DevoConnect/City-REDI mayoral hustings: Innovation and Intervention – Igniting the Midlands Engine

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Last night @CityREDI hosted the latest in a series of @DevoConnect mayoral hustings at the University of Birmingham’s Business School, chaired by our very own Director, Professor Simon Collinson.

A well-attended, stimulating event with some excellent questions it presents an opportune point to reflect on the mayoral process so far and how candidates are shaping up. Having been to a number of these events it’s interesting to see the candidates grow and ideas taking shape, as well as reflect on their personal narrative.

The issues facing the region, are the issues facing the region, they don’t change with each candidate, skills deficits, housing shortages, transport infrastructure, industrial and employment change, green infrastructure, digital, cultural assets are the issues that whichever candidate wins in May will have to tackle. Therefore there is a danger that all candidates sound the same and at this point it’s important to reflect on that.

This consistency in the drivers of growth, leads to the criticism that place based economic strategies lack uniqueness. The real differentiators are often how a place defines itself, the assets it has to build on, the scale, relativity and priority of change. And that’s where candidates should provide differentiation. The real opportunity to change the future of the region lies in the mayor’s ability to make real choices and decisions on trade-offs, such as productivity versus employment. At the moment the candidates present a homogenous view and because of this it’s difficult to see how they will differ if elected and what route they will choose.

The candidates priorities will shape the future of the region, as will their approach, style and relationship with central government and local government. A lot of academic work has looked at the issue of local leadership and found that it’s pivotal to the success of a place (Beer & Clower, 2014; Sotarauta, 2016), that being the case the vote in May could change the direction of travel for the region for better or worse.

All candidates expressed their commitment to doing the best thing for the region, and there were some consistencies across this, but some real divisions are starting to show. Principally on the approach to investment in the region, Andy Street who represents the current government is facing the rest of the pack, in the sense of their argument is this government isn’t investing enough in the region, relative to other places and to investment in the past, and this brought the main challenge of the night. Many also see him as most able to convince the government to invest. This division provided the greatest tension in an otherwise harmonious set of candidates and certainly drew some of the more interesting tweets.

Reflecting on the work we have carried out supporting the development of various strategic economic plans, the solutions to economic issues are not always aligned to voter priorities; and candidates have a difficult balancing act to pull off. ‘Skills’ is a huge issue for economic growth, personal growth and inclusivity and the region lags woefully, but is this traditionally a priority for voters? Or do they look to mayors who can solve problems like housing, crime, transport?

None of the candidates touched on solutions that work, or how they will shape and develop their policies based on evidence once elected. With the wealth of expertise in the region and highly engaged academic community we have here, I would hope that universities continue to be drawn upon, not only as generators of economic growth and anchor institutions but for the knowledge they can bring to bear on developing strategies that work.

Whoever gets in power will have to balance the priorities of the people they represent (not just those that voted for them), evidence on mayors suggest they are less party relevant and more place relevant and successful ones represent and champion the people of the place regardless of political colour (see here for a report published by The Warwick Commission in 2012).

Therefore turnout could be the biggest challenge the mayor faces, whoever is elected needs a clear mandate and a majority to be able to really represent the region and implement their plans. Over the coming weeks I expect their rally call to firm up behind clear and differentiated priorities to give the voter a clear choice.

A Storify of the Tweets from the event can be found here

Follow us on @CityREDI @RileyResearch and @ProfSiCollinson

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