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.
[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.