News and Comment

How can we make difficult regional decisions easier?

Wednesday 20 March 2013

It has to be a good thing to see more money made available for investment in growth at regional level. But a key challenge remains: how to come to a consensus in any given region on the best way to invest it.

Writing in the foreword to The Greater Birmingham Project: A Path to Local Growth report, former Tory minister Lord Heseltine notes how the regeneration of the London Docklands demonstrates the potential of a joined-up regional approach to growth. “In 1979” Michael Heseltine reminisces, “I looked out over 6,000 acres of derelict land in East London. I had no idea – and could not have had – of the remarkable things that were to happen there once the appropriate machinery was put in place.”

Regional growth is an ongoing preoccupation for the man who brought down Margaret Thatcher. In 2011 in conjunction with former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy, Heseltine produced a report on Liverpool intended to be a health check on the city’s economy. The report called for greater devolution of powers to Merseyside and advocated a new mayor who would represent not only the city’s 400,000 population, but the 1.5 million people in the wider city region.

Now, working with Greater Birmingham and Solihul Local Enterprise Partnership, Heseltine is making similar recommendation in the West Midlands. “Our vision is to re-establish Greater Birmingham’s role as the major driver of the UK economy outside London”, the report says. “Put frankly, the approach taken to unlocking economic growth over the past decade or so has not served our area well.”

The report recommends expanding Birmingham Airport and provides tips to capitalise on the massive potential of the M42 economic gateway. Its ambition is not a new one: encouraging economic growth outside of the South East that contributes to a rebalancing of the UK economy both regionally and sectorally.

The problem is, however, that the people of such a large and diverse region as ‘Greater Birmingham’ do not speak with one voice. The Greater Birmingham Project includes not just the city of Birmingham or the suburb of Solihul, but also the separate towns of Dudley, West Bromwich and Sutton Coldfield as well as much of the West Midlands and parts of East Staffordshire.

The desire may be to create a regional economy of scale, which warrants attention on a national level, but in so doing, the region ‘created’ could be seen as an artificial entity which rides roughshod over deeply engrained regional identities.

And yet big transport and other growth-oriented investments do need a regional answer. Extensions to motorways and airports can mean big advantages for one town and real drawbacks for its neighbours. The pros and cons must be weighed up in the interests of the region as a whole. The problem is that outside London there’s a distinct lack of established regional democratic infrastructure to aggregate diverse opinion on big distinctively regional issues.

The think tank IPPR has spoken out about the need for: a “Northern ‘Boris figure’” who would “‘speak with one voice’ on behalf of the North”, much like the Mayor of London represents the capital on a national level. Whether or not a Mayor of the North (or, straying into Game of Thrones territory, a Warden of the Midlands?) is the answer, surely the welcome infusion of growth funds into regional economies needs to be matched by an effort to boost democratic regional voice?