Why is a southern elite of politicians de facto running our city? Birmingham has had Government-appointed commissioners sent in to sort out education and child protection, while Lord Bob Kerslake produced a damning review into the running of the city council – and the fall-out is ongoing. Next up is the imposition of an elected mayor. For decades there has been a London economic stranglehold and now they have gone the whole hog and we have a political one.
OK, it is partly because our leadership has been so inept, with the council, the biggest in Europe, mired in Trojan Horse scandals and dreadful child abuse failures. But the level of ‘interference’ is beginning to get worrying. On the face of it there is much to be proud about – the Genting Arena, Grand Central and New Street Station, work in progress on Paradise, HS2 edging closer, an expanding airport and soaring demand for commercial property.
Improvements are being made yet one wonders whether these can be sustained and built upon given the fundamental weaknesses which remain – an appalling lack of skills, unemployment persistently higher than the national average, and an over-dependence on low paid leisure and retail jobs. And the future does not look brilliant.
Irwin Mitchell’s latest UK Powerhouse report predicts that over the next 10 years Birmingham’s gross value added (GVA) will grow by 19.5%. The value of the economic gap between London and the West Midlands currently stands at £247bn and is expected to reach £325.9bn in 2025, according to the study. So much then for the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership making any significant difference. Opportune for a cynical government to smother us in yet another unwanted local government reorganisation, trampling democracy in the process.
Despite Birmingham having twice rejected an elected mayor, it is being forced through, only this time region-wide, a further layer of bureaucracy making politics ever more remote from real people. Expect the usual mix of dead-beats and self-promoters to put their names forward. The city council will still have the biggest wards in the country. But there will now be an inverse pyramid of councillors, cabinet, leader, West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and elected mayor.
Is it any wonder voters are fed up with politicians and disengaged from the system? The WMCA, an aberration of a name more likely to put off inward investors than attract them, will supposedly be making decisions on the likes of transport, planning and skills. But while London has apparently agreed a generous financial settlement it is mostly the same pile of cash being shuffled about in a kind of official money laundering scheme.
Big Brother in London still holds the purse strings and Big Brother London still decides what crumbs will fall from the South-East table. We are actually more removed from localisation than we have ever been. And behind the scenes of this farce you can be sure that the same old wrangling between Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton will continue unabated.
What we are seeing is all smoke and mirrors. And that’s because we’ve benefitted from the national economic recovery and are being buttressed by the success of Jaguar Land Rover and the car industry. JLR and the supply chain drip-down is generating the high tech jobs which this region desperately needs, (if only there were enough skilled workers here to fill them). And it’s doing it with very little appreciation or help from anybody else.
Indeed the Government has just abolished the greatly valued Manufacturing Advisory Service which says everything about its ignorant attitude to industry, and automotive in particular. Amidst this structural and political shambles, hard working Midlanders graft away, resilient to all that is thrown at them.
What is it they said in the aftermath of World War One? Lions led by donkeys – this is the West Midlands today.