Charles Lutwidge Dodgson would have had a field day with the West Midlands’ machinations over proposals for Local Enterprise Partnerships. So many egos at stake, so many opportunities for, unintentional, humour.
It is true that councils and business organisations were handed a very tight timetable to send their ideas for LEPs to the Government. It is undeniable, also, that a limited amount of detail from Ministers about the way LEPs would work made the task far harder.
Even so, the latest difficulties, claim and counter-claim by those involved, smack more of Alice in Wonderland than a co-ordinated approach to economic development.
It is clearly beyond all reasonable argument that the proposal by Business Voice WM to set up a regional “over-arching mechanism” to support the six proposed LEPs both surprised and annoyed chambers of commerce.
Critics suggest that what Business Voice actually wants to do is reinvent the regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, albeit on a smaller scale.
The claim appears to have been given some credence by AWM chairman Sir Roy McNulty, who told a Commons committee that the West Midlands business community was “crystal clear” about the need for a co-ordinating body.
Subsequent clarifying statements by the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP steering group reject the need for a formal regional structure. Both statements make the point that Ministers have made clear their opposition to regional LEPs.
Business Voice WM is sticking to its view that all of the organisations involved in this tangled tale are united as one. You couldn’t drive a cigarette paper between them, apparently.
The lobby group appears to draw comfort from the claim that the “over-arching” organisation being proposed is simply a “mechanism” rather than a formal body.
Talk about dancing on the head of a pin.
Quite what the Government will make of the six West Midlands LEP bids (or, is it nine?) remains to be seen.
If Ministers truly wanted the best for the region they would order all of the partners to think again and return with a LEP proposal based on the Birmingham, Black Country and Solihull conurbation, but that might smack of Whitehall interference in local decision making.
The problem with the Business Voice proposal is that even if the case remains for a regional co-operative, the idea has had no support from the chambers of commerce or councils.
This latest move for the regional LEP will be seen by some as the last throw of the dice for AWM and is highly unlikely to appeal to a vehemently anti-region Government.