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Archives for September 2010

Another 'second city first' as the Tories come to town

Patrick Burns | 12:50 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010

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'Made in Birmingham': once the proud boast of this "city of a thousand trades". But these days it's more likely to call itself the city of a thousand restaurants.

Because the city has responded to the decline of its traditional manufacturing base by reinventing itself as a top international meeting place. The growth of "conferencing and events", as the marketing people call it, has been conspicuously successful.

So the arrival of the Conservatives for their 2010 annual conference represents a confirmation of the city's status and an historic political milestone.

For the first time, Birmingham is hosting the conference of Britain's party of government: (or at least the senior partner of the two!) And also for the first time, David Cameron is addressing his party as Prime Minister after their 13 long years in Opposition.

No wonder the city's hotels have been fully booked for weeks. With some 14,000 delegates and 2,000 more of us media types, this event is on a truly epic scale. In addition to the formal business in the conference hall itself, there are no fewer than 450 fringe events in the surrounding hotels and restaurants.

Politics will be all the buzz in the cafes and bars of Broad Street, the heart of Birmingham's 'entertainment mile'.

When the Tories were last here two years ago, Marketing Birmingham say it had an "economic impact" of £28m. There are confident predictions that this figure will be surpassed this time, now that the era of the 'new politics' has dawned.

Ah yes: Politics! The Coalition!

Quite coincidentally the Conservatives are meeting in a city whose own Con-Lib Dem coalition has been in charge of Europe's biggest local authority for six years. The two parties have learnt the art of working together, campaigning apart, and then working together again.

A model example, you may think, for the new regime at Westminster. And of course David Cameron is being feted all week by Birmingham's flamboyant Conservative council leader Mike Whitby. But it doesn't follow that everything is quite such sweetness and light behind the scenes.

In my blog of June 1, I explained their deep disagreement over the Government's determination to bounce 20 major cities, including Birmingham, into electing their own executive mayors, whether they want them or not.

Mike Whitby has been an inveterate opponent of the idea for years. But that hasn't stopped the Prime Minister (and the Sutton Coldfield MP and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell) from publicly endorsing him for just such a role.

And then of course, there is next month's Comprehensive Spending Review. After reports that the Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has signed up to cuts to local government spending of no less than 33% over four years, it is likely that Birmingham, with its £4 billion a year budget, would be in line to take the biggest hit of all.

Another Cabinet minister to have agreed their department's share of the spending cuts is the Environment Secretary and Meriden MP Caroline Spelman. And her reward? A seat on the so-called Star Chamber, as one of the 'enforcers' who must make sure all the spending departments are brought into line by the time George Osborne make is announcement on 20th October.

As one former senior civil servant told me recently: "this will be the moment when all those spreadsheets right across Whitehall start becoming grim reality in your city, your town, your village, your parish".

And of course we have more from the parish pump of British politics on this throughout this hectic conference week on Midlands Today, on your BBC local radio station and online, beginning of course with the Politics Show, live from the International Convention Centre at 12 o'clock on Sunday.

Will new leader be New Labour?

Patrick Burns | 12:24 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010

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Labour's Midlands activists in Manchester for their party conference (26th-30th September) are buoyed up by recent defections to their ranks; first, the Sandwell councillor, Elaine Costigan, from the Conservatives followed by the Solihull councillor Simon Slater, from the Liberal Democrats. Since both cite the government's public spending cuts as the reason for their decision to desert their former parties, Labour strategists stand ready to turn this trickle of disillusionment within the coalition partners into a raging torrent, especially now that Her Majesty's Opposition now has a new and exciting leader waiting with open arms.

Get the idea?

This is how Labour's tacticians hope the script will develop over the next few weeks as the conference season leads inexorably towards next month's Comprehensive Spending Review (Wednesday 20th October).

The reality may be just a little more challenging. Extending the leadership election campaign over four months until the very eve of conference undoubtedly has the attraction of giving the party something positive to cheer about instead of simply licking its wounds during the first autumn get-together since the general election.

But it also means that the victor must hit the ground running flat out to contrive a major speech on conference Tuesday with barely four weeks to go to that spending review announcement.

Labour's more bullish optimists will tell you they need to be ready for a snap election at any time, in the sure and certain knowledge that the coalition will collapse in a heap. But other, more battle-hardened foot soldiers have no illusions that the reality on the ground may be rather more challenging.

If the country as a whole had voted the way of the Midlands on May 6th, David Cameron would have an overall majority. Labour's contingent of MPs from the region was almost halved, from 40 to 24.

Politically, too, the argument may not be quite as clear-cut as the more ambitious Labour scriptwriters would hope. You know the narrative: Conservatives and Liberal Democrats fall-out among and between each other as the scale of the cuts unfolds before an angry electorate. It's only a matter of time, surely.

But remember, it was the Birmingham Hodge Hill MP Liam Byrne who left that billet doux for his successor as Treasury Chief Secretary: "no money left." Many a true word.....

And over the coming weeks there'll be no shortage of reminders from Conservative and Liberal Democrat partners. A foretaste came when Lorely Burt MP (Lib Dem, Solihull) told us how "disappointed" she was that the aforementioned Cllr Slater had abandoned the Lib Dems in favour of "the Labour Party which got us into this mess in the first place."

One thing all five leadership contenders agree on is that this is where the party makes a clear break from 'the Blair-Brown years'.

The latter undoubtedly managed to limit the damage at the election by reverting to something akin to a 'core vote' strategy, leading to inevitable speculation during the subsequent leadership contest as to whether or not this was the end of New Labour.

Experience suggests that what people say during leadership elections, and what they actually do once they've won them, are not always one and the same thing!

It is axiomatic that Labour will have to find ways of re-engaging those middle-class voters in "swing regions" like ours, especially those in the 16 constituencies which deserted them this time. (During the New Labour heyday we used idle away the hours wondering if 'Middle England' was about geography as well as psephology!)

So, no shortage of talking points to keep us busy throughout the conference on Midlands Today, on local radio and on-line.

And of course on the Politics Show, live from the conferences (Sunday, BBC One, 11am).



Lib Dems head north as polls head south

Patrick Burns | 11:36 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

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There may be plenty of reasons to look forward to a trip to the city that gave us Beatlemania, Bill Shankly and Brookside.

But for Midlands Liberal Democrats the party's annual Autumn get-together in Liverpool (18th-22nd September) may not seem like one of them.

Since going into coalition with the Conservatives, their opinion poll ratings have plunged to as low as 12% as they share the blame for public sector cuts which would have been anathema to most Lib Dems before this year.

They've certainly proved too much for one Solihull councillor to swallow. On the eve of the Liberal Democrat conference, Simon Slater defected from to Labour from the Lib Dems accusing Nick Clegg of "betraying everything he said he believed in and everyone who voted for him. The national Liberal Democrat leadership seem more interested in securing top jobs with their new Tory friends in government than in any principle."

And remember, Nick Clegg ran into trouble with sections of his party during last year's conference when he spoke about the need for "drastic cuts".

But now, the 'Age of Austerity' is openly acknowledged. The chair of the Liberal Democrats in Parliament, the Solihull MP, Lorely Burt, wastes no time in assuring us "we're in this for the long haul", venting her fury at Labour "who've left us to clear up this mess".

Comments like these carry the clear expectation that they are prepared soldier on for a full five years to get on top of the deficit while at the same time conjuring renewed economic growth.

And it's worth remembering that the coalition agreement was overwhelmingly backed by party members when they met at the National Exhibition Centre near Birmingham the weekend after Nick Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister.

But will it really last?

The evidence of Birmingham's "Progressive Partnership" suggests it could. It's somehow contrived to hang together for six years now, ever since the then leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the city council, John Hemming, now the MP for Birmingham Yardley, saw his chance to form an alliance with the Conservatives to overthrow the former ruling Labour group.

His successor as Lib Dem leader is Cllr Paul Tilsley, the 'Nick Clegg' to the 'David Cameron' of the council's Conservative leader Mike Whitby. Cllr Tilsley has carved out for himself what many would have seen as an unlikely reputation for himself as a Liberal Democrat 'hard man', even if it does sound like a contradiction in terms!

The partnership has survived foul weather as well as fair: last Spring they agreed £60 million of budget cuts and 2,000 job cuts and now the two parties are working together on yet another round of savings as the cuts required in next month's Comprehensive Spending Review come into view.

And yes, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats do still function as separate parties during elections. They've shown it is possible to knock seven bells out of one another during campaign periods, only to resume the painstaking business of running the council once all the unpleasantness is over.

With Labour no longer the largest single party on the council, the signs are this municipal 'double act' may yet persist for years to come.

But this has generally had more to do with the electoral advances made by their Tory senior partners. The Liberal Democrats remain the Midlands' perennial under-achievers. Granted, we were not the only area where the much-vaunted 'Clegg Effect' failed to produce any great 'surge' in last May's General Election.

The party's 23.6% share of the UK vote was a disappointment to them, but their performance here in the West Midlands was even further below par: just 20.5%, a full 3% lower.

The tally of West Midlands Liberal Democrats MPs fell from 4 in the last Parliament to just three, in a region with more than 60 constituencies. Less than a year earlier, Liz Lynne had scraped home in the sixth and final seat in the European Parliament behind two Conservatives, one Labour and two UKIP MEPs.

So what hope is there now that they are helping the Tories to carry the can during the Age of Austerity? With another tough budget expected next March, and the referendum on electoral reform on the same day as potentially bruising council elections, what possible reason is their for Liberal Democrats to resist the temptation to go to Liverpool's famously regenerated docks and jump ship, especially with growing speculation that the AV Referendum may not deliver significant progress towards their cherished vision of Proportional Representation?

One answer sounds more like a counsel of despair than a recipe for survival. The lower the Liberal Democrats sink in the polls, the more beguiling may seem the message from their Conservative partners that the coalition is not a sinking ship but a lifeboat. The key question is whether or not that will be good enough to stop Liberal Democrat activists wondering when may be the best time to jump.

This Sunday's Politics Show will be reporting live from the Liberal Democrat Party Conference, starting at the later time of 2.25pm on BBC One following coverage of the Great North Run.

Spending Review: The Midlands Today Debate

Patrick Burns | 12:47 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010

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Its effects are being felt by every single one of us. And yet the language used in the debate over the government's plans for deficit reduction in general and public sector cuts in particular so often sound like some sort of 'ivory tower' deliberations for academics and Treasury or town hall mandarins.

That's why we're making sure the story hits home this week with a our own dedicated strand of output on local radio, online and television: at its centrepiece, the Midlands Today debate on Thursday evening (BBC One, 2235) after the BBC News at Ten and regional news.

Research commissioned by the BBC and conducted by Experian right across our region's 33 local authority areas suggests parts of the West Midlands are among the worst-equipped in England to cope with this current austerity drive.

The number-crunchers have produced a "Resilience Index" which suggests Stoke-on-Trent and Sandwell are bottom and next-to-bottom, respectively, of this most unwelcome league table. Wolverhampton is rock bottom in Great Britain in terms of the qualifications "achieved" (if that's the right word) by the local workforce.

Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham (one-time chief of the CBI and as a Trade Minister a former GOAT in Gordon Brown's government) has often been scathing about the under-qualified workforce presenting itself to the job market after so many years of compulsory state education to age 18.

In this week's programme he calls for 14 year olds who lose interest in school to be made to join apprenticeship schemes. He also talks gloomily about what he sees as "the lack of the civic leadership" needed to take our region back to prosperity. And he wants the minimum wage to be lifted well above maximum benefit entitlements to help make sure work pays.

For the full story, go to bbc.co.uk/spending review. Plus each of our BBC Local sites has its own take on the scene in its patch.

At the end of the debate, staged appropriately or otherwise in 'The Public' arts centre in Sandwell, presenter Nick Owen invites me to sum-up the proceedings. I agree with the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Rev David Uquhart, that it's a "painful" conversation: Dot, a pensioner tells us it's "not so much a case of living with the cuts as dying with them". Richard, a young graduate with a first class honours degree has so little success finding a job that in the end he starts up his own business. Bob, who has cerebral palsy, fears the cuts to public services he depends on may leave him, as Nick put it, "a prisoner in his own home". The conversation reveals there is no great dividing curtain between the public and private sectors: private firms sell their goods and services to public bodies now feeling the squeeze. "Rebalancing the economy" and "deficit reduction" may sound like impersonal abstractions. But the Government is setting itself the challenge of delivering them in a way which distinguishes between the "must have" sevices, and the merely "nice to haves". This is the main topic of converstation for millions of people like Dot and Bob. My final thought is that this conversation is merely the start: as Nick Clegg says, it's not as if the Sword of Damocles is about to descend with the Comprehensive Spending Review in six weeks' time. Our debate in West Bromwich is defining the terms which will shape our individual fortunes as much as our political arguments for years to come.

So I decide to conduct my own more personal research project.

I understand why Stoke-on-Trent is reckoned to be the least resilient part of the Midlands: when I began reporting on the Midlands' industrial and economic fortunes 30 years ago the city had three great 'powerhouse' industries: iron and steel (now gone completely), deep mined coal (ditto) and the Potteries industry which in its heyday provided work for 30,000 people. Today the figure is under 6,000.

During the '80s I made myself quite unpopular in Stoke by telling Midlands Today viewers that the Potteries were paying a very heavy price for their general failure to innovate sufficiently, to update their products and their working practices in order to keep pace with the international competition and with changing tastes and fashions.

It has given me no satisfaction whatsoever to be proved broadly right.

I arrive in Stoke fearing the worst. And sure enough, the disused and now-neglected bottle kilns stand as melancholy testimony to a dreadful haemorrhaging of jobs over the past quarter-century.

But just when I'm about to give up and go home in despair I chance upon the Emma Bridgewater pottery, where over that same 25 years the workforce has risen from just 12 to 225. Annual turnover has doubled to £11m over the past 3 years.

Why have they succeeded where so many others have conspicuously failed?

Emma's husband Matthew Rice, himself a co-owner and director of the business tells me that he and Emma design "from the heart". Hand-crafted, quality ceramics can be traditional and elegant; but they can also be 'cool'. Fun, even!

Matthew says too many others in the industry have been "insular, top-down, too ready to tell their customers what to buy rather than listen to what they really want".

No one's suggesting there's a quick fix. But clearly it is possible for a business to prosper even in an industry that's generally struggling and in an area that's at the bottom end of the social, economic and educational pile.

A similar picture emerges in Coventry. Over the years I have witnessed the once-prosperous home of the British motor industry decline to become a mere shadow of its former self. No wonder Coventry now finds itself in the bottom third of our resilience table. But here again I discover a business which is keeping the flag flying: even in what remains of the automotive sector.

Again it's a distinctive, quality product engineered for what can only be described as a niche market. LTI is the home of the traditional taxi cab and currently boasts an annual turnover of over £70m. Some 232 people work here, but so to do a similar number in their new joint venture in... yes you guessed it... China!

I put it to LTI's chief executive John Russell (who is also the chair of the West Midlands CBI) that he's been able to survive "only by getting into bed with the Chinese!". He doesn't flinch. "Absolutely" he replies.

"We produce in relatively low volumes so we can't afford to spend all the money on the platform and the systems. We had to get a partner with the technical resources we needed."

The Government is hoping economic successes like these, especially in areas of greatest deprivation, will help deliver the jobs and the business opportunities to offset the effects of its own public sector cuts.

I arrive in Sandwell to see what all this "deficit reduction" means for an area ranked next-to-bottom of the region's resilience index. The council's Labour leader Cllr Darren Cooper invites me to the Windmill Lane area where there's clear evidence of regeneration projects funded while his party was in Government.

But one final area of waste ground remains.

Cllr Cooper tells me: "We were able to acquire the site in partnership with the Primary Care Trust with a view to building a medical centre here. Of course with the cuts that's not now going ahead."

Cllr Cooper's frustration reveals the essential challenge to the Government from its political opponents. The coalition will have to deliver workable growth strategies in the Stokes, Sandwells and Coventrys of this world if it is to avoid a chorus of "I told you so's" from Labour politicians who've opposed the extent and pace of the cuts, and in some cases even questioned whether they're necessary at all.

A general failure to deliver the growth required to cushion the jolts of the coming months and years would also expose ministers to the charge levelled recently by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that their economic policies will hit the worst-off the hardest.

Green Party begin Midlands conference season

Patrick Burns | 10:06 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010

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The first of the party conferences this weekend heralds the return of The Politics Show (Sunday, 1100, BBC One).
Here in the Midlands our outside broadcast cameras will bring live coverage of the Green Party conference in Birmingham: it's the first of two party conferences to be held in the city because three weeks later the Conservatives will be at the International Convention Centre for their first autumn get-together while in government for 14 years.

Back to this week. My colleague Susana Mendonça will be joined live by the Green Party leader Caroline Lucas MP (Brighton Pavilion) at their conference in Birmingham's Conservatoire concert hall.

They face a significant challenge this year. The colour inside the hall may be Green enough, but the surrounding region's political landscape looks more like stony ground.

They have no MPs nor MEPs in the Midlands at all, and just three councillors; one each in Herefordshire, Solihull and in Malvern Hills where they're part of a Liberal Democrat/Green/Independent grouping on a council which until three years ago they controlled in partnership with the Liberal Democrats.

Their subsequent annihilation in the local elections leaves the party with an electoral mountain to climb every bit as steep as those famous green hills.

So we'll be asking Caroline Lucas what she plans to do about all this. Does the current economic situation focus people's minds on urgent bread-and-butter challenges at the expense of what may seem like less pressing environmental considerations? 'Going Green' can often have a price tag attached, so do increasing numbers of voters feel they simply can't afford to have a conscience?

Also this week, our region's 33 local authorities have finally confirmed their Local Enterprise Partnerships. The LEPs represent the Coalition Government's Big Idea for delivering home-grown strategies for economic regeneration in a world without regional development agencies.

The likes of the £300 million-a-year Advantage West Midlands are being wound-up as part of the government's drive to get rid of what they see as the "top down" thinking of the previous government and replace it with something more rooted in local communities and more accountable to them.

The Communities Secretary Eric Pickles promises a White Paper next month setting out the Government's proposals for "sub-national economic growth", which they see as a key element in the strategy to rebalance the economy with new jobs and business opportunities to help offset the effects of their own public sector cuts.

So the partnerships agreed this week represent no more than a start. Here's the roll call of who's in bed with whom.:

LOCAL ENTERPRISE PARTNERSHIPS
West Midlands (comprising Birmingham, Solihull, Lichfield, Tamworth, E Staffs councils)
Black County (Wolverhampton, Walsall, Sandwell and Dudley)
Coventry & Warwickshire
The Marches (Shropshire, Telford & Wrekin, Herefordshire)
Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire
Worcestershire

Not that there'll be too much time for any getting-to-know-you pleasantries! The LEPs now have just three months to get their bids in to the Government for the growth funding which it's hoped will be the catalyst for that new process of wealth creation.

But of course this is as much about politics as economics!

It represents a clear departure from John Prescott's vision of "regionalism" which so upset most Conservatives during the New Labour years.

But many of them also agree with business leaders like Jerry Blackett of the Birmingham and Solihull Chamber of Commerce that economic and strategic planning in complex regions like ours requires a level of decision-making which is closer to individual communities than Whitehall but which is bigger than any one individual local authority.

Before entering Parliament last May, James Morris was the Chief Executive of the Localis think-tank, which as its name suggests, has made a substantial contribution to the new government's 'localism' agenda.

Now the Conservative MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis, Mr Morris will be joining me live on the Politics Show on Sunday. I'll be asking him if the new system really will be closer to people and more accountable to them than the old one. And above all, will it work?

Once again, a reminder that the Politics Show starts at 11 o'clock on BBC One on Sunday morning (12th September).

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