Start your engines
The launch of the West Midlands Combined Authority at the NEC last week was a decidedly mixed bag of sentiment in the light of the referendum vote to Brexit. In a keynote address that he said he would have liked to have been a triumphal culmination of his political life, Sir Michael Heseltine gave a sobering overview of the consequences of the decision.
It was clear that this was a rehearsal for his subsequent comments on Boris Johnson and the need for the Leave campaign to accept responsibility for its actions. However, Lord Heseltine did make the point that he had been working towards greater empowerment of local people, and increased devolution of responsibility and decision making at a regional, city and local level. This was to be celebrated, he said, despite everything.
Other speakers at the West Midlands Forum for Growth took a more positive tone, and made clear that, whilst the Brexit decision might create uncertainties, the WMCA put the region in a better position to manage the outcomes. “It’s about the health, wealth, and happiness of the populations we serve,” said Mark Rogers, Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council, making the point that the WMCA could make the entire area a better, healthier place to live – and that this would be attractive in any economic context.
In the same vein, Laura Shoaf, Managing Director of Transport for West Midlands, said that the combined authority was a platform for “confidence, opportunity, and ambition”, adding that, “Devolution means funding certainty and multi-year settlements."
It was noted that the delivery of the right infrastructure at the right time was fundamental in achieving growth that was resilient to the future. In the short term, this would mean a collaborative approach to deal with the chronic skills shortages that were prevalent in the region. It is vital that the link between infrastructure investment and skills is recognised and strengthened. Mark Howden, Head of Regeneration at Balfour Beatty noted that, “Investment will retain talent. For too long, our brightest and best have just drifted south to further their careers.”
It was impossible to consider the event without placing it in the context of Brexit – but overall, the mood in the room seemed to be one of, “Well, we have our strategy, we’ve spent a long time developing it to where we are now, so we need to press on and implement it.” Birmingham City Council's Interim Strategic Director of Economy Waheed Ali summed this up best: “The UK is resilient," he said. "We must have confidence in ourselves and navigate our way through.”
So what did we draw from this conference – held, perhaps uniquely, in the immediate aftermath of a seismic national event? We note that Birmingham has a resilient and bullish air about it – and that is almost certainly a product of the collaboration and discussion that has been needed to bring the Combined Authority into being. The plan has some uncertainties, and is certainly rough around some of the edges: random comments from delegates during the day suggested that they were expecting a clearer announcement of what was going to happen next.
But overall, it seems likely that the hard miles have been done in setting up the WMCA, and whilst there are issues to resolve, Birmingham is probably better positioned in a Brave New Brexit World than it would have been without. It will be fascinating to see how the region fares going forward, and whether the “sunlit uplands of prosperity” can be secured through such a political construct.
For our part, we sit at the very heart of the city in our Victoria Square offices, and are ready to play whatever part we can in the process. At the very least, we will watch the events across the square at City Hall with interest as the WMCA develops alongside the negotiation of the UK’s future position in Europe and the world.