An application by Birmingham City Council to form a Local Enterprise Partnership in collaboration with business leaders and, probably, Solihull Council is about to be submitted for Government approval. We wish the venture well, even though it is clear that an opportunity to forge a far more effective alliance with Birmingham, the Black Country and Solihull has been missed.
Some very big questions remain unanswered, however. What is a LEP for, exactly? What powers will it have, what budgets will it enjoy and how will it replace the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands?
These are matters for the Government to decide, and make clear as quickly as possible in order to capitalise on the enthusiasm being shown by the business community for providing the driving force behind LEPs.
It is already being whispered, for example, that LEPs will not have direct responsibility for improving the skills of local workforces. If this turns out to be correct, the government will be guilty of making a serious error.
If LEPs are to be responsible for economic regeneration at a strategic regional level, they must be handed powers to address the West Midlands’ skills crisis. Failure by Ministers to recognise this will condemn the region to yet more years of failure.
On paper at least, the formation of LEPs should help councils and business leaders to move forward as a united force, taking important decisions at a local level. Making sure that the workforce is in a suitable state to seize new job opportunities in the future will be a key target. But as Professor John Bryson from the University of Birmingham points out today, this is easier said than done.
Prof Bryson is the latest in a long line of individuals and organisations to point to the West Midlands’ appalling failure to get to grips with the changing nature of manufacturing. It is perhaps understandable, in a region that has spent the past 20 years gnashing its teeth against the demise of traditional manufacturing, that insufficient attention has been paid to equipping the workforce with the skills required to take advantage of new high-tech high-value engineering opportunities.
It is, sadly, an all too familiar lack of forward thinking that has got us to where we are. As Prof Bryson notes, hundreds of firms have reinvented themselves in an attempt to meet the needs of the new world of manufacturing, only to discover that the employees they need to fill the new jobs being created simply do not exist. If it were a matter of recruiting tens of thousands of metal-bashers, we would be leading the way. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.
Prof Bryson estimates that 90,000 hard-to-fill manufacturing jobs will appear in the West Midlands over the next five years. This is in line with research conducted by the region’s councils, which found that two-thirds of the workforce lack the technical skills required by employers.
It remains to be seen how LEPs will make a difference, or whether they can outperform AWM whose contribution to re-skilling has hardly proved a resounding success over a ten-year period. No doubt all will become clear very quickly, or perhaps not.