Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency, has spent most of its relatively short existence attempting to justify itself to critics who maintain that the organisation is overly bureaucratic, slow and under-achieving.
AWM can now add a further chapter to its woes – public spending cuts.
The agency, which has not always been very good at communicating about the good work that it does carry out, has eventually responded to media requests to list the regeneration projects that are at risk of not going ahead as a result of a government decision to reduce the AWM budget by £48 million.
The list, surely, is a sign of hard times to come as the government begins to face up to the reality of public sector debt, sent into stratospheric proportions by actions taken to avoid economic depression and slump.
Ironically, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson’s insistence that regional development agencies do more to directly financially aid businesses put AWM in an even more difficult position, having been ordered to transfer £64 million from its budget for regeneration schemes and channel it toward helping existing firms instead.
The upshot of all this is that a number of important schemes to regenerate the Birmingham and West Midlands economy will not now go ahead. Some of these – a proposed medical science park at Heartlands Hospital and a training facility at Birmingham Airport – were until very recently being touted as exactly the kind of initiative that was vital if the region was to diversify industry away from traditional manufacturing sectors.
Leisure and tourism, another supposed growth sector, will also be badly hit by AWM’s cuts, with exciting plans to turn the Victorian Newman Brothers Coffin Factory in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter into a museum and visitors’ centre falling victim to the spending axe. Similarly, the Thinktank museum at Millennium Point in Birmingham, has been told that plans for two new galleries and a learning centre are to be put on ice.
There will be many tales of heartbreak and even anger among the 65 schemes facing the chop, particularly where the projects’ backers have raised some funding locally and were relying on final approval from the development agency for work to begin.
Both AWM and the government are naturally stressing that they see this as a short term hiccup and that, when public finances recover, the threatened regeneration schemes may get their funding after all. But for some of the projects, dependent on quick decisions and with no other means of accessing finance, promises of jam tomorrow will be far, far too late.