Our comment: Midlands way relaunched with an engine this time?

Many of our members attended the formal launch of the ‘Midlands engine prospectus‘ on 4th December, at Birmingham University. This covers the West and East Midlands and seeks to scale up a range of opportunities from improving east to west transport links, to marketing the concentration of universities, skills, sectors, and manufacturing to the world.

This was suppose to be an answer to the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ however as many commentators have noted we have been here before in 2005 with ‘Smart growth – the Midlands Way’ which at the time was an answer to ‘The Northern Way’. All that is left of the Midlands Way is a range of local authority reports commenting on what was a re-packaging exercise of existing initiatives.

Is it any different this time around?

Once again the majority of the proposed initiatives are existing activity that has been previously announced or is in operation being pulled together under a new ‘brand’ to market the area for investors and visitors. The East Midlands has more to gain currently as it doesn’t yet have the equivalent of the emerging West Midlands Combined Authority to promote the area. Or perhaps the real target is a Government perceived to be obsessed with a ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

This time around there is a stronger recognition of the low carbon transport, energy and other technologies, and associated supply chains, skills and sites in the area – building on our low carbon investment prospectus.

There is also a stronger emphasis on transport investment. This is because this time there is a transport partnership in place called ‘Midlands Connect’. The partnership led by SWM member the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority, and involving 11 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and 26 Local councils will be developing a east-west transport strategy and investment plan in early 2017.

The other areas of  new ‘added value’ of working at this scale include proposals for overseas investment and tourism brand marketing, exploring a visitors travel pass, a higher education forum to help with market intelligence and foresighting, and specialist urban infrastructure funds.

The warning signs are however in the areas of governance, capacity, and funding.

It is not clear how the Government minister champion role will work. In our experience with previous regional ministers this is often very dependent on the individuals rather than the job description. Will they and the supporting partnership trip over the future elected Mayor, the different speeds of combined authority within the patch, and negotiations over LEP boundaries?

Will we have the capacity to work together on this level? The world is very different from 2015. The building blocks of partnership working – local councils, are cut back to essential services. The two regional development agencies have been replaced by 11 LEPs with a fraction of the staffing and funding. Also the remaining capacity there is at the moment is focused on meeting rapid timescales of devolution, and the stop-start of new EU funding programmes.

It was perceived that there was no new money announced at the launch of the prospectus on the 4th December. What was worse was that in the morning of the launch we were told how the Midlands engine was the heartland of manufacturing, by the afternoon there was the surprise announcement of the scraping of the national manufacturing advisory service. This has led many commentators to question the Governments commitment or coherence on industrial policy.

The SWM policy view

We are all about working together on key priorities with cross-sector partners to deliver a sustainable future. However this is dependent on clear leadership, governance, capacity and funding.

We believe the focus in the West Midlands  should be on supporting the West Midlands Combined Authority with selective effort put into the Midlands Engine where local action will benefit from being scaled up, such as east-west transport links. However at the moment the Midlands engine looks to be more of a distraction – looking good but going nowhere (see picture). Like many others, we look forward to being proved wrong.

Dr Simon Slater, SWM.