Greater Birmingham: The Name is not the main Game

Greater BirminghamIn the wake of Evan Davies’s series ‘Mind the Gap‘ on London and its pre-eminence in the UK there has been much debate in Birmingham about the city particularly when yet again a poll carried out for the TV programme found that Manchester was viewed by many in the UK as the second city. There is a great blog post here on the fallout from the programme.  There are some people, like climate change deniers who basically say it isn’t true and Birmingham is great and how can it not be seen as the second city if not the first. There are others however, like me, who think that despite real advances and great plans it is easy to see Birmingham’s failings when compared to Manchester and other similar European cities. I am not going to turn this blog post into a list of negatives but want to look at one of the reasons why Manchester has stolen a march or perhaps putting it another way where Birmingham has missed a trick or two.

To me a key issue are the terms Greater Manchester and Greater Birmingham. One roles easily of the tongue; it is accepted and has been for many years; the other – Greater Birmingham will be new to many peoples’ ears but is starting to be accepted in these parts. So at MIPIM thankfully there is a Greater Birmingham stand and our politicians are starting to talk tentatively about a Combined Authority in 2 or 3 years time (another blog post here) – i.e.. local authorities joining together formally in key areas such as transport and economic development. This latter approach is long over due as acceptance of the name Greater Birmingham – is only the first step.

Why has Manchester stolen that march. Well to my mind it goes back almost to the dissolution of the monasteries; well the dissolution of the Metropolitan Counties; one of Margaret Thatcher’s small but destructive decisions. I remember writing a briefing note whilst on placement in Westminster City Council (as part of my Town Planning MA) analysing the proposed abolition of the GLC. It seemed bonkers then but thankfully for London it only took 24 years to reinvent a strategic framework covering London.  A decision that can arguably be put forward as one of the reasons for London’s success. As for Manchester and Birmingham the abolition of the Metropolitan Counties in 1986 marked a turning point. In Manchester the local authorities decided to work together and created a body called AGMA (Association of Greater Manchester Authorities) whereas in the area of the West Midlands County Council – some joint working continued but  there was no formal body set up to co-ordinate it. In retrospect a crucial mistake.  AGMA represented both political and officer thinking at a strategic level and whilst I am sure over the years it has had up and downs; it survived and formed the basis for current joint working.

In the last Labour Government the concept of City Regions came to the fore. Manchester because of it history of partnership working through AGMA – quickly adapted to this new opportunity. In fact it was the big cities  of Birmingham and Manchester through the Core Cities network that pushed the Government into legislation  in this area. So Manchester formally became a City Region via a Combined Authority in April 2011. This partnership working had been worthwhile.

What had Birmingham been up to in this time. As noted above the City Council recognised the benefits of joint working and with other Local authorities set up a voluntary partnership called the Birmingham, Coventry and Black Country City Region. It is interesting as a slight diversion to look at the 2007 business plan (here) It vision is redolent of many visions in this area; full of motherhood and apple pie but not worth the paper it was written on.

‘In 2020 the Birmingham, Coventry and Black Country City Region will have high levels of personal prosperity, business success and population growth equal to those in the South East of England with every individual realizing his or her full potential…’

Now we are five years away from 2020 and does anyone believe we will get any where near this.

What happened to this organisation? Well with the new Government and its introduction of the Local Enterprise Partnerships the City Region faded away – I think in 2011. So in Manchester the concept of LEPs was taken on board seemlessly; and interestingly enough, as for in London; it is not seen as the be all and end of all economic development; it is just one tool in the partnership panoply. In ‘Greater Birmingham the partners in the City region couldn’t agree to move into a LEP.  Coventry had long been a thorn in the advancement of the City Region and there was no way they would have come into a LEP with Birmingham. A real attempt was made by Birmingham to try to persuade the Black Country to join in a LEP. Why didn’t it succeed, perhaps because of political differences at the time but deep down there were other reasons. I would like briefly  to give my views on this failure.

Greater Manchester set up AGMA which was a focus for political and importantly officer discussion on cross boundary issues. Importantly in AGMA there was a team of local government officers employed to think about the whole. So in my mind whilst. partnership was a key element, thinking was developed around issues for Greater Manchester as a whole. I have seen this approach elsewhere. In France they have had numerous approaches to city region development and I have experienced the work of Lille Metropole under the Communauté Urbaine and similarly in Grand Lyon. All these bodies are cross local authority and critically involve political and officer arrangements. Arrangements that start of with thinking about the needs of the area as a whole first; with officers paid not to work in partnership but  to think of the whole place rather than individual authorities.

The Greater Birmingham City Region ( I cannot be bothered with the formal name – which in itself gave the game away)  was stymied by two aspects. Firstly political agreement was weak but secondly and most importantly the unit they set up was administrative and not policy driven. It co-ordinated partners, arranged meetings of officers and politicians but largely didn’t have a view itself. This is not a criticism of the officers involved but of those that set it up. So it was a ‘partnership’ body with little drive which often came up with lowest common denominator positions. Not what was needed.

Interestingly enough this type of approach has swung over into the LEP; a slimline policy light body administering partnership processes. The GBS LEP has therefore got itself into a few difficult positions already; one of which is the the whole hearted support for the UKCentral development proposals which have some great elements but is fundamentally flawed in others. But that is again another story.

The politicians are hopefully now coming round to the idea of establishing a Common Authority; as Manchester, Leeds and others have or are doing. It will be possibly five years after Manchester established theirs but it is a start; but what is needed to make it work.

Importantly the concept of a Combined Authority does mean a separate legal entity with a political structure and a formal body of staff. These arrangements needs to start in shadow form as soon as possible. There is action on establishing an Integrated Transport Authority – which I am not up to speed on – but this would need to be part of the same joint working. There are other actions that could be taken. There is quite a bit of joint working going on in Marketing Birmingham. This body could be renamed to take on board its existing work across the city region although perhaps this is not essential as Marketing Manchester covers the whole City Region.

One aspect that Manchester has done well is to develop thinking at the City Region level; formally as part of AGMA/GMCA – through strategy development but really importantly and at somewhat at an arms length through New Economy; a thinktank for Greater Manchester. The work of this agency in policy terms has been invaluable for making the case for Manchester in Whitehall and with opinion formers across the country.  Manchester in summary terms is seen in Whitehall to have prospects but Birmingham is seen to have problems. Now Marketing Birmingham in the shake out from the collapse of AWM and regional structures inherited the West Midlands Observatory but this is hidden away from view and has never performed the same role and perhaps could not, given where it sits. What is needed – as I have posted before here – is a similar thinktank to New Economy- partnership supported but ‘independent’ and credible to broadly but not uncritically make the case for Greater Birmingham. Unfortunately in these very tight financial times this may be unachievable. I would urge Local Authorities, Universities and other public agencies to strive to establish such a body. Greater Birmingham needs a brain!

So to summarise Greater Birmingham in name is not enough; we are behind Manchester because in part we didn’t put in place proper structures particularly at officer level and until there are people paid to think about and represent Greater Birmingham we will always be playing catch up in policy terms. When LEPs die there death it will be important to have in place such an arrangement. Manchester has and will brush it off without batting an eyelid. Birmingham needs to be in the same position.

So lets hope that for 2014 the big political issue in Birmingham is no longer wheelie bins (looking 20 years backwards) but is how do we get on with this exciting Greater Birmingham agenda to look 20 years forward.  FORWARD!

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One comment

  1. Jon Neale · · Reply

    Excellent article. You could add that this is nothing new. I was recently reading Roger Ward’s “City State and Nation”, ,on the politics of Birmingham 1840-1940 (mostly covering the Chamberlain era). He states in the introduction:

    “Another source of weakness of Birmingham as a regional capital was that it was never able to dominate the West Midlands region as Manchester dominated Lancashire. There was a distinct contrast of economic structure between Birmingham and the towns of what became know in the 19th century as the ‘Black Country’. While Birmingham distinguished itself as a centre of high-value, highly skilled trades such as jewellery, gun-making and button-making, the Black Country in general concentrated on the extractive industries and on the heavier and cruder end of metal manufacture. The fortunes of Birmingham and the Black Country towns did not always move in harmony, notably by the late 19th century, and Birmingham’s attempts to lead and to articulate the interests of the whole region were not infrequently unconvincing.”

    Asa Briggs made a similar comparison in Victorian Cities; he added that Manchester was “the business capital of a whole constellation of cotton towns” with which it shared much in culture. Most importantly, as the whole area was devoted to cotton, their economic fortunes moved together.

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