Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by Our City Region Partnership (RG 31)


  1.  Our City Region partnership comprises the seven Metropolitan Councils of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. It is the largest city region and local economy outside of the South East, with a population of 2.6 million. It contains the UK's second city and two other major cities. It is the country's rail and motorway hub, connecting North, South, East and West into an integrated national economy. With facilities such as Birmingham International Airport, the National Exhibition Centre, the International Convention Centre, the National Indoor Arena and the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, our City Region is a major international gateway into the UK, and an international centre for the exchange of knowledge. Its proximity to the South East means that it can accommodate economic and housing growth in ways that will reduce regional imbalance and ease the pressures on the South East.

  2.  Our partnership was established in 2003 as a result of the joint work between the ODPM, the Core Cities Group and RDAs on the international competitiveness of the Core Cities. As part of this work, the Deputy Prime Minister invited each Core City to produce a Prospectus setting out its competitiveness agenda. Our partnership was established to prepare the Prospectus for our City Region.

  3.  Since then, we have organised a Summit with the Rt Hon David Miliband MP in September 2005, and are currently preparing a City Region Development Plan and considering the City Region governance arrangements required to deliver it.

  4.  Our submission to the Select Committee responds only to specific aspects of the Committee's enquiry, and focuses particularly upon the role of city regions in building urban and regional competitiveness and reducing regional imbalance.

  5.  There are strong arguments for devolving to a more local level to respond to local needs that vary from one area to another. The Government itself, for example, is working towards greater flexibility for Job Centre Plus managers, and Neighbourhood Renewal, Local Area Agreements and LEGI are all based upon localisation principles.

  6.  There are, however, also issues that need to be addressed at a higher level. Our partnership focuses on issues at the level of the City Region, an area based upon economic geography with shared needs and priorities.

  7.  Our City Region thinking reflects a number of considerations. First, the fact that there was little interest in the West Midlands in the idea of Elected Regional Assemblies. Second, the vote on the North East Assembly highlighted the electorate's concern over the creation of new government structures and perceived additional tiers of bureaucracy. Third, the need to strengthen democratic accountability and citizen engagement. These all point strongly to building city region machinery upon existing structures.


  8.  Our rationale for working together as a city region partnership is simple. Global investors and decision makers do not recognise local authority boundaries. Their interest is in understanding the local economy as a whole—a cluster of mutually interdependent areas linked economically and socially by travel to work patterns, by housing, retail and leisure markets, and by population needs and skills. They want to know whether this local economy possesses the infrastructure and assets that global businesses need in order to establish themselves and grow.

  9.  We recognise that we are part of the same local economy, and that the prosperity of our individual communities is dependent upon the global competitiveness of our area as a whole.


  10.  The Government has set an ambitious national economic agenda for improving the UK's international competitiveness, raising productivity and reducing regional economic imbalance. It has set an equally challenging agenda for accommodating population and housing growth through the development of sustainable communities.

  11.  The opening paragraph of our submission shows that our City Region can make an enormous and distinctive contribution to achieving these objectives. It has many of the economic drivers essential for a competitive city region—a city centre of European standing and two other major city centres, six universities (including two first class research universities), a range of major facilities, a wide range of housing and lifestyle choices, and substantial brown field land to accommodate population and housing growth in sustainable ways.

  12.  Equally important amongst these assets, we have established a strong City Region partnership with a coherent shared vision, agreement on the priorities for taking it forward, and a commitment to working together to deliver it.

  13.  Our vision is that by 2030 our City Region will be an acknowledged centre of Europe's knowledge economy, with applied knowledge supported by world class universities, and connected to the global economy by a first class international airport. It will be one of the UK's key international gateways and centres for knowledge exchange through its conference, exhibition, culture and sporting facilities. Rail and road infrastructure of the highest quality will enable it to fulfil its role as the hub of the UK's communications system. Our transformation into a knowledge and leisure economy will have created employment opportunities at all skill levels.

  14.  Lifestyle will match that of the best European city regions. Our increased productivity and wealth creation will give our citizens a living standard comparable with the most successful European cities. There will be a full range of housing choices, leisure and cultural facilities to suit all tastes, and first class public transport integrating the City Region. Our housing strategy, linked to environmental, transport and service improvements, will have created more balanced communities and improved quality of life in the metropolitan core.

  15.  Our City Region Growth Agenda is aimed at achieving this vision. But this Growth Agenda also reflects our wider vision for the Midlands, which we beleive can play a distinctive role in national strategy. Its location means that it can link the North and South into an integrated national economy, ease the pressures on the South East, and ensure a strong Midlands growth agenda to complement the Communities Plan for the South East and the Northern Way.

  16.  The Black Country Study will also play a significant role in defining City Region policy. The Study sets out a vision of how the Black Country (Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton) will look in 2033 in terms of learning and skills development, transportation, population, the urban environment and the economy. Its objectives will link closely with wider City Region objectives as part of a commitment to broader regional prosperity.

  17.  At the heart of the West Midlands Regional Spatial Strategy, approved by the Deputy Prime Minister in 2004, is the urban renaissance of the region's Major Urban Areas. For our City Region, this means

  Birmingham—strengthening its role as the regional capital with emerging world city status;

  The Black Country—accelerating growth and economic competitiveness to transform this former 19th/20th Century industrial powerhouse of 1 million plus people into a 21st Century knowledge driven economy, through a radical restructuring of its land use and transportation network, transformation of the local environment, focusing growth on its four strategic centres, creating new residential environments and sustainable communities, and developing Wolverhampton's capacity as a driver of growth in the north of the City Region.

  Coventry—continuing to build upon its reputation as a forward looking city which can help create an important growth engine for the region with links to growth areas in the South East and East Midlands.

  Solihull—continuing its strong economic growth, realising the potential from its competitive investment offer, and developing its role as a Gateway to the City Region and region through Birmingham International Airport and the NEC.

  18.  These aspirations are captured in our twin track Growth Agenda:

  Economic growth through enhanced competitiveness, focusing upon strengthening the critical success factors identified in the Professor Michael Parkinson work and in other research considered by the Government/Core Cities/RDAs working group;

  Housing and population led growth. We believe our City Region can deliver a much greater contribution than previously appreciated to the Sustainable Communities Plan, thereby supporting our economic growth agenda whilst reducing overheating and congestion in the South East.

  19.  Our agenda is being developed further through projects such as the Black Country Study, Birmingham's Housing Corridors work and the Science City initiative, and will be brought together in the City Region Development Plan that we are currently preparing.


  20.  Professor Michael Parkinson's work on competitive European cities shows that successful city regions (a) have the powers and resources themselves to provide the infrastructure required by a competitive city region, and (b) are supported by national and regional programmes that are aligned behind the city region's competitiveness strategy.

  21.  Our City Region's track record demonstrates that we can use devolved powers and resources effectively. We have shown our capacity as local authorities to modernise our City Region, create a successful post industrial economy, and drive our City Region's competitiveness forward. Examples include the NEC, ICC and NIA, Birmingham International Airport, Wolverhampton Science Park, the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, and urban renaissance in Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton city centres.

  22.  These examples show that we in the City Region are best placed to know where our competitive strengths and weaknesses lie, and what new opportunities exist.

  23.  Our local authority capital programmes are small compared with those in some similar sized city regions in Western Europe. Yet it is capital investment in particular that will enable us to provide the infrastructure to attract investment and workers in the knowledge economy, and make our City Region a place where the most successful people and businesses want to live, work and invest.

  24.  The progress we have made together since 2003 shows that we have the commitment and capacity to take the City Region forward, provided we have sufficient powers and resources, and have the support of national and regional programmes that are explicitly aligned to our City Region Development Plan.

  25.  As the most significant economic driver of the West Midlands, it is particularly important for both national and regional objectives that all investment in our City Region is focused in this way upon a single coherent strategy for building our competitiveness. This will benefit not just our City Region but a much wider part of the region—in terms of job opportunities, markets for businesses located in other parts of the region, regional access to high level business, financial and other services, etc.

  26.  This alignment of national and regional funding streams must cover the key competitiveness issues that we still need to address—regional airports policy, strategic road and rail infrastructure, integrated transport within the City Region itself, innovation strategy and the Science City initiative, skills development, major facilities, City Region housing strategy, etc.

  27.  National investment criteria—for example on transport infrastructure and the location of public R&D—often focus upon responding to existing demand or centres of excellence. They fail to give sufficient weight to the role of public investment in influencing the location of future demand and excellence by stimulating economic growth, development and modernisation. For example, because of demand pressures transport spending in London is currently £667 per head, compared to less than £300 per head in every other English region The result is the continuous reinforcement of congestion in the South East and regional imbalance elsewhere. Devolution of powers and resources, and the alignment of national strategies with the strategies of the Core City Regions, would enable us to invest to stimulate growth and competitiveness, and reduce the competitiveness gap with stronger regions.

  28.  Another weakness of the current system is that spending in more successful regions often has a strong capital bias, in order to provide the infrastructure needed to support growth, whilst spending in weaker regions can be more biased towards revenue programmes designed to deal with the consequences of failure. Our ideas for a City Region Development Fund would enable us to invest in future success rather than simply spend to ameliorate past failure.

  29.  This City Region Development Fund would also give us the ability to rationalise the multiplicity of existing programmes, leading to greater efficiency and effectiveness of delivery and the better use of resources.

  30.  Moreover, it is easier to engage with partners, especially the private sector, at the city region level. Partners often have difficulty in grasping the regional concept, but more easily understand the importance of improving strategic infrastructure in the urban area, and can contribute positive and tangible ideas for improvement at this level. Devolving powers and resources will therefore energise local partners, including the private sector, to commit to delivery based upon a clear long term vision and certainty of funding.


  31.  Devolution of powers and resources to city regions requires in turn that city regions develop governance arrangements that increase accountability and simplify decision making, but also deliver effective leadership. Our ideas for the governance of our City Region meet these criteria. They would increase accountability by giving our political leadership greater influence over public investment in our City Region. They would simplify decision making by aligning all investment—by ourselves, Government departments and national and regional agencies—behind a single City Region Development Plan. They would provide strong leadership through a City Region Executive Board.

  32.  These ideas are not yet formally agreed by our authorities, but are a framework for further discussion amongst ourselves, and between us and the Government. We envisage that any agreements would be incorporated into a City Region Area Agreement with Government. This Agreement would be ratified by each partner authority, and be binding on our authorities for a time scale agreed with Government. Our initial ideas are summarised below.

  33.  After detailed consideration we have concluded that an Executive Board, comprising the political Leaders of the partner authorities, is best suited to the circumstances of our own City Region. The Board would function with cabinet style portfolios and responsibilities.

  34.  The Executive Board would be responsible for City Region strategy concerning transport, spatial planning, economic development, skills, housing, cultural development and major facilities.

  35.  A City Region Development Plan is currently being prepared to provide a single strategic framework for investment by our own partnership, by Government departments, and by national and regional agencies.

  36.  A substantial City Region Development Fund would be established to deliver the Plan. We are currently considering sources of finance, but the aim is primarily to bring coherence to existing funding rather than to seek significant new money.

  37.  The Executive Board would "hold" the City Region Area Agreement, the City Region Development Plan, and the City Region Development Fund.

  38.  Delivery would be the responsibility of a Programme Board comprising the Chief Executives of our local authorities and of other key spending agencies such as the RDA, LSC and PTA. The Programme Board is currently being established. It will have dedicated staff, and a City Region Director is currently being recruited.

  39.  Government departments and national and regional agencies: all strategies affecting our City Region, and all investment resources within our City Region, should be aligned with our City Region Development Plan.

  40.  As well as the Executive Board, we will put in place wider partnership arrangements to ensure full engagement with, and co-ordination of activity with, the wider regional agenda, and to ensure open and transparent scrutiny of activity and progress.

  41.  A partnership will be established with City Region Chambers of Commerce and the business community.

  42.  We have already successfully collaborated on City Region transport issues. We will learn the lessons from this, and apply them to other functions devolved to our City Region partnership.

  43.  We are currently developing a partnership arrangement with Grand Lyon/St Etienne, to learn from their experience of the Communauté Urbaine system of city region collaboration.


  44.  We are currently in discussions with the rest of the region on how our City Region relates to the wider West Midlands. We envisage that regional institutions and the County Councils would be represented within our structures, and the latter are currently creating machinery to enable them to engage with us. Whilst there remains much detail to be thought through, we anticipate a successful outcome to this dialogue due to the widespread acceptance within the region of the following principles.

  45.  First, the region has accepted our City Region as a valuable part of the regional landscape. We in turn recognise the importance of our work being aligned with regional strategies, and the need to engage with the rest of the region.

  46.  Second, our City Region partnership is not intended initially to replace any existing institutions or partnership arrangements.

  47.  Third, different parts of the region will need to have different types of relationships with our partnership. Areas adjacent to the Metropolitan County are part of our City Region in a way that is not true of more distant areas such as Stoke or Herefordshire. For example, Wolverhampton has a strong relationship with neighbouring South Staffordshire boroughs and Telford and Wrekin, with many people from outside the metropolitan area working in, and consuming services in, Wolverhampton. This shows the importance of maintaining links beyond the boundaries currently defined for the City Region.

  48.  Fourth, Our City Region partnership has a very specific focus—global competitiveness and economic/population growth. It is also concerned only with issues of strategic, cross boundary significance. The partnership does not preclude its members from working with other authorities or partnerships when this makes sense.

  49.  Fifth, the City Region is an economic and social concept. It is not possible to identify precise physical boundaries, though the ODPM's work on city regions and Professor Parkinson's work for the Core Cities COMPETE project may provide a clearer understanding of our City Region's "reach". Nevertheless, the City Region will mean different things at different times and for different issues, and relationships with the rest of the region will need to be flexible to reflect this.

  50.  Sixth, relationships with the rest of the region also need to take into account the Stoke City Region initiative (which we support).


  51.  We have indicated that our agenda for our City Region is set within a wider vision for the Midlands as a whole, including the Milton Keynes/South Midlands growth area. We see great value in collaboration across the two Midlands regions and parts of the South East. We have begun a dialogue with the Three Cities Partnership (Nottingham/Derby/Leicester) and with Milton Keynes to consider further how our three urban areas can reinforce each other as economic drivers for the Midlands as a whole. For example, Birmingham International Airport can become the principal international gateway for Milton Keynes if surface access is developed further. There may also be potential for collaboration with the City Region centred upon Bristol, and with the areas between it and ourselves.

  52.  However, we do not see a need for a comprehensive Midlands "plan". The economic reality is that the major city regions are the main growth engines of the Midlands, and inter regional co-operation must therefore focus mainly upon identifying opportunities for creating synergy between the major urban areas. For example, the Midlands regional airports might develop complementary roles, the major Midlands city regions could develop combined bids for major events, and they could agree not to submit rival bids for major facilities. Whilst these decisions might be difficult to make, it is here that inter regional collaboration would add most value.

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