It’s been barely four months since John Clancy finally toppled Sir Albert Bore as leader of the council’s controlling Labour group, so he’s still discovering the myriad challenges of running Western Europe’s largest local authority. These include the Whitehall-imposed requirement to slash £800m from the city’s budget by 2019-2020, maintaining its array of services, addressing its major housing shortfall and implementing radical changes to address the damning Kerslake Report into the council’s operations. Whilst also driving forward Birmingham’s physical renaissance, and ensuring that its economy and its manufacturing base can continue to prosper. Not forgetting of course, the impact on the city of the Government’s devolution agenda and the creation of the fledgling West Midlands Combined Authority.
It’s an accumulation of tasks which would surely cause Hercules to blanch, but already Clancy has made two decisions of major significance, which in the years to come could well define his leadership. The first was to appoint Waheed Nazir, the council’s well-respected director of planning and regeneration, to lead on economic strategy, giving him a seat within the corporate leadership team. He’s already demonstrated an imaginative approach to regeneration, and proved capable of handling a prodigious workload, earning respect on both counts from the region’s property and development community.
“We need people who can be creative in how they think and how they address challenges,” says Clancy. “Some issues are going to be game-changers for the city’s economy, which resonate with investors and occupiers; HS2 is certainly one, so is modern manufacturing, and healthcare and life sciences is another.” Secondly, Clancy has demonstrated a welcome willingness to embrace the views of others, and his inner circle of advisers includes Aston University’s Professor David Bailey, Birmingham Airport’s CEO, Paul Kehoe, and Marketing Birmingham’s chief executive, Neil Rami.
It’s not yet evolved to become a Ministry of All the Talents, but is a refreshing contrast to previous city council leaders. “We need to be innovative in how we address our challenges, how we devise our future pathways, and how we come up with solutions which are effective and pragmatic,” says Clancy. “There has to be a nexus in which ideas from different sectors can be considered and discussed.
“There’s no single route to economic success at any level, although we do have an advantage because Birmingham is famous for manufacturing innovation, in both products and processes.
“For decades, we’ve been known as the heartland of Britain’s automotive industry, and thanks to the success of JLR and others, we’ve been able to maintain that reputation, but new manufacturing models are increasingly important – the use of 3D printing across an array of business sectors, for example.
“The healthcare, life sciences, pharma and biotech sectors are becoming hugely important to Birmingham, particularly in the Edgbaston Medical Quarter (EMQ), and it’s very pleasing to see many examples of partnership working between our universities, the public sector and the private sector.
“It’s crucial to have a vision, but it’s also critical that the vision is shared. Take the Life Sciences Campus project, for example. We are the lead partner on a £180m project to transform a derelict and contaminated industrial site into a science park with 400,000 sq ft of space for offices, laboratories and research.
“The Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) shared our commitment, and was able to access £5m of funding from the Local Growth Fund. The campus is close to the QE site and the University of Birmingham, so it’s a very attractive location for local, national and international occupiers.
“I am confident that we will see ground-breaking medical innovations there, and we are also working with the LEP to develop links between the campus and the city’s professional services community. The outcomes for our economy will be tremendous, and something like 2,200 jobs will be created directly. The success of the EMQ, and the potential of the Life Sciences Campus, are also tremendous stories to tell within the UK.”
As cuts continue to savage local authority budgets though, innovations in funding are required, not merely in new partnership models at the operational level. Clancy, a lawyer by training and economist by inclination, is much taken by the concept of ‘Brummie Bonds’, where the council-and the regional local government pension fund-could use their underutilised assets to guarantee new investment products, to attract new revenue streams from banks and institutions.
Remarkably, at least to non-economists, the city council has more than £6bn of assets, and the West Midlands Local Government Pension Fund has accumulated not far off £11bn. Clancy would like to see the new funding used for multiple uses, notably housing, but also for infrastructure projects and for the city’s new economies, such as the fast-growing healthcare and life sciences sector.
He’s been banging on about Brummie Bonds for years, long before the Government’s austerity agenda was conceived, but now it seems it’s an idea whose time has finally come.
The idea has certainly gained traction with the Government’s Life Sciences Minister George Freeman, who spoke with enthusiasm on the subject whilst attending BQ2’s Live Debate at Birmingham’s ICC.
It’s no surprise therefore to learn that a private meeting has been arranged between Clancy and Freeman, when the concept of Brummie Bonds can be discussed in detail. “I’ve always liked the idea of issuing bonds, or having a local Municipal Bank, or a Regional Investment Bank, or even a sovereign wealth fund for the West Midlands,” admits Clancy.
“It’ll be interesting to test the water with George, to see what the feeling inside the Government might be about Brummie Bonds. I’m a great believer in economic self-determination. You don’t want to go cap-in-hand to the City for money, but being able to offer a viable investment opportunity is something different.
“We as a council need to be open to new ideas, just as Birmingham needs to be open to them. We’re already seeing engagement between ourselves, the universities and the city’s financial and professional services sector with regard to the EMQ, the Life Sciences Campus and The Biohub. Looking forward, I’d like to see that really evolve into genuine and long-term partnerships, where we can engage with the great thinkers along Colmore Row for everyone’s benefit. If it works for the healthcare and life science sectors, it can work for other business sectors, and our city and its people will be the winners.”