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Taking advantage

Patrick Burns | 11:03 UK time, Thursday, 27 May 2010

Derelict factory

Until this year it had been getting through an annual budget £300m of our taxpayers' money. But the "Age of Austerity" dawned even before the general election.

It's nearly £100m poorer this year and further cuts seem inevitable under the Government's £6.2bn public spending cuts announced earlier this week. And then what? There's now a genuine possibility it could be scrapped altogether. So what is it? And would we miss it?

Answer? It's the regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, set-up during the heyday of John Prescott's 'regionalisation' project during the early years of the New Labour Government.

Its brief was wide-ranging: to generate home-grown strategies aimed at delivering economic regeneration right across the giant West Midlands region, where the decline of the traditional manufacturing base has taken such a heavy toll.

And AWM can point to the regeneration of the sprawling site of the former MG Rover car plant at Longbridge, the redevelopment of New Street station and a host of smaller projects to show that they really have been worth the money, they've "made a difference".

But back to that question: "who'd miss it?" The question whether or not AWM commands public support could prove decisive to its survival prospects. Its democratic credentials, or the lack of them, have been questioned since the start.

In theory the West Midlands Regional Assembly, comprising 60 appointed local councillors, industrialists, trade unionists and academics gave some semblance of accountability, but it was itself wound-up under the previous Labour government.

Leaving AWM vulnerable to the charge levelled on last Sunday's Politics Show by James Morris MP (Conservative MP, Halesowen and Rowley Regis) that it was merely "the delivery arm of Central Government."

By now I'm sure you'll have realised the new Government is no great fan of anything that smack's of John Prescott's 'regionalisation' agenda. Already the Regional Spatial Strategy for up to 400,000 new homes has been scrapped. And ministers are now saying that for regional development agencies to survive, even in a limited form, they'll have to demonstrate, yes you guessed it, "public support"!

The Birmingham and Solihull Chamber of Commerce and Industry weighed-in saying that it would be "a recipe for chaos" to get rid of AWM; that delivering pan-regional economic regeneration strategies required something bigger than local authorities but closer to local communities than Whitehall.

But now Britain's biggest local authority, Birmingham City Council, are entering the fray. They've clearly been reading the small print attached to the Decentralisation and Localism Bill outlined in the Queen's Speech.

It all comes down, yes, to that question of 'public support'. If the council can show the force is with them, the Government would allow them to form a Local Enterprise Partnership with neighbouring local authorities. The LEP would then take over its area's share of the £200m handed out to the RDA. And Advantage West Midlands would be no more.

If AWM is indeed destined for the scrapheap, it will find the former Labour government's regional ministers already there...early casualties of the Government's 'anti-regionalisation agenda', perhaps? The last person to hold that job here was the Labour MP for Dudley North, Ian Austin.
He'll be joining me live in the Politics Show studio this Sunday on BBC One at the slightly earlier time of 11:00. Also with us will be the Conservative MP for Wyre Forest in Worcestershire, Mark Garnier.


In what's increasingly looking like a fight for "public support", let battle commence!


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