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Archives for May 2010

Taking advantage

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

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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.

So, AWM RIP?

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

Are we punching our political weight?

Patrick Burns | 11:01 UK time, Tuesday, 18 May 2010

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Boxing gloves

Do we in the West Midlands punch below our political weight?

It's a question to which we have often returned. As a region of 5.5 million people we have a larger population than Scotland and arguably make a bigger contribution to the UK economy, but on the question of political clout: no contest.

And even by comparison with other English regions we have often felt ourselves under-represented at the top table of British politics.

In the last Parliament, the then Labour MP for Redditch Jacqui Smith was a significant, if short-lived, local heavy-hitter during her time as Home Secretary and Bob Ainsworth MP (Labour, Coventry North East) and Liam Byrne MP (Labour, Birmingham Hodge Hill) also enjoyed high office as Defence Secretary and Chief Secretary to the Treasury respectively.

But the key issue was to give the region its own dedicated ministerial voice, so one of Brown's first acts as Prime Minister was to invite Liam Byrne to combine the role of Minister for the West Midlands with his main ministerial responsibilities.

This was before he achieved Cabinet rank and a similar arrangement was introduced in all the other English government regions. So it was, in essence, a part-time job.

Liam Byrne points to his role in the delivery of the Government's commitment to a £360 million pound redevelopment of Birmingham's New Street Station as an example of the clout he was able to bring to bear in concentrating minds and sharpening timescales at Westminster.

The Conservatives dispute this, arguing that the Tory-led 'Progressive Partnership' with the Liberal Democrats, which has been in charge of Birmingham City Council is equally deserving of the credit.

So what of the West Midlands political clout now that Westminster has followed Birmingham's lead into the "new politics"?

For a start, the Conservatives have no appetite for anything that smacks of John Prescott's vision of "regionalism" when he was Deputy Prime Minister.

The regional development agency Advantage West Midlands faces an uncertain future. These agencies were designed by the New Labour Government to produce home grown strategies for economic regeneration with a wide remit including strategic planning and transport as well as priming the business pump and picking winners (usually hi-tech ones of course).

But what price AWM continuing to enjoy their annual budget of £330 as the Age of Austerity is almost upon us? The latest word from the Liberal-Conservative coalition is that regional development agencies could either be forced to take a reduced role focussing more narrowly on economic priorities or be scrapped altogether if they cannot demonstrate public support.

Already the Birmingham and Solihull Chamber of Commerce and Industry has weighed-in, arguing that it would be a recipe for chaos to scrap AWM. There has been a widespread view in business that there has to be a strategic role in major economic and infrastructure projects for something bigger than a local authority but smaller than Whitehall. Watch this space.

And how does our region's ministerial team shape up under the new order? In middle and junior ranks in the Government, nul points! Not one of our region's MPs gets a look in.

But at that top table: THREE! I can't remember a time when we had as many: Caroline Spelman MP (Con, Meriden), the Environment Secretary; Owen Paterson MP (Con, Shropshire North), the Northern Ireland Secretary and Andrew Mitchell MP (Con, Sutton Coldfield), the International Development Secretary.

Will they be batting for the West Midlands? Watch this space: it's one of our main talking points on this Sunday's Politics Show at 12 o'clock on BBC One.

The BNP Effect

Patrick Burns | 11:19 UK time, Friday, 14 May 2010

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BNP


"The rise of the BNP", screamed the headlines. I've always argued against over-hyping the story. Remember they polled well under 1% of the popular vote in the 2005 general election.

But that wasn't the story that "sold", especially after the party won their first two seats in the European Parliament, representing regions in Northern England and leading to the famous, some say notorious, and ultimately revealing appearance by Nick Griffin MEP on BBC One's Question Time, The BNP had arrived at the top table of British politics.

All eyes on Stoke-on-Trent. At their peak, the party held nine seats on the council. I reported this as a reproach to the bigger political parties.

It looked like they were in danger of becoming disconnected from their electorates, especially in deprived predominantly white, working class neighbourhoods where many people were telling us they felt they were getting a raw deal compared with immigrant communities in terms particularly of jobs and housing waiting lists. It was the BNP who seemed to be the only party who were listening.

It came as no surprise that they chose Stoke for the launch of their recent election manifesto. The party's deputy leader Simon Darby would contest the Stoke Central seat, riven as it was with the sort of fractured, fragmented party politics for which the city has become well-known.

It wasn't just Labour who were split. (My earlier blog on Parachute Drops contains an account of the dispute about the selection of the official labour candidate Tristram Hunt).

The former leader of the BNP group on the city council, Alby Walker, had himself resigned from the party and was standing against it as an independent in protest against its record of holocaust denial.

In the event, Mr Darby finished a disappointing 4th with just 2,502 votes. In the local elections they lost two councillors, so they now have only 5 of the 60 seats on the council.

Elsewhere they lost both their councillors in Sandwell, and their solitary members on Solihull and Redditch councils also lost. That leaves them with just seven councillors in the whole of the West Midlands region: the five in Stoke, one in Nuneaton and one in Staffordshire Moorlands.

Having hyped-up "the rise of the BNP" our colleagues in the media pack may now be tempted to predict its demise. Beware! Across the West Midlands, 73,394 people voted for the BNP, an increase of 1%.

But the BNP know as well as anybody else that it's no use having your support spread broadly over a wide area; you need to concentrate it in key, winnable seats. That's under the present first-past-the-post system.

As the debate hots up over electoral reform under this coalition government, the question arises whether or not the BNP's position counts as an argument for or against proportional representation.

As a simple purveyor of objective truths, well, as they say, "I couldn't POSSIBLY comment"!

Traffic lights coalition

Patrick Burns | 09:45 UK time, Tuesday, 11 May 2010

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Traffic light treeAs the nation waits for news of whom the Liberal Democrats will choose as their parliamentary bedfellows, there is an interesting footnote in terms of the so-called "West Lothian Question": a Westminster MP with a Scottish constituency like West Lothian enjoys a far greater say over domestic policy here in England than an MP for an area like the West Midlands has over the people of Scotland.

A great swathe of policies in important areas like health, education, law and order and transport have of course been devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

The main plank of the English Democrats general election campaign has been that England is now the largest country in Western Europe without its own Parliament. And following devolution there is no question that we Midlanders have less political clout than our Scottish counterparts even though there are more of us.

The SNP leader Alex Salmond says the possibility of a Lab/Lib Dem coalition represents "a great hand" for Scotland. It would certainly offer his party yet more leverage in this new politics than they had before. And yet even as it is the grievances felt by English voters on issues like university tuition fees, care of the elderly and prescription charges have been well-documented.

And now comes what would certainly be seen as yet another example of an increasing political imbalance between the north and south of the border. A Lab/Lib Dem coalition would in effect need to be propped up by parties beyond England for whom 85% of the UK electorate (ie the English) had not had the opportunity to vote.

Hanging together

Patrick Burns | 05:54 UK time, Sunday, 9 May 2010

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Count at Birmingham NIA
Well, we did say this had the makings of the most unpredictable general election in living memory and although the prospect of a 'hung parliament' had been well documented, the course of events over the coming weeks and months seems as uncertain as ever.

I spend election night at the giant Birmingham count in the National Indoor Arena, famous for its epic sporting events.

Whether or not this is a 'sporting' encounter remains open to question. I witnessed a night of enormous tension, high emotion and at times raw anger. With no fewer than nine counts simultaneously under one roof, this is electoral democracy on a truly industrial scale.

Continuing to defy predictions, just when we journos reckon we're beginning to get the measure of the story.......Tories securing almost all their Midlands target seats....up pops Birmingham Edgbaston, that weather vane 'Lab Gain' of 1997, to make sure the narrative just keeps biting back.

A truly amazing performance by Labour's Gisela Stuart to confound the political obituary-writers by depriving the Tories of the modest 2% swing they needed to overthrow her 15,555 majority.

So is the story becoming one of complete under-achievement by the Conservatives? Think again! Aidan Burley wins Cannock Chase for the Conservatives with the sort of swing to the Conservatives which if repeated across the country would have given them a colossal overall majority.

At least we know the story for the Liberal Democrats: their total failure to deliver the much-hyped "surge", Cleggmania is in reverse. But what's this? Solihull, "notionally" a Conservative seat after boundary changes, sees Lorely Burt who famously "crept in under the Tories radar" in 2005 returned to Westminster, albeit with a LibDem majority of under 200.

My long night's journey into day continues with an early morning dash to Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire where two of our Midlands' "Day Two" counts are being held.

With time at last to reflect on the overnight events, I realise that for all those exceptions to the rule the Conservatives have been hitting almost all their Midlands targets: that if the rest of Britain had voted the same way the Conservatives would have been on course for their cherished majority government.

Former strongholds in our county towns are Tory seats once more: Hereford at the Lib Dems' expense, Gloucester, Worcester and Stafford all at Labour's.

But what of Warwick? That's where I'm headed. The former Work & Pensions Minister James Plaskitt scraped home with a majority of just 266 last time. While boundary changes have now boosted this to a "notional" 5,000, it would definitely fall within the general trend for the Conservatives to triumph here as well.

In the event they did, comfortably: Chris White, able to celebrate his majority of over 3,000. But he pointedly ducked my question about whether or not the one clear result of this is spectacularly indecisive election is be that we all be doing this again in a few months' time.

So what conclusions CAN we draw? The obvious one is that all the main parties have been damaged to a greater or lesser degree. The Lib Dems, by their failure to match their much-trumpeted expectations.

The Conservatives by their inability to capitalise on their double-digit lead in the polls just a few short months ago. And Labour, of course, were the biggest losers of all.

And yet, paradoxically, just when our developing storyline comes to the point of writing them off, we notice that in the LOCAL elections they've made remarkable progress, regaining control of Coventry and improving their position in Birmingham at the expense of the ruling Con-LibDem "progressive partnership". (Yes, a Con-LibDem partnership - think about it!)

But local elections are another story altogether, aren't they, hang it all!


Regional bounce

Patrick Burns | 09:19 UK time, Tuesday, 4 May 2010

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Cricket stumps and ball
It sounds like something from the folk lore of cricket: are southern wickets faster and bouncier during these early weeks of the season than northern ones? Or is the converse equally true?

Sadly it has nothing to do with 'King Willow'.

It's what we programme makers call a sequence which drops into different areas of the country in rapid succession. I took part in one first thing this morning during Radio Four's "Today" programme.

As I waited for my cue after the 7 o'clock news it occurred to me that exactly what the political parties are looking for during these final, frantic hours before polling. A bounce in this region where 20 of the 60-plus seats can be considered marginal and so very much "in play" so far as the tacticians are concerned.

Presenter James Naughtie "bounced" first to my fellow BBC regional political editors in South West and North East England. Then came my turn. I explained that the West Midlands had long been electorally stony ground for the Liberal Democrats in parliamentary terms.

That they had just four seats here in the last parliament and even one of those, Solihull, had become "notionally" a Conservative seat because of boundary changes. At the start of this campaign we'd tended to focus on the 20 or so seats, mainly Labour marginals, which were the key Conservative targets in a contest we expected would again be dominated by the two biggest parties.

That was certainly the way Messrs Brown and Cameron saw things at the outset. Top of the list, and expected to be one of the earliest marginals to declare on Thursday night, Birmingham Edgbaston has a "notional" Labour majority after boundary changes of just 1,500.

The Conservatives need a swing of only 2 percent so it's a "must win" for them. David Cameron made it his very first campaigning stop after the election was called. But Gordon Brown's equal determination to hang on here was signalled by his arrival in Edgbaston less than week later, accompanied by his cabinet colleagues for the launch of Labour's election manifesto.

All going to script so far, we thought. When Nick Clegg arrived in Solihull later that same first full week of campaigning to offer his candidate in Solihull some much needed moral support, events seemed to be taking their predictable course.

That was before the televised prime ministerial debates, which have overturned so many easy assumptions. Even a region which is so often mainly a two-party affair is getting used to the idea of a 'three horse race'.

Take Birmingham Selly Oak, for example. Labour defend a majority of 7,500 and it ranks a relatively lowly 166th on the Conservatives' target list. But the word on the streets following the Liberal Democrat "surge" so-called, is that it is fast becoming a three-way marginal!

And that was the point of James Naughtie's question to me: the "intriguing" possibility that some seats which had not been considered all that marginal might suddenly become so, while others, ostensibly in the front rank might find their significance fading.

I explained that it was increasingly a question of which of the two bigger parties was hit harder by any improvement in the Liberal Democrats' fortunes, and just to complicate matters, that the answer to that question might vary from one place to another.

Take West Worcestershire for example. The Conservatives had a 2,500 majority at the last election so losing here would be a grave disappointment for them. It ranks a modest 21st on the Liberal Democrats' target list.

And yet there was no disguising the excitement last weekend when Nick Clegg came to Malvern with a clear sense that something interesting was in the bracing air of this famous old spa town.

On the other hand George Osborne came to support the Conservative candidate at Coventry South last week. Coventry South! Labour had a majority of over 6,000 at the last election so it's nowhere near the front of the Conservatives "hit list".

But yes, party strategists are starting to talk about it privately as one of their "new marginals" and they're increasingly seeing other places like Cannock Chase and Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire in a similar light.

So where does this leave us?

My hunch is that this election has the potential to turn those carefully crafted television graphics sequences into something more like "crazy paving": that seats expected to switch may not do so, and that real surprises may come from "left field". Or right. Expect the unexpected!

Which makes it by far the most unpredictable of the eight general elections I've covered. And it's why the political parties, like those early-season cricketers, are still straining to find that elusive 'regional bounce'!

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