The West Midlands Forum for Growth? Well if I were you I wouldn’t start from here.

I attended the West Midlands Forum for Growth yesterday at Resorts World. It was the official conference of the West Midlands Combined Authority, and I was attending on one of two free tickets given to civil society bodies, as part of the group of civil society organisations aiming to have a voice in combined authority matters. Tickets in general cost somewhere in the low hundreds of pounds.

In Andy Street’s keynote address, he told us the WMCA would be judged on its performance on two issues: growth, and public services and the lives of citizens. He said that although we were performing well on the first, we were not delivering well on the second. He said that there was no purpose in economic growth[i] if does not deliver the improvements in the lives of citizens.

This was a really important and honest admission for our mayor to make, at the start of an event that harnessed one day’s worth of the thinking power of hundreds of people in positions of significant power and with years of experience. It should have been the start of a challenging and free-thinking discussion about how we would make sure this happened.

There was a general sense of positivity in the room – that the West Midlands authorities were now seriously collaborating and that the devolution deal, land use and investment policies being followed were going to lead to opportunities. I didn’t really share that sense: I was thinking about Andy’s statement and wanting to discuss how we could address this need and make the West Midlands’ agenda deliver prosperity that was shared fully across its people with public services that met their needs.

But that discussion did not happen. There was nothing really different or challenging. The solutions are to have the biggest site, the fastest train, the tallest building, the greatest growth – the illusory trickle down of machoeconomics.

What about exploring the inclusive prosperity potential to be gained from enabling small development on small sites, not just big development on big sites? What about increasing local ownership? Fostering local supply chains? Raising the lowest wages? A focus, as with our social care report with New Economics Foundation, on the ‘foundational economy’, of providing the things that we all need such as food, energy, care, education?

A discussion on ‘liveability’ towards the end covered many of the right things about wellbeing but didn’t really address how the growth agenda should achieve them. It was more as if liveability was something you did in order to create more growth, not something that growth needed to achieve.

Belatedly, I started to realise what this event was really for. The vast majority of attendance, alongside public sector people, were in roles relating to development: (architects, developers, project management). There was little input from voluntary sector or small business, let alone of course from active citizens. There was none of the cross-sector debate about how policy can make a real difference, as there was at regional conferences of the early noughties[ii]. I assume that all those present had an interest in being enthusiastic about the agenda in order to facilitate access to new developments in whatever capacity they were operating. While they might have cared about it, their role and expertise was not to help deliver policy, investment and practice that meet those public needs.

This, I guess, is fine. There probably SHOULD be an event (probably in a car-centric and unsustainable consumer-orientated venue[i], probably for a prohibitive fee) that brings such people together to create a positive buzz around the devolution agenda and to network about the business opportunities that will result.

But should that event be the official Combined Authority conference? Given the Combined Authority’s remit that Andy laid out, does its real conference need to bring in a wider range of perspectives, some experts in public services and local economics, in a vastly more participative format (I counted 4 questions from the audience in 6 hours) and perhaps not charge them £300 for doing so?

We’d be happy to support such a WMCA conference in 2018.

Karen Leach

[i] I cycled there and back. Alongside the asphyxiating fumes, the only way out as a cyclist was take the third exit off the M42/A45 roundabout in three lanes of motorway-hungry traffic. I am sure I lost one of my nine lives.

[i] Yes, we are aware of the the grim realities of the impacts of such growth on our future on a finite planet. Having gone many steps backward since the not-ideal era of Regional Development Agencies, we’re currently aeons from being able to debate this. Instead, we hope to enable policymakers to see that other objectives and measures are more critical, and that this will reduce the focus on, and eventually the impact of, such growth. We know that this won’t be in time to stop dangerous levels of climate change or the depletion of finite resources, but we have to start somewhere.

[ii] And no, I never thought I would be highlighting those as pinnacles of sustainability and social inclusion.

Are the region’s schools and hospitals sourcing food locally?

BBC Scotland made freedom of information requests to all 32 Scottish councils about the sourcing of food products bought last year.

Despite campaigns by the Scottish Government to buy local produce. Of the 28 authorities which responded, it was found £1.3 million was spent on chicken products from Thailand, more than £125,000 on carrots from Belgium, £125,000 on mashed potato from France and almost £12,000 on raspberries from Serbia.

scottish 2food        Read more about Scottish food here: http://www.taste-of-scotland.com/foodproducers.html

Farmers said they want to see more done by councils to source local produce and  the Scottish Greens first raised the issue of councils buying chicken from Thailand in 2013.The party’s health spokeswoman Alison Johnstone said:

“It’s disappointing that, three years on from our investigation, this remains a problem. Our economy is losing out. Government food policy remains too focused on exports rather than supporting local procurement. Councils need support so they can buy Scottish more often.”

A review of food and drink nutrition in schools is now under way. John Swinney, the education secretary, said that he wants school food to be “sourced as locally as possible” and has asked experts from Food Standards Scotland, NHS Health Scotland and Education Scotland where provision can be improved.

LWM is working with a number of partners to promote this agenda.  While the Carter Review of 2015 put obstacles in the way of localising NHS procurement, with its insistence on frameworks and catalogues, it recognised the value of locally sourced food.  County Hospital, Stafford was one of the first to gain a gold Food for Life Catering Mark, an initiative of the Soil Association recognised by NHS England.  This experience is being passed on through the West Midlands NHS Sustainability Network.

The fragmentation of the schools system means it’s less clear how many schools are following this approach, though many are growing their own salads and fruit as part of healthy eating projects.  In Smethwick, Victoria Park Academy has its own social enterprise, Ballot Street Spice, and it’s hoped they will sell their spice mixes at the Midland Met Hospital food market when it opens.  The Department for Education has recognised the Food for Life Catering Mark, and the government plan for Procurement cites it as a best practice tool.

 

 

Birmingham Newsroom: find it and buy it from local businesses to help the local economy

m-mahmood-small-at-rally-supporting-jcBirmingham Newsroom, Birmingham City Council’s online press office writes about Find it in Birmingham, the city council’s procurement portal where the goods and services the council needs to go about its business are bought, aiming to make sure the Birmingham pound is kept local. 

Councillor Majid Mahmood, cabinet member for value for money and efficiency, has talked about how the city council’s procurement portal is helping boost business and jobs in the city, alongside beneficiary Lightpower, who won a contract with Centro. See the short video here.

He adds that all evidence suggests buying from local small businesses will help the local economy, as local small companies are more likely to employ people locally and spend their earnings locally.

birmingham-pound-kl-hubThis is precisely the awareness expressed by Localise West Midlands (LWM) about helping to set up a ‘dedicated’ Birmingham Pound, which would encourage individuals and businesses to source goods and services within the city region.

Years ago LWM organised a conference exploring public procurement, funded by AWM and the Countryside Agency and attended by those involved in procurement, with representation from most of the region’s local authorities and various health and other statutory bodies (Click here).

Two reports were produced: a summary of local public procurement initiatives, and the report of the conference itself. Following discussions at the conference, a regional strategy group and regional practitioners’ group were set up. These are making progress on a range of procurement issues. LWM continues to contribute to these groups, noting that the WTO’s liberalisation agenda has been contributing to the loss of local and national control of purchasing, which has been keenly felt by those prioritising local public services above corporate profit. LWM added its voice to that of many organisations calling for national government to bring such concerns on procurement to the WTO negotiations.

That earlier initiative related to food procurement: the Birmingham Business Charter for Social Responsibility has a wider brief but is also about trying to keep investment local, by making sure that local businesses have the best chance to secure part of the £1bn of investment the Council spends every year on providing services.

There is also now a welcome emphasis on ‘putting the local back into house building’ and, as Councillor Tahir Ali said when the charter was launched, the city’s more diverse house building programme has large sites where the usual house builders offer the best economies of scale but it now also has an ‘emerging portfolio’ of smaller sites. In accordance with the charter, the council wants to enable small and medium enterprises to secure this type of work in the future. He ended:

“This has strong links to Find it in Birmingham which I hope you are all signed up to so that you can see the range of opportunities that are available to small and medium sized enterprises that are located here in the city”.

 

 

 

News from the Combined Authority AGM

The West Midlands Combined Authority intended to hold its inaugural AGM last Friday, 10 June, but a little local difficulty in the House of Commons meant that the legislation hadn’t been completed in time.  They went ahead with the planned business, intending to ratify it once the powers had been vested in them.

The meeting was held in Hall 4 at the ICC, around a huge table to accommodate the council leaders, chief execs, LEP and others.  There had been very little publicity for the event, but there were a number of interested people in the public seats.

Much of the agenda was formal acceptance of constitutional matters – the agenda and papers are here:

https://westmidlandscombinedauthority.org.uk/committee-papers/west-midlands-combined-authority-board/

Cllr Bob Sleigh from Solihull was elected chair and Cllr Pete Lowe from Dudley was vice-chair.

The reports pack does include the governance structure at p37, which is worth a look as it indicates the areas of future work. The portfolios were not allocated though: this was deferred/delayed to an unspecified future date.

There was an intervention from David Jamieson, the Police and Crime Commissioner about the powers of the mayor and the potential for the WMCA to veto the mayor’s decisions.  He felt he couldn’t support the transfer of police powers to the mayor on that basis.

The Strategic Economic Plan was not available in advance: despite being launched before the meeting, it was not handed out until the relevant item was reached on the agenda.  The online version is quite hard to find but this is the link:

https://westmidlandscombinedauthority.org.uk/about/strategic-economic-plan/

Some of the diagrams do require a measure of caution – see Ravi Subramanian’s take on one of them:

The idea was repeated that this was part of a nest or set of SEPs which incorporates the three LEP SEPs.  The versions shown for this were the 2014 ones, so no formal updating has yet taken place.

Martin Reeves, the “Head of Paid Service” and Chief Exec at Coventry CC, introducing the SEP, said that the dynamic economic impact model was the most exciting part of the strategy.

The Strategic Transport Plan was also presented – this was part of the papers circulated in advance, as above.   The chair of the transport delivery committee will be Cllr Richard Worrall from Walsall, but the decision on a vice-chair was deferred.

There were also updates from the three commissions:  Norman Lamb MP gave an interesting verbal update on the work of the Mental Health Commission.  While he did emphasise that their work was about reducing the cost of mental ill-health and addressing the impact on productivity, he talked about the West Midlands leading the way nationally and that it was not a one-off exercise but the start of a journey.  They have looked at the work of Thrive NYC, which is led by the Mayor of New York,and favour a similar concordat approach.  He also mentioned the criminal justice system and that they have identified that mental health treatment orders are not being used.  The full report from the commission will be launched in September, but there were no notes or slides from his update.

The Land Commission update really just identified that they are not under way yet.  The one which worried me was the Productivity and Skills Commission report.  Sarah Middleton, the chief executive of the Black Country Consortium, gave a brief report.  The chair of the commission would be announced shortly.  Desktop research had been done re mapping and research, and there would be a workshop on 4 July for regional and national experts to identify lines of enquiry. This would be business-led with support from the universities.    There seemed to be very little planned to involve local groups or to allow the voices of young people and seldom heard groups to be heard.  Nick Page, chief exec at Solihull MBC, seemed to be the lead on that, so organisations who feel they should be there should probably contact him.

Overall, it was difficult to tell if the less than inclusive approach was deliberate, or accidental given their timescales and resources.  We do need to keep reminding the Combined Authority that civil society expects them to make some of the effort to engage.

Karen McCarthy

Roundtable meeting: Shaping the Combined Authority’s economic agenda

We are organising a West Midlands Civil Society Forum roundtable meeting to discuss and influence how the Combined Authority’s economic agenda can best meet the needs of all communities and neighbourhoods. This will be on Thursday 9th June at 4pm in Birmingham. Venue to be confirmed. It is open to all interested civil society organisations in the area – although as a roundtable meeting there are limited places.

As background – we have been involved in establishing a West Midlands Civil Society Forum, to provide a voice for civil society into Combined Authority decision-making. We are at early stages – with positive noises from the Combined Authority about our role – and are seeking new organisational members. For more information and to join the wider Forum, click here.

Although still in embryonic form, the Forum is establishing working groups on issues that the Combined Authority will be addressing, and is aiming to engage as much of civil society as possible in these discussions. This roundtable is part of that process: as an immediate outcome its results will be summarised in a short statement and fed into the Combined Authority leadership to be taken into account in its decision-making. In the longer term we hope to establish an economics, training and development working group to continue engagement with the Combined Authority.

If you’re interested in attending, please email karen@localisewestmidlands.org.uk telling us what civil society organisation you represent and we will let you know if there are still spaces.

If you can’t make the meeting, but would like to contribute to our thinking, please send us an email with your thoughts and we will feed this in and keep you informed. And don’t forget you can join the wider forum as above.

Karen Leach (LWM) and Ted Ryan (RnR)

Bristol Pound – Birmingham Pound?

In March LWM’s co-ordinator reported the local interest in the potential of a Birmingham Pound – the Birmingham Mail following up one tweet about a first-stage meeting of a few potentially interested people. News of an increasingly well-developed scheme in Bristol gives an insight into the role of a local currency.

bristol poundThe Financial Times reported recently that theBristol poundis beginning to take root and ‘count’ in the local economy.

There are now about 1,200 members with Bristol pound accounts. Around 900 businesses in the city accept the currency including:

  • the local bus company which accepts Bristol pounds;
  • the council which accepts the local currency for council tax;
  • Good Energy, which takes the local currency as means of payment;
  • Yurt Lush, a Mongolian themed restaurant, which this month became the first business to pay its electricity bill using Bristol Pounds;
  • the council which will give staff who opt for this, all or part of their salary in Bristol pounds; George Ferguson, the mayor, is paid in the currency.

The Bristol Pound was launched in 2012 to support local business and reduce the environmental impact of long supply chains. There are notes of £1, £5, £10 and £20 denominations and someone opening an account with the Bristol Credit Union deposits sterling and is credited with an equal number of Bristol pounds. This money can be cashed, or drawn on electronically to pay bills online or via a mobile phone.

A case history from the FT:

bristol pound case history

The organisers say because the credit union is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, Bristol pound deposits will enjoy the same protection as an ordinary bank account.


Read the article here – free registration: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/4fe13c82-31e8-11e5-91ac-a5e17d9b4cff.html

 

Is the term ‘localism’ used by government to promote outcomes that contradict its original meaning?

james robertson headerA thoughtful appraisal of localism by Ekklesia’s staff writers was brought to our attention by James Robertson’s December newsletter. To read it in full click on this link.

A new research project, Localism Watch, examines the impact of the coalition government’s ‘localism’ initiatives, which they say have helped to privatise local services, weaken local government and force voluntary groups to pick up the pieces.

localism watch header

The editor, Laird Ryan (below left) has held several senior roles in government, academia and the voluntary sector. His findings: many local councillors, charity organisers, community groups and trades unions have a limited and confused idea of what new powers they have gained or lost from recent laws that supposedly promote localism:

“Officially, the Localism Act 2011 will “shift power from central government back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils”, through new community rights and planning powers” but, to date, few communities have successfully claimed them, due to complex and expensive bureaucracy.

laird ryan“True localism goes against the grain of Britain’s ruling culture”, argues Laird Ryan. “Whether left or right-leaning, national policies are more likely to benefit people at the centre than people at the grassroots.”

Language is being manipulated – using ‘localism’ to describe policies that centralise power and maximise corporate profits. One example supporting this assertion is the 2013 Growth and Infrastructure Act; though even its explanatory notes were not helpful to the writer.

Ekklesia’s staff writers say:

  • it curtails citizens’ rights to have a say in major planning proposals such as HS2 allows larger home extensions without planning consent
  • and permits drilling under property without the owners’ consent for fracking or oil extraction.

And several developments have confirmed Ryan’s summary: “Under Cameron, local communities can challenge councils to run public services, but they have lost their right to challenge proposals for nuclear proliferation, fracking or HS2”.

In the best farmers’ markets provenance is closely scrutinised

gerb gerbrandsGerb Gerbrands, who founded the flourishing farmers’ market with Clare Honeyfield (Made In Stroud shop) in 1999, wrote in the Stroud News and Journal about the difference between farmers’ market stallholders and those at ‘ordinary’ markets.

He receives applications from potential stall-holders a who are asked to fill in a form which states: “If products are made with bought-in ingredients, those ingredients must be from a local producer ‘wherever possible’ “. Gerbrands explains: This is to:

  • guarantee traceability,
  • reduce food miles
  • and bolster the local economy

stroud farmers marketAn application to sell meat pies was preceded by an email stating that their meat was bought as locally as possible and with full traceability – from Towers Thompson.

He searched on this name and saw that TT is an international meat and dairy group based in Avonmouth; all their other ingredients came from BAKO – whose lorries, Gerbrands points out, hurtle up and down the motorway supplying catering businesses around the country.

He ends: “Needless to say this application was turned down.

“To sell a product like pies at the market a business has to use butter produced locally, flour milled locally, vegetables grown locally and meat reared locally”.

 

 *

 

But even in Stroud, where local food procurement works so well, it can be threatened by the political hierarchy and market dogma – see Stroud District Council: serving or dictating?

By request, contact details added:

Cllr. John Marjoram, jmgreenstroud@gmail.com

Sue Smith, editor, Stroud News and Journal, sue.smith@gwent-wales.co.uk

 

 

Environmental, economic, social and ethical reasons for a different approach to waste disposal

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In this country and abroad Veolia’s services are being dispensed with for environmental, economic, social and ethical reasons.

The City Council is considering what to do when its 25 year contract with waste giant Veolia expires in 2018.

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John Newson (BFOE) writes:

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tyseley waste“The Council will become in 2018 the owner of the largest emitter in Birmingham of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide: People in East Birmingham have a shorter life expectancy by some years than other parts of the city and although this cannot be definitely linked to the incinerator, much evidence of the health effects of incineration have come to light, since it was built.

“We are calling upon Birmingham City Council to develop a new approach as “Birmingham Waste Savers”. The collection system creates the waste stream; it should be designed backwards to produce outputs that have value. The coming change from bags to bins gives a great opportunity to design for less rubbish and to collect wastes you actually want . . . (leaving)  clean materials that can be reused or recycled.

“The city’s 60% recycling target can be just a beginning, since there are authorities in Britain past 70% and aiming for 80%. A lot of second hand goods can be recovered by local projects and sold to low income families instead of being burned”.

A better use for the site is sketched in the article and might well include reuse shops seen in other parts of the region.

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Combining localisation, recycling and social enterprise, Localise West Midlands has worked on business plans for Birmingham ‘tip shops’.

 tip shop shakespeare hospice

These have already been developed at Warwick, run by Age Concern, Leamington, Sue Ryder, and Stratford, the Shakespeare Hospice  (above) – sited at municipal tips diverting decent goods for re-sale that would otherwise be landfilled. In so doing so, they save the local authority money and generate an income for the social enterprise that run them.

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Worldwide protests against Veolia are voiced locally by the West Midlands Palestine Solidarity Campaign

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This French multinational’s activities include:

  • helping to build and operate a tramway linking illegal settlements in East Jerusalem with Israel
  • operates bus services for Israeli settlers, running them between the illegal settlements and Israel on ‘apartheid’ roads, which Palestinians are forbidden to use.
  • its subsidiary, TMM, Veolia also collects refuse from illegal settlements at the Tovlan landfill site in the occupied Jordan Valley.
Tramway under construction in 2006
Tramway under construction in 2006

 

 

 

 

 

Are corporate ‘Big Fish’ swallowing opportunities for the city’s SMEs?

big fish little fishjpgSummarising Cllr. John Clancy’s message: West Midlands small and medium sized businesses believe they could provide services better than companies like Capita, Serco, Amey and G4, but are effectively locked out of negotiations for contracts which could engender vitality and activity in local economies.

These large companies are often the only ones that can afford the staff time and expense of tendering and many councils find their promises and sales pitches, not always fulfilled, deeply impressive.

Cllr Clancy advocates econodiversity:

fish organise“A range of business models, variegated in size, structure and purpose can enliven local economies and end the dead hand of economic and business monoculture . . . we should also be looking at econodiversity in terms of what kinds of local enterprises can be part of local provision of public bodies’ needs, along with our co-operatives and SME limited companies and partnerships.

“Our public and private economy needs to be rooted in its local enterprises, not in London-based, international capital, whether private or semi-private. And where such a big economic player as a Birmingham City Council has taxpayers’ and other money to inject into the local economy, it should stay in that local economy and not be spirited away into the economic pathways and streams of the Big Fishes, to God-knows-where. Such real diverse partnerships with local enterprises can be part of the solution to finding local, sustainable economic growth and jobs, especially in such straitened economic times.

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“It’s high time that the SME lock-out came to an end. Local economies and their SMEs are suffering and are in real need of an economic boost. It must be to local SMEs that local councils turn first to provide.”

 

To read the whole article, with references to Service Birmingham and Amey, top-slicing and flat-lining, go to the Post: http://www.birminghampost.net/birmingham-business/business-comment/2013/01/04/john-clancy-the-big-fish-gobble-up-contracts-for-local-services-65233-32540415/#ixzz2H8D9Ww7C