The essence of the Black Country is unchanged from hundreds of years ago when foundries and steelworks were pouring out fire and smoke: it remains wedded to manufacturing. And Stewart Towe, chairman of the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership and managing director of Hadley Group, one of Europe’s largest privately owned cold rolled steel producers, is Black Country through and through.
Out comes a tale to illustrate the point: “The worst thing you can do when you have bought a new machine is to give a Black Country engineer the instructions book. Let him play with it for a few days and he will find things that machine can do which aren’t even in the instructions book.
“In Germany they wouldn’t even let you turn the machine on without reference to the instructions book. That is why there is so much innovation and technical expertise in the Black Country. It demonstrates what the Black Country is all about.”
And it makes things the world wants: Hadley Group exports 30% of its production. As David Cameron once noted: “Made in the Black Country, sold around the world isn’t just a slogan, it’s a reality.”
Of course Birmingham folk have for years enjoyed gently belittling Black Country ‘yam yams’. So has the jealousy dissipated or does Birmingham still look down its nose at the Black Country? Stewart likes to describe the relationship in hub and spoke terms – Birmingham is the hub while the Black Country and Coventry and Warwickshire are the spokes in the wheel. Both need each other.
Hadley Group’s Smethwick headquarters is a hundred yards from the Birmingham ‘border’ and Stewart claims he can be in the city centre within six minutes. But he acknowledges historical enmities: “The Black Country feared Birmingham domination.”
Only in the last five years have attitudes changed, but he believes Birmingham has got the message. “The Black Country is still really a collection of villages; Birmingham is an urban centre. Conceptually they are completely different. But that need not stop the two working together in a genuinely equal partnership.”
After all, the Black Country LEP area has a 1.1 million population; just down on Estonia’s 1.3 million. Of course ‘partnership’ is currently the buzz word given the creation of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). I put it to him that the WMCA – he will be among a 10-strong board – is a mess.
Coventry and Solihull with no real enthusiasm are only getting involved because of Government blackmail – ‘work together or there’s no money’. Birmingham, the second city, doesn’t even get a mention in the title of the new body. But there will be no big transfer of powers from Whitehall without an elected mayor, which is anathema to some, who fear Birmingham would then inevitably call the shots.
Stewart’s argument is that the system has to work on two levels – locally, so people understand and embrace what is happening on the ground, and on a wider overview, cooperating on cross-regional issues like economic development, transport and skills.
He says: “Yes, we are playing catch-up in terms of Greater Manchester, but we understand each other better and we are working more closely together. This is not about a further level of bureaucracy on top of what already exists.”
And the same applies in terms of relationships between the LEPs. Stewart rejects any need for a WMCA-style amalgamation of LEPS, saying economic development in Birmingham, the Black Country and Coventry is in many respects quite distinctive. There is still much to be done both for the West Midlands and the Black Country.
There is a £16bn output gap between the West Midlands and the national average. The corresponding figure for the Black Country is £8.1bn. And the Black Country lags the national average on skills, jobs, business creation, health and deprivation. But Stewart argues that the gap is closing with, for example, recent employment figures for the West Midlands in advance of the country as a whole. And there are some encouraging Black Country statistics: a marked reduction in the percentage of people with no qualifications over 10 years to 2014 (-11.9%); manufacturing jobs stand at 68,600 and are at a five-year high; and schools have a higher proportion of students who achieve A* and A grades in STEM subjects than both the national and regional average.
Stewart reels off a host of initiatives being put in place: He points to the availability of oven-ready sites and skills if companies are to be persuaded to set up new factories. But there is clearly a problem with the former.
i54 only worked because regional development agency Advantage West Midlands had cleared all the contamination prior to its demise. But contamination still blights its other major enterprise zone, the James Bridge Copper Works in Darlaston. Three years on and not a company is operating there; it could be another two before they are. It’s an example of how an important regional development authority function has gone to waste, with no equivalent body picking it up adequately.