Don’t you just miss a space for rational policy debate in and about Birmingham

I have for long wished that there was much more debate about policy in the city and about policies that effect the city. I worked for the City Council for 15 years, latterly at a fairly senior level but what was shocking was the minutiae of the bureaucracy 95% of the time took over from discussions about direction. The City Council didn’t join its silos to talk about policy direction; it joined its silos on cross cutting bureaucratic issues. I am hopeful that since I left perhaps this is changing but it was rare within the City Council to have open discussions across disciplines about future scenarios.

Since I left last year I have started this blog and have started to think about some of the conversations with a few of the reflective people I encountered within BCC; conversations in the kitchens, round the water dispenser about policy. Two issues that often came up and came together; the lack of informed debate in Birmingham over policy directions both inside the Council and outside and secondly the lack of an authoritative voice representing the city outside the city  in what is broadly called thought leadership – particularly in the broad field of economic policy. Now this is surprising, given the huge expertise in the city, but true;  there is no focus in the City for these issues and so we risk having uninformed debate and we vitally risk not being on the national and international horizon..

Now I know many people think this unfair but I like to compare Birmingham with Manchester- which has;

1) Manchester New Economy – a group supported by the City Council and academia that a few years ago undertook a root and branch look at the future of the City and still has weight because despite its links to the Council its senior people are high ranking and independent. Often you go to conferences and there is a speaker from MNE and no one from Birmingham. We have no such ‘independent body’ representing the city.

2) There is as well based there the Centre for local Economic Strategies  (CLES) a national thinktank looking at alternatives to current economic approaches.

This not to say we don’t have some fora and some voice. There is the Lunar Society, New Optimists, Birmingham Future etc but somehow none with sufficient support and buy in and particularly none with a real voice outside of the city.

So what I miss is an institution like MNE that thinks authoritatively about the city and can project that outside of the city as well as the critical friend of a CLES. We have Marketing Birmingham which puts out a lot of good information but by its very name it doesn’t have sufficient credibility to do this job, to be accepted as  an authority as MNE is accepted. It is primarily a marketing organisation (and this is not an attack on their work).

Now this is both an external failing in terms of thought leadership but also crucially an internal lack because of the lack of informed debate. London has recently formed the Centre for London an independent think tank and they regularly put on discussions. So they have one coming up titled Where Next for London Local Government . This is important for London of course but it is also important for Birmingham and neighbouring authorities.

Now I must admit there are opportunities to hear the latest on policy development in Birmingham; so the new Urban Mobility plan is being launched later this year at a Big Infrastructure conference in the city, but that is largely PR, promotional and is not reflective. Or certainly not reflective enough.

What has improved with the labour administration is their attempt to be inclusive in setting up various Commissions; i.e. the Green Commission and the Smart City Commission but much of the work is out of site. I would say as well  that I don’t believe that these Commissions have been cross party. This city made huge strides with its internationally recognised Highbury conference that kick started the regeneration of the City. That cross party approach I fear has been lacking for sometime.

On a slight deviation – what is interesting in many Nordic states seats in Council cabinets reflect the % of votes of each party. This has a real advantage of keeping all parties in the picture and in the loop. So the trips of Cllr Huxtable to visit key High Speed stations in the rest of Europe were wasted because he is not involved. Likewise the exclusion of Cllr Bore during the Whitby years was even more wasteful for this city. So within the Council we have hours of dull process based meetings and the only debate that has seemingly surfaced in recent months is one on wheelie bins. Is this the most important issue of our day? I will leave you to answer this. So as an aside and not the main point of this post I would encourage the Council to be more cross partisan where possible but I would also encourage a new idea to be discussed. A think tank for Birmingham. Well it is not a new idea but its time may have come.

Now what would this look like. Well it would have to be independent of the Council and be non partisan; it would be really great if our Universities could work together on this; each chipping in expertise. The Council might second in staff and give work to it but crucially not steer its outcomes. This thinktank could

  1. Stimulate informed debate within the city
  2. Promote learning of best practice by politicians and policy makers
  3. To reflect on leadership both political, policy, and wider societal leadership in the city
  4. Research and put forward longer term visioning for the city – Lyon for instance has its views on what it will look like in 2050
  5. Hold conferences, webinars, etc on key issues
  6. Crucially analyse Government and EU policy with a view to decoding and responding to developments
  7. Become the trusted focus for informed debate and an authoritative voice for the city.

This is not a task the Council, Marketing Birmingham or the Universities individually are doing or can on their own do but together, with secondments, what would be a very small organisation could easily be set up. Whilst easy to establish it is very hard to create and maintain credibility. This would need to be lead by perhaps a key practically focussed academic or senior policy maker who has existing national credibility.

You may ask possibly two questions. Doesn’t the new digital era stimulate such debate i.e. can’t we rely on virtual debate and secondly why is this necessary at the time of severe cuts.

On the former I am digitally active and I receive much of my information by twitter (@globalbirminghm) and linkedin but I don’t feel there is a space for such considered debate about the city. There is for instance a debate currently on a forum called Restirred‘ about the A435 corridor in Birmingham; take a look – it is a mixture of information, rhetoric and ill informed judgements (and those are just my posts!). Now this type of  forum cannot be an  external voice for the city and there is something missing about its ability to debate issues; perhaps really importantly Councillors and Senior Officials don’t seem to engage with it. It does however show the range of expertise out there in the city and the range of deeply held views and any such Thinktank should really seek to engage this ‘crowd and other crowds’ in a constructive manner. In this way, in using the ‘crowd’ the Birmingham Thinktank could be stronger than either Manchester’s or London’s.

On the latter question I would suggest this is even more needed in the times of cuts. I was reflecting this morning on the seeming success of Manchester as Radio 4 is covering its Manchester International Festival in detail; why is that, well it is in my view the result of long term thoughtful reflection on the future of the city. I could go on to explain but that in reality is another post. In the times of economic slowdown we need that independent sounding board, that focus for debate to help coalesce a way forward and crucially to present the city outside the city in the thought leadership stakes. Otherwise we risk ill informed and ill focussed debate in the city and irrelevance in the outside world.

So what do you think?

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5 comments

  1. dancarins · · Reply

    I always think that Birmingham suffers in its proximity to London and simultaneous isolation from “the North”, as well as the strong cultural identity of its neighbours (Black Country, Solihull, even Sutton Coldfield), starving it of the necessary oxygen to grow and build critical mass. Perversely, because of its reputation for size (biggest LA in Europe etc), people may think that it can look after itself, when a 1m population hemmed in by distinct neighbours is actually laughably small in a global context.

    Another issue is that I think Birmingham spreads itself too thinly. It tries to do everything and ends up not getting recognition for anything much.

    Finally, and related to the last point, its very diversity means that anything it does do is instantly diluted between its own fractured identities of class and ethnicity. For some people “Birmingham” is Moseley, Edgbaston and Harborne. For others its Handsworth, Ladywood, Aston and Nechells. For others its Sparkbrook, Stechford and Washwood Heath – and there are many more. I think people tend to identify with those distinctive interpretations and communities first rather than unite behind a coherent idea and image of what “Birmingham” represents in a spirit of solidarity and a shared future. I’m sure Manchester suffers from the same issue, but its brand is far stronger to paper over those cracks.

    Solutions might be to work round the identity issue by sacrificing the Birmingham brand and focussing on the “West Midlands” (not perfect, still confused between the former Met County and the GOWM boundaries) – it’s clear from looking at a road and rail map that it’s a strong Functional Economic Geography in its own right.

    I have a hunch that the financial thumbscrews will force this on the LEP and LA landscape anyway.

    1. Dan,

      Sorry for not replying to your previous comment.

      On this comment I agree with your second point; we try to be every so there is Style Birmingham; Shop Birmingham, Digital Birmingham – I paraphrase and compare apples with lemons but there has been a lack of focus, a lack of strategy, a short termism in many spheres. This may be changing

      On your point about many communities; we need to build a cohesive hold; we need to build spaces where communities meet; so we celebrate our commonness. In my work in the creative sector recently I have been struck by how white the community I have been dealing largely is. This is a long term issue but policy makers need to create spaces that reflect our joint communities. May be a bit pie in the sky.

      On your first point about the separateness of Birmingham from Solihull, etc. I think this is down to leadership; it is bloody difficult but Manchester does just about manage it and I think the austerity cuts will drive Council’s towards working together but we need Councillors that are willing to collaborate across borders; to see leadership in a more complex environment as a challenge but also a big opportunity.

      Personally I think it would be foolish to revert to ‘West Midlands’. Outside the UK that means nothing. Birmingham and Stratford are probably the best known places in the Midlands. I think we let other areas keep their identity but we really try and encourage joint work. I was really heartened recently to discover that it is now possible on most days to catch a train back to Birmingham from Stratford after a show. This could be exploited; Birmingham working with Stratford could lure in more tourists. Perhaps people come for the German Market in Birmingham and then go for the day to Stratford to see its more English markets and catch a show. We need to join up! And by the way Birmingham is not the largest LA in Europe; not even in the UK – Kent is bigger; it is the largest Unitary authority in the UK but not in Europe – we need to bury that urban myth.

      best

      Patrick

  2. David · · Reply

    One obvious place for such a ‘rational policy debate’ should be – for economic and employment matters – sponsored by the LEP.

    I don’t hold out much hope though. There are too many interests locally who have grand projects and diverging policy perspectives. Let alone the dampening impact of Whitehall on anything they do not control.

    As local government shrinks, in function and budget, one wonders what our councillors will do? To my bewilderment one Labour councillor in Birmingham, Phil Davis, proposes a revival of the West Midlands County, sorry Assembly: http://www.thechamberlainfiles.com/lep-in-the-dark/9342

  3. Yes the LEP could do this and not only in the economic and employment spheres but also planning and transportation.. I agree with you the agendas particularly of the different politicians are far from coherent but perhaps by having such a thinktank/ such a centre these debates could be had in a non political space. I am sure this is what the private sector/University sector would favour I would dearly like a discussion about the pros and cons of for instance UK Central.

    Thanks for commenting

  4. […] reasoned argument for Greater Birmingham. This is a subject I am returning to as I blogged on this here. The Growth Commission report was supported by Manchester New Economy and you can see its […]

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