be under control. There is not a blank cheque, and I am hoping that Mr Higgins will produce a good report.”