Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron set out competing visions for the renaissance of Britain's great cities in The Birmingham Post today.
Birmingham took centre stage in the battle between a Labour Government which has held power for 11 years and a resurgent Conservative opposition, as both parties took their message to the city.
In an exclusive interview with The Birmingham Post, Mr Brown warned that local authorities across the West Midlands, and civic bodies in Birmingham, must set aside old rivalries and work together to get the best deal for the region.
He was speaking as Labour began its Spring Conference at the International Convention Centre, where the Prime Minister will deliver a keynote speech on Saturday. And speaking exclusively to The Birmingham Post 150th anniversary Gala Dinner at Birmingham University last night, Mr Cameron pledged to "tear up the rules" and set Britain's great cities free from Whitehall control.
Both leaders praised Birmingham's achievements, but warned much more was needed - highlighting the transformation of the city under the leadership of Joseph Chamberlain in the 19th century as a model.
Mr Brown called on Birmingham to "invent itself again as one of the most successful cities in the world," and warned that improving skills and education were vital to the city's prosperity.
Meanwhile, Mr Cameron pledged that a Conservative Government would lead "the next stage of our city renaissance in Britain".
He warned that Birmingham now found itself competing with cities such as Shanghai and Mumbai, as well as Manchester and London.
But the solutions the two leaders offered were very different. The Prime Minister talked about local councils and agencies coming together to work with the Government in delivering transport improvements or ensuring his plans for improving skills were a success.
"We have been supporting the city, we have been supporting the New Street development, we are obviously investing a lot in transport and economic development, and we are wanting to work to create a higher number of jobs," he said.
"Our policy is to build for the future by giving people skills for the jobs of the future. And I believe that all parts of the community including the local council and all the different agencies should come together to work through the strategy that is necessary to give people the opportunities that are vital for their own future."
But Mr Cameron focused on Tory plans to free councils from central government control, and let local voters judge their performance at the ballot box. He argued: "The renewal of Birmingham - and the renewal of our great cities - will not come from politicians in Westminster."
The Conservative leader also stressed his commitment to supporting the voluntary sector and called for an end to multiculturalism which had encouraged people to lead "separate lives".
But talking about his stay in Birmingham as a guest of a Pakistani family in Balsall Heath last year, he added: "Integration is a two-way street - not about immigrants and 'their' responsibilities and 'their’ duties. It has to be about all of 'us' too - the quality of life that we offer, our society and our values."
The competing visions of Birmingham's future came as both parties began preparing for local elections in May. Labour was using its Spring Conference at the ICC to set out the themes it will campaign on in May's polls.
But they also illustrated the ferocity of the battle Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are set to wage in the run-up to a General Election, which could be more than two years away. The Conservatives jumped at the opportunity to send their leader to The Birmingham Post anniversary dinner, after Mr Brown's office turned down the invitation even though the Prime Minister was in Birmingham for his conference.
It has given the Tories a chance to steal the limelight and prevent Labour dominating the headlines in a key electoral battleground. Mr Cameron made the most of the opportunity with a withering attack last night on Government policies in the region.
The Government announced earlier this month that it was providing almost £400 million to rebuild Birmingham's New Street station, following years of campaigning.
But Mr Cameron said: "What about the debacle over the regeneration of New Street Station?
"Leave aside, for a moment, that Britain’s second city has Britain’s worst railway station. Forget, for a second, that they dithered and delayed over making a decision. That money was rightfully Birmingham’s - and it’s a disgrace that you were made to beg and plead for it before they gave it."
In his interview with The Birmingham Post, the Prime Minister said: "I think the New Street redevelopment shows our commitment to the improvement of transport in the area."
The Tories haven't won a General Election since 1992, and shadow Cabinet members privately admit they were braced for another defeat when it appeared Gordon Brown was set to call a snap poll last autumn. But Mr Brown decided to bide his time - and recent polls have put the Conservatives as far as 11 points ahead of Labour.