Lunar Chairman reflects on Andy Street’s speech

Andy Street, Managing Director of John Lewis and Chairman of the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) spoke to an audience of around 160 Lunar Society members and guests.  In this article, Lunar Society Chairman Alan Wenban-Smith aims to put his address in context and to pick up on issues for the Society to consider.

Looking back

When he spoke to the Lunar Society in July 2012, Andy Street had only recently taken on Chairmanship of the LEP, and had spoken in terms of future prospects (‘what ifs’).  Much of what he said then was about the need for Birmingham to be less defensive, to capitalise on its strengths, and to be ‘bold and daring’ to take advantage of the opportunities on offer.  The needs he particularly stressed then were:

  • For plans, delivery and branding to go hand in hand: a coherent economic strategy, made credible by real delivery capability, and then effectively communicated.
  • For greater engagement between business and training providers, to put right the strategic deficit of an underskilled labour force, because talent attracts capital, not the reverse.
  • For leadership that generates future success stories (like JLR) by engaging with technological and market challenges.

Now, four years down the track, we should celebrate a great deal of solid achievement, such as:

  • The opening of Grand Central – a good news story of national significance, which had nevertheless required prodding to get national media coverage. This signals a renaissance after the long decline from income equality with London in the 1960s to being one of the laggard regions.
  • After 30 years of relative economic underperformance, Birmingham now has a trade surplus and is the fastest growing major city in the UK.
  • Tourism has become the fastest growing sector in the city-region, with 40,000 more private sector jobs and more start-ups.

Looking forward

More remains to be done.  The LEP itself only has 20 staff, and it is private investment-led, not public subsidy-led.  The ‘Greater Birmingham’ geography is right in economic planning terms, and the collaborative public/private leadership has ensured that there is one coherent strategy across the area.  This is giving Whitehall new confidence to begin to favour us in bigger ‘Growth Deals’ than many competing areas.

This will be particularly critical to securing the complementary actions necessary to maximise the benefit of HS2.  Failure here would cause Government to lose confidence in our ability to deliver.  With unemployment in East Birmingham standing at around 30,000 this would be very serious.

Leeds and Manchester were beneficiaries of the showcasing of investment opportunities to the Chinese Leader, while Birmingham got nothing.  Birmingham must be seen as a key contributor to the ‘Midlands Engine’ (a combination of East and West Midlands), so as to match the scale and ambition of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

Andy Street’s parting comment was that lasting success is not just about having a plan, but about people continuing to make supportive decisions day by day.  We need to attract people with our quality of life, and provide the context for decision-making to bear fruit, to ensure that recent progress is not just a flash in the pan.

Issues for the Lunar Society

The discussion following Andy Street’s address demonstrated that he had struck a positive chord with his listeners.  However, events are moving on at pace, and there are issues where the Lunar Society may play a useful role as a politically-neutral forum:

  • Local governance – competing models: from the ‘devoManc’ model of a Combined Authority covering the wider City-Region to the dissolution of Birmingham City Council into 10 Parliamentary Constituency based Districts.
  • The difference between devolution (a genuine transfer of power, constitutionally enshrined, as in many continental countries) and delegation (transfer with strings, retaining ultimate Whitehall control, such as appears to be the case with ‘devoManc’).
  • Ensuring local accountability in whichever model of ‘localisation’, both to businesses and to local people. A recent Centre for Cities study has shown that most businesses feel excluded from this discussion, and political disengagement, particularly amongst young people has been a worry for several year.

Members’ ideas about speakers who could engage on these, or other relevant issues, would be most welcome.