I have just printed off Albert Bore’s Annual Policy statement (APS) for Birmingham City Council. This summarises achievements of the Council and lays out ambitions for the future year. I must say it is really very interesting and for anyone interested in the overall direction of the Council it is a must read. It could be presented better and it could be seen almost as a niche marketing tool but for urban policy analysts like myself it is fascinating.
If you want to see Albert’s speech introducing it in full Council recently it is worth looking at the video – this outlines his grasp of the huge challenges facing the Council but also how he seeks to respond).
I hope to do a summary of the economic aspect of it later as a detailed explanation and comment will help unpack it and point to one or two areas where the Council should do more but in this post I wanted to talk about the concept of governance of geographical areas. As a one time town planner and economist I have followed the debate and evolving practice involving local authorities working together to better the economic and planning outcomes for what is called in the trade functional urban (or economic) areas (FUA). Woa! what is one of those when it is at home. Well you take out the local authority boundaries and look at the economic links across areas, like commuting patterns, So Birmingham’s FUA – spreads out in some ways of measuring it, to Coventry in the East, Wolverhampton in the West, Worcester in the South and Stafford in the North. Importantly then you take it one step further and the theory is if you take decisions on key economic issues at such a level and not at an individual authority level you gain economic benefits. If you want to follow up some of the theory take a look at this practically focussed European report that Birmingham led on – it concluded that ‘the city-region (as a concept) is a critical driver for competitiveness and sustainability’
And what is interesting about this concept is that is is talked about in the APS. Albert Bore has long understood the theory; well he was an academic and he was, in his previous leadership period the instigator of work on what was called the Birmingham, Black Country and Coventry City Region. This was a partnership of local authorities committed to working together on economic and other issues. This 2007 business plan illustrates some of its work and has targets which almost certainly were not met. City Region working died down in 2010-11 as the concept of the Local Enterprise partnership (LEP) rose. Indeed many of the staff inside Birmingham City Council working on city region issues morphed into working on the LEP.
The APS talks about the different levels of Government envisaged and this diagram puts it succinctly.
This clearly shows the different levels of governance envisaged and could be drawn from the work on city regions in the 1990’s/2000’s. What is interesting is what is not mentioned and this indicates a new direction. In the whole document the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP is mentioned briefly only twice. In portraying the top tier as being city region it is indicating that Birmingham is not going to put all its eggs in the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP basket. Indeed on transportation it has been agreed that there will be much closer working together at a cross LEP level including the Black Country to oversee transport investment. This widening of focus was picked up in an article in the Birmingham Post by Neil Elkes (here) .
So whilst Albert is a seemingly enthusiastic supporter of the LEP he is indicating clearly it is not enough and Birmingham needs to work closely with the Black Country. Now it is a shame that the original City Region partnership didn’t work and as well it is a shame that the overtures made by Birmingham to the Black Country when the LEPs were established were ignored because it is ridiculous to keep on changing governance structures; it wastes time and resources. So Albert is keen to reinvigorate working with the Black Country and rightly so; so much of the two areas prosperity is inter linked. It is has been quoted and I don’t know the provenance but close city region working can add at least 1% to GVA for a FUA. Personally I think it would likely to be much higher. On reflection the joint working of the GBS LEP and the Black Country LEP, as advocated by Albert, is the closest to FUA perfection that Birmingham could possibly hope for as the metropolitan core is there but also the commuter belt around it is largely there. So what is clear is that the current LEP is only a half way house, theoretically and politically.
Perhaps with the political changes in Birmingham and the Black country that have taken place such joint working might be more realistic. This might point to an important issue. I raised the issue in a recent blog post as to whether the GBS LEP is a coherent partnership- strongly implying it had a long way to go. So perhaps Albert can see that it might be better and easier to expand joint working with the Black Country than solely to focus on the LEP (at local authority level).
It is important to note that because of this lack of joined up working ‘Greater Birmingham’ is again behind the curve in governance. Elsewhere the move from City Region to LEP was managed smoothly as coherent areas just morphed across from one to the other. Joint working in Manchester and Leeds is showing the way. Local Authorities are doing much more than ‘working together in partnership’ – they are creating combined authorities. These are bodies recognised in law, a law introduced by the previous Labour government. So de facto the Manchester authorities have in effect recreated a version of the Greater Manchester County Council and in Leeds and Sheffield they are treading similar grounds. This is what is not shown clearly in the diagram because currently it is not possible in Greater Birmingham (Albert himself rules this out in this article) to get to this level of joint working.
So Albert is probably not where he would like to be but it is right for him to press ahead with such joint working; it makes sense from an economic point of view but also increasingly with the devolving of budgets from Central Government they will I am sure will be looking at how well the local authorities are working together and those like Manchester, Leeds etc where there is a formal body undertaking this joint working will be rewarded with more powers and more resources. So this is a very important agenda for Birmingham and the West Midlands to tackle again and if we are not to lose out we really need to deepen and formalise such joint working.
Now I am not from the Birmingham and the West Midlands so I don’t fully understand why in ~Manchester and Leeds they can bury their differences (and believe me there are real differences) but here we cannot. Why they can see the economic writing on the wall and we largely do not, but Albert’s approach to pushing joint working must be right and hopefully others in other local authorities will start to realise what needs to happen. Perhaps there need to be a new push
- To explore the benefits of joint working
- To develop greater trust amongst partner authorities taking it away from the personal and political if possible
- To start to develop leadership and officer thinking at such a level
So perhaps it might be sensible to hold a Chatham House event where such initial discussions can take place; where the local authorities and business and other representatives and other spheres can get together, with a neutral chair, and see what can be achieved. There is a great prize if joint working can be deepened but it will involve compromise. It will need to recognise that not everything needs to happen in Birmingham, that the prosperity of the whole really lies in tackling some of the deeper issues in the Black Country, that Solihull and Coventry (yes I know this may be a bridge too far) are places of opportunity etc.
It would be a fascinating task to plan at this geographic level so lets hope that Albert is successful in this push. The current arrangements whilst being novel are neither sufficient economically or in the long term politically.