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Archives for October 2010

Going for growth: Is Midlands business 'up for it'?

Patrick Burns | 10:52 UK time, Wednesday, 27 October 2010


Factory worker

The Midlands is 'a hero region'. So say researchers at Kingston University. In a survey for Barclays Bank they report that on average five new private sector jobs have been created at each private firm across our region over the past three years.

And they predict they'll each create another 13 jobs on average over the coming year as well. And last week the former Trade Minister Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham (one of the GOATS in Gordon Brown's 'Government of all the talents') told us if every firm employed just ONE more person it would make a world of difference.

The Coalition Government certainly hope that's how it turns out. They're banking on the private sector generating the economic growth needed to offset the effects of as many as 500,000 public sector job losses as a result of Chancellor George Osborne's Spending Review.

And he found extra encouragement in this week's growth figures showing that the economy expanded by 0.8% during the 3rd quarter, twice the number expected by market analysts. During PMQs David Cameron told MPs Labour had been warning about a 'double-dip': now they were experiencing a 'double depression'. He agreed with the West Worcestershire MP Harriett Baldwin's claim that these numbers showed the private sector was indeed generating that all-important growth.

On last Sunday's Politics Show in the Midlands the boss of a small business in Tamworth, Paul Reid, told viewers the business community was certainly up for the challenge.

But the Birmingham Erdington MP Jack Dromey said he had no doubt the business community would do their best, but doubted their ability to deliver that growth in the face of contracting markets among their public sector customers like the police and local authorities, where budgets are being cut by around 7% year-on-year.

So what's the reality on the ground? And what are the prospects for up to 100,000 public sector workers who the unions say will lose their jobs in our part of the country alone?

My colleague Susana Mendonca will be reporting from Coventry, a city which often feels as though it's been singled out for special treatment. Having haemorrhaged jobs in its once-famous manufacturing industries the city is now losing up to 500 jobs following Mr Osborne's decision to throw locally-based educational quangos including BECTA and the QCDA onto that famous 'bonfire'. At least Fusion, a branch of the BLG Insurance Group, has just announced the creation of 100 jobs at its call centre in the city. As so often, they're not exactly 'like for like' replacements but at least it's a start.

And we'll also be talking to the employment specialists Personal Career Management, who recently opened a new HQ in Birmingham. Their move is well-timed, because they offer expert advice for those who fall prey to the cull, helping them redesign their career aspirations to compete more effectively with this challenging jobs market. We'll be asking some of them whether or not it is working for them.

No one pretends it will be easy.

Patrick Browne is the boss of Hyrdrapower Dynamics Ltd, a long-established manufacturing company in Birmingham. He tells us he's not looking to employ people at the moment and asks what they'd do with those from the public sector anyway?

So, plenty for us to talk about on the Politics Show this week at its usual time of 12 noon on BBC One, Sunday 31 October, when we'll be joined 'live' by the Conservative MP for Rugby and Bulkington Mark Pawsey and by the Labour MP for West Bromwich West Adrian Bailey, Chairman of the Commons Business Select Committee.

Spending Review: the Midlands faces its 'decade of sobriety'

Patrick Burns | 10:30 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010


George Osborne

The giant encampment of TV news rostrums, cameras and arc lights stretching right across 'The Green' opposite Parliament is the clearest display of the sheer scale of this.

The "Westminster Village", no longer just a figure of speech, becomes a physical reality. And for once this village shares the same preoccupations as every other village, town or city in the land. All eyes on the Chancellor.

The Midlands has some of the highest concentrations of public sector workers in the country, and not necessarily where you might expect.

Birmingham, for example, has more of a mixed economy than the region's county towns which are usually home to shire and local councils and police HQs. In Stafford, for example, 40% of local jobs are in the public sector. Shrewsbury is only just behind with 38%.

The public spending cuts announced today inevitably mean tens of thousand of jobs in our region will be lost over the next four years, with warnings that a similar number may go in private sector firms who depend, directly or indirectly, on selling their goods and services to the public sector.

No one could say we hadn't been warned. The Government has been managing our expectations for months and the past week had seen a flurry of well-sourced leaks, off-the-record briefings and even official statements! And to complete the scene, the Governor of the Bank of England, (and Aston Villa supporter) Mervyn King had been in the Black Country on the eve of the statement to warn business leaders there that we are all facing what he called 'a decade of sobriety'.

So the mood music was as bluesy as the skies above Westminster as we watched George Osborne get to his feet. But was he about to bring them blue skies crashing down?

His statement undoubtedly represents the biggest cuts in public spending in living memory. As predicted, local authorities are hard-hit, with budgets cut by more than 25% over four years (that's just over 7% year on year. But the Chancellor is also giving councils what he calls more devolved financial control: could this be a way of making sure the blame is devolved as well, if and when council taxes rise?

The Police, too, face a 16% cut over four years: the Chancellor said back office cuts would enable the Police to maintain 'visibility and availability' on the streets. But the Chief Inspector of Constabulary had already warned anything above 12% would damage front line services. Radical changes to the pattern of policing in our region, including more partnerships and possibly even mergers between forces now seem inevitable.

But politicians being politicians, always want to mix in some good news, and there were some rabbits in George Osborne's hat. A real-terms increase in spending on schools, including building work to improve 600 across England. A key test will be how far this goes towards addressing the grievances of places like Sandwell which felt most aggrieved by the cancellation of the previous government's Building Schools for the Future programme.

And of course, the juiciest plums of all for the West Midlands audiences: confirmation that the Metro Extension will go ahead and Birmingham's New Street Station will be completely redeveloped.

Today was never going to deliver definitive answers as to exactly whose job or which service was to be cut... or reprieved. But as that story unfolds over four years it will become ever-clearer that this has been the defining moment: we will recognise Wednesday 20 October 2010 as the date that set in train a sequence of events unprecedented in modern times.

I hope you'll join me in following developments in our part of the country on Midlands Today, on your BBC local radio station, on-line... and of course on the Politics Show. We'll have a live debate from West Bromwich starting at 1215 on BBC One on Sunday (24 October 2010).

Spending Review: why Shropshire's lady golfers feel 'below par'

Patrick Burns | 10:20 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010


Scissors cutting tape c/o Eyewire

A week from now, we'll finally know what George Osborne has in store for us in his long-awaited Comprehensive Spending Review.

Cuts "averaging 25%" are being trailed by his cabinet colleagues. But so too is their determination to protect the front line services needed by the weakest, the poorest and... not least... the elderly.

But how can you square the circle between spending cuts and providing care for what we all know is an ageing population?

Come to Shropshire if you want to get a measure of the scale of the challenge.

According to a recent survey by the Office of National Statistics, the county's elderly population is growing at twice the national average. Four years ago there were 7,000 over 85s in Shropshire. The ONS calculates that in another 21 years there will be 20,600, an increase of almost 195%.

Shropshire Council has contracted out care homes to the private sector, but they're still 60% funded by a local authority facing budget cuts averaging 25% over the next four years.

Which could have serious implications not just now, but for the elderly generations of the future.

Last March, my colleague Kay Alexander caught up with a group of retired, but extremely active, woman at the Horsehay Village Golf Centre in Telford. They were becoming increasingly anxious about how they would pay for their long-term care when and if the need arises. The then Labour Government was promising a consultation on the question.

But that, like so much else, now appears to have been kicked into the long grass wide of the political fairway.

Six months on, and a change of government later I decided to retrace Kay's footsteps. What, I wondered is their mood now that the Age of Austerity is almost upon us?

A 'bunker mentality' perhaps?

In the event, they were unfailingly good humoured and cheerful. But behind the smiles and jolly repartee the rising anxiety was unmistakeable. They're still concerned about their long term care of course.

But now they also have more pressing concerns. Pensions for a start.

The Government recently announced they would be pegged not to the Retail Price Index (RPI) but to the more miserly Consumer Price Index (CPI). And even those who've put their own savings aside are having a tougher time than they'd bargained for. With interest rate remaining at record low levels, the incomes they'd been hoping for have slumped to next-to-nothing.

You can see for yourself how the redoubtable golfing ladies of Shropshire's view the forthcoming Spending Review on Midlands Today (BBC One 18.30) this Thursday evening, 14 October 2010.

Less jam tomorrow: a Spending Review preview

Patrick Burns | 09:35 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010


"The one thing I can promise you is less money!" The Communities Secretary Eric Pickles was talking to Councillor Mike Whitby, a fellow Conservative, the leader of the senior partners in the 'progressive partnership' with the Liberal Democrats that's ruled Britain's biggest local authority in Birmingham for six years.

And with less than a week to go to the Chancellor's Spending Review statement, Mr Pickles has now given us the clearest hint yet of what's in store.

Having warned against the dangers of 'panic measures, slashing and burning and salami slicing services regardless of how effective they are", he went on to give us a clear insight into the Government's thinking.

"Do individual councils need separate planning departments, lawyers or communications teams? Chief executives, even? We know Redditch and Bromsgrove in Worcestershire are sharing theirs already. Or should we be focusing on the issues that really matter? Better schools. Safer streets. Regular bin collections."

The main challenge facing all 33 local authorities in the West Midlands is how to achieve savings averaging 25% over four years while protecting the very services to which Eric Pickles refers.

The Conservative Leader of Telford and Wrekin Council, Cllr Andrew Eade, tells me his authority is managing to protect core services including schools and care for the elderly with the help of a £16.5 million saving they've achieved by reducing the number of senior managers in the local authority by no less than 50%!

But still the anxiety persists that public services are being cut back at the very time the weakest and most vulnerable need then most.

Across the local authority border in Shropshire I discovered disturbing evidence of what all the talk about our 'ageing population' means in practice. According to the Office of National Statistics, 4 years ago there were 7,000 people older than 85 in the county. In another 21 years' time, there will be 20,600, an increase of 195%.

I paid a visit to the Innage Grange Care Home in Bridgnorth. They currently look after 50 residents, and soon they'll have places for 30 more who'll require nursing. Thirteen years ago it transferred from the council to private ownership but it's still 60% funded by Shropshire Council.

The home is owned and managed by Coverage Care, whose Chief Executive David Coull told me he was extremely anxious about the long-term effects of spending cuts for future generations of elderly people. In common with other rural areas, many of the care homes were in need of the sort of capital investment he had been putting in to Innage Court.

And of course public and private sectors do not inhabit separate planets. Local authorities are major customers for a wide range of goods and services provided by the private sector.

Building works for example. With 1,000 members around the Midlands, the Federation of Master Builders reported this week that they'd endured three successive years of declining workloads. The outlook for next year was particularly bleak because of the likely effects of the Comprehensive Spending Review combined with the rise in VAT to 20%.

It's against this background that one local economic 'think tank', the West Midlands Regional Observatory, forecast the cuts could cost as many as 80,000 public sector jobs in the area (35,000 of them in Education) with a further 310,000 at risk in private sector firms which depend directly or indirectly on public sector spending.

This will be out main talking point on this week's Politics Show. We'll hear from the chair of Liberal Democrat MPs, Lorely Burt, MP for Solihull and to the former minister for the West Midlands Ian Austin, the Labour MP for Dudley North.

I hope you can join us at 12 noon on BBC One this Sunday 17th October

What price an English Parliament?

Patrick Burns | 13:55 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010


English flag

"England is the biggest country in Western Europe which does not have its own Parliament".

This was one of the key themes in the English Democrats' campaign during last year's European Elections. They're convinced that since devolution, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have gained unfair advantages over us here in England: we have all heard repeated rehearsals of the arguments over student tuition fees, prescription charges and personal care of the elderly: no wonder Scotland has been dubbed 'the Land of the Free'!

The English Democrats want a new parliament south of the border would give us more clout. To redress the imbalance.

"But if the answer to your question is 'more politicians', then you're asking the wrong question".

So said the Mid Worcestershire MP Peter Luff while Labour were in power. And the constitutional anomalies are increasingly seen as suitable cases for treatment under the new coalition in which Mr Luff now serves as a Defence minister.

His parliamentary neighbour Harriett Baldwin MP (Con) West Worcestershire is proposing her own answer to what's become known as 'the West Lothian Question': how can it be right that the MP for, say, West Lothian enjoys so much more of a say over the affairs of, say, West Worcestershire than does an MP for West Worcestershire over those of West Lothian?

Mrs Baldwin is introducing a Private Member's Bill which would require all draft legislation to identify its effects separately for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Her proposal will be tabled for a second reading on 11 February 2011. But she'll be letting us in on what she plans to say on Sunday's Politics Show at the slightly later time of 12.10pm on BBC One (Sunday 10 October).

Meantime the government is working on constitutional reforms aimed at putting Mr Luff's words into action, cutting the number of Westminster MPs from 650 to 600. It's not just about reducing costs (although that inevitably is part of the attraction for the coalition!)

The principal constitutional reform is to iron out the widest variations in the size of parliamentary constituencies. They average about 60,000 voters each, but in practice their numbers often vary from as few as 55,000 to as many as 65,000: another clear example of some votes being significantly more equal than others.

Inevitably, any redrawing of the Parliamentary map is bound to set off a series of turf wars.

According to a survey commissioned by the BBC Newsnight programme and conducted by the Democratic Audit 'think tank', the West Midlands would have five fewer MPs, with Labour the biggest losers losing three MPs and the Conservatives losing two. The Liberal Democrats' contingent would be unaffected.

The Electoral Reform Society predicts an even bigger loss of parliamentary representation. The region as a whole would losing no fewer than nine MPs; four of them in the West Midlands conurbation, two in Staffordshire, two in Warwickshire and one in Shropshire.

But it's when you home-in on each local area that the plot really thickens. We can expect a host of boundary disputes which will cut through and between community loyalties.

Parts of Bromsgrove, for example, might be subsumed into a new Redditch and Alvechurch seat. And the process may be no respecter of regional boundaries either. BBC Stoke has shown how North Staffordshire (in the Midlands) and South Cheshire (in the North West) can function as a single entity. New cross-border constituencies would mean Parliament would have to do the same.

So, as Parliament resumes after the 'conference season', it's 'open season' for the great debate on constitutional change, leading up to that referendum on the electoral reform next Spring.

We'll get the whole thing under way live on the Politics Show. A reminder it starts at 1210 on BBC One on Sunday 10 October 2010.

A view from the top: Cameron's big picture in Birmingham

Patrick Burns | 09:21 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010


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"You could do some sunbathing", the Prime Minister suggested to one of his assistants as he gazed out one of the big picture windows in his Birmingham hotel room. Far below, the host city of this year's Conservative Party conference was indeed bathed in sunshine. And the man himself exuded an equally sunny disposition as the cameras ran up to speed for our interview.

In my last blog, and in my earlier one of 1 June, I raised the question whether or not the Government were about to bounce 12 major cities, including Birmingham and Coventry, into elections for new-style executive mayors as early as May 2012. And despite the well-documented misgivings of Birmingham's Conservative Leader Councillor Mike Whitby, might he yet be prevailed upon to throw is own hat in the ring?

This was my chance...

"Would you like to see Mike Whitby elected mayor in 2012?", I asked Mr Cameron. "Mike would make a great mayor", he replied. As so often with politicians, his answer was as much about what he DIDN'T say as what he did. He did nothing to disabuse me of my notion that Brummies will be going to the polls in two years time.

I reckon we'll know more within the next few weeks when the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is expected set out his proposals. Intriguingly, they could include the idea of a 'confirmatory referendum'. Instead of allowing the whole scheme to become impaled, as it was a decade ago, on the hook of a 'no vote' in a low turnout referendum, why not have the vote on the principle AFTER the election, and so catch whatever tide of public excitement has been stirred up by the contest itself, one was or the other?

Elected mayors are just one ingredient in an extensive menu of constitutional changes being proposed by the coalition government: fewer MPs, constituency primaries and electoral reform are among the others.

I'll have more on that in my next blog and on the Politics Show at the slightly later time of 12.10 pm this Sunday on BBC One.

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