The Resolution Foundation held their event – ‘A Broken Heart? The living standards challenge facing the West Midlands’ – on the 12th December to explore the unique policy challenges facing the West Midlands and the opportunity the new Metro Mayor will face next year in responding to these and driving a new era of inclusive growth and prosperity in the region. City-REDI’s Prof Simon Collinson provided an academic contribution to the panel as one of the key speakers at the event.
Here City-REDI’s Charlotte Hoole provides a summary of the key points from the day.
The first panellist, Conor D’Arcy, Policy Analyst at the Resolution Foundation, presented the key findings of the Resolution Foundation’s new report just launched which presents a fresh analysis of the West Midlands’ economy and living standards. Following this Conor set out three main priorities for the region – 1) supporting disadvantaged groups into employment, 2) ensuring a ‘jobs rich’ industrial strategy, and 3) tapping into the WMCA’s large but transient student population. These provided much food for thought and an ideal introduction to the debate for then each prospective Metro Mayor candidate to respond and share their own concerns and ambitions for the region.
Andy Street, Conservative candidate for West Midlands Mayor, spoke of the region’s long-term economic challenges but painted a largely positive picture that had been building momentum recently and that was leading the way for us going into the future. Andy claimed that increasing productivity was going to be vital for growth, and stressed the need for a regional focus on infrastructure investment, growth in high skill sectors, innovation, and reduced youth unemployment.
Siôn Simon, MEP for the West Midlands and Labour candidate for West Midlands Mayor, spoke with conviction about the need for “real devolution”, a devolution that we shape for ourselves by “taking back control”. Siôn also stressed the need to better integrate social policy and economic policy via an agenda that had people at the heart of what was trying to be achieved.
Beverley Nielsen, former regional CBI director and Liberal Democrat candidate for West Midlands Mayor, claimed that devolution was about us “having our fair share”. She also claimed that our success needs to be self-driven and homemade. Beverley’s key priorities included tackling the housing shortage via a sustainable approach, making the most of our sectoral strengths in manufacturing, and the need to provide more for our young people and retain our young talent.
Simon Collinson, Director of the City-Region Economic Development Institute, University of Birmingham, provided the closing statement. Simon made three observations about the Resolution Foundation report and the Mayoral candidates’ presentations.
- We need to develop a better understanding of the interconnected nature of our regional economic system. Employment is linked to skills and housing, which are the two biggest constraints to economic growth. An improved transport infrastructure helps connect skilled employees to available jobs and an improved innovation infrastructure helps commercialise the outputs from our science, technology and engineering investments. In combination this raises productivity, incomes and wellbeing.
- There are some inconvenient truths for policymakers regarding specific policy trade-offs. For example, aiming solely for higher productivity and GVA targets will work against full employment. (At the firm level – sacking the least-productive part of your workforce automatically improves productivity. The same is true at the national level; if you remove lower skilled people from the workforce average productivity goes up. But this is not inclusive growth. It places a greater burden on welfare services and worsens national income and wellbeing inequalities).
There needs to be more robust analysis of these trade-offs and a more honest dialogue with the general public about these difficult choices.
- There is a need to better understand regional firms and their current and future potential to contribute to inclusive growth. This is particularly true at a time when public sector resources are very limited and politicians are prone to exaggerate their power to solve these difficult social and economic problems. Firms are employers, innovators and wealth-creators and can be good wealth distributors – with the right incentives. But an industrial strategy will not operate at the national or regional levels without a better public-private partnership than we currently have.