Developing a Team Midlands approach
To be successful internationally we must ditch the local rivalries and develop a Team Midlands approach.It’s with good reason that here in the Midlands, historically we’ve all loved local rivalries - Villa against The Blues, The Baggies versus the Wolves and most importantly the Rams versus Forest. For millions of football fans nothing matters more than beating your close neighbours and – notwithstanding the seasons when our local rivals are in different divisions – for decades these footballing contests have gripped the region.
While many of our local rivalries have existed for centuries it’s no wonder that these divisions have persisted for so long in Britain when you look at the political make-up of our country. As one of the world’s most centralised countries, for decades Britain’s metropolitan regions and our towns and cities have competed against each other for funding from Westminster.
Dominated by Birmingham as Britain’s second largest city, and politically divided between Labour and Conservative councils, historically the local authorities of the West Midlands had not co-operated well.
While the East Midlands has benefitted from having three similar-sized principal cities, Nottingham, Derby and Leicester have historically worked independently of each other rather than as a whole.
The formation of the West Midlands Combined Authority two years ago and the emergence of Andy Street as a highly-effective Mayor of the West Midlands has worked wonders for the region which can now boast of being Britain’s first 5G enabled area as well as winning the UK’s first regional housing deal, the UK’s first devolved skills deal, Birmingham playing host to the Commonwealth Games and Coventry being the UK City of Culture and becoming the heart of the country’s new high-speed rail network.
For years the regions had looked at the political stability and success of Greater Manchester as a benchmark but in a very short space of time the West Midlands has learned to replicate this success, boosted by the cross-party appeal of Andy Street.
However, when you look at the Midlands Engine region as a whole it’s clear that much more can be done to make not only the economies of the West Midlands and East Midlands more integrated but the wider region of Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire, and Shropshire.
Comparative regions in Europe such as the Randstad in the Netherlands, and Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr are around 30% more productive than the Midlands Engine.
When represented as a single metropolitan area, The Randstad an urban region made up of four cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht, is the third most economically powerful in Europe, after London and Paris, and fifth in the world for international business connections.
The gradual evolution and success of the region is underpinned by careful planning and long-term investment, which has resulted in the development of excellent transport connections between the four main cities which are closely intertwined economically and function more or less as a single city.
Over the past two decades several large-scale projects have played to this economic strength including the creation of a dedicated high-speed freight railway known as the Betuwelijn and the expansion of The Port of Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe.
The ultimate success of the Randstad comes from the fact that residents of the region themselves recognise the Randstad, as a distinct megalopolis entity in itself, a living project that's larger than the city.
As a region the Midlands Engine has the opportunity to be just as significant. The Midlands plays a hugely important role in UK PLC. Combined the Midlands economy generates £222 billion each year and is home to more than 460,000 SMEs and micro enterprises, two international airports, 25 universities providing high quality education to almost 500,000 students, and supported by a network of fifty Further Education colleges.
In addition, our region is home to more than 11.5 million people, almost a quarter (24%) of whom are under 20 years of age, offering a long term, sustainable workforce.
As across most of England one of our regions biggest challenges is east-west transport connectivity. Travelling from Birmingham to Nottingham by rail takes well over an hour for a journey of just over 50 miles while key roads like the M6, A38 and M69 are routinely congested, which significantly hinders our ambitions for the region to become one interconnected productive economy.
Midlands Connect will be key to solving this as for the first time we have an organisation in place to oversee transport provision, set objectives, plan ahead and make the business case for infrastructure investment across the entire region
Only by working across a wider regional scale can areas outside of London effectively identify their needs and promote themselves to international investors. The Northern Powerhouse has already had some success in this area and has effectively generated international recognition of the Northern Powerhouse brand, particularly in China.
However, in terms of presenting a united front to an international audience the Midlands already has experience of outflanking the Northern Powerhouse. Led by the Chairman of the Midlands Engine, Sir John Peace, the region came together to present a Midlands-wide delegation at MIPIM 2018 – featuring ten Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) areas and 49 private and public sector partners – showcasing more than £14billion worth of projects and investment sites.
However, if the Midlands Engine is truly going to take-off this kind of thinking needs to become embedded and the norm rather than a one-off.
The Scottish Government has done this very effectively by creating a ‘Team Scotland’ approach to the development of air services providing a single front door for international airlines to contact and for aviation partners seeking public sector insight and support.
As a region we need to build on this and create a “Team Midlands” mentality to business, planning and policy so we can build a truly, integrated megalopolis region which can compete on the world stage with the Randstad and Rhine-Ruhr.
Local rivalries are perfectly understandable given the historical context of Britain but competing against each other rather than working with each other has left our region stuck in the economic equivalent to The EFL Championship.
Moving forward let’s consign our local rivalries to the football field. While my office is headquartered in Birmingham and on a Saturday I’m a Rams fans, when I’m working my mindset has increasingly become: “ich bin ein Midlander.”
An abridged version of this article was originally published in the Municipal Journal.
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