Appendix 4: VISIT TO ADVANTAGE WEST MIDLANDS
1. Members of the Sub-Committee visited AWM,
the Regional Development Agency responsible for the West Midlands,
at Birmingham on 29 January 2003. The purpose of the visit was
to see at first hand the way that RDAs interact with regional
partners on the ground.
2. The visiting party consisted of Lord Patel
(Chairman of the Inquiry), Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, Lord Methuen
and Lord Thomas of Macclesfield. They were supported by the Specialist
Adviser to the Inquiry (Dr Marilyn Wedgwood), Clerk (Mr Roger
Morgan) and Assistant Clerk (Mr Gordon Baker).
3. The party was welcomed to AWM's headquarters
in Birmingham by the Chief Executive of AWM (Mr John Edwards).
He and two AWM Board Members (Professor Kumar Bhattacharya
and Mr Norman Price), several senior executives of AWM and members
of AWM's Regional Innovation Strategy Steering Group gave presentations
on AWM's strategy and activities.
The following were among the principal points made.
a. AWM covered the counties of Warwickshire,
Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire. This
was a diverse area of 13,000 square kilometres, with a population
of 5.27 million and a GDP of over £60 billion. Much of the
Government funding inherited by AWM on the establishment of RDAs
in 1999 had been committed to various regeneration priorities.
With the ending of those commitments plus the aggregation of separate
budgets into a "single pot", the Agency (whose budget
for 2002/03 was £192.2 million) now had more scope and flexibility
to tackle innovation strategy. EU funding could play an important
part in this and was being actively pursued through AWM's representation
b. AWM's role was to take the lead in developing
a diverse and dynamic business base, promoting learning and skills,
creating conditions for growth and regenerating communities. The
fundamental objective was to create more and better jobs and better
quality of life in the West Midlands. The Agency did not, of course,
act in isolation. Its aim was to be a catalyst: bringing together
leaders of business and HE; carrying out market research; providing
substantial seed corn funding; stimulating investment; and generating
a new sense of regional commitment, collaboration and confidence
in seizing economic opportunities. Its strength lay in local knowledge
and commitment and in being business-led.
c. The region's strength had been built on vocational
skills, but graduate retention had been below average. Science
was an economic driver and AWM saw it as an important means of
achieving its strategy, both through research generating new products
and processes and by enriching the regional skills base. It was
important to increase scientific awareness in the industrial and
financial communities. Science could find new applications for
traditional industries, as well as generating completely new business
opportunities. But cultures needed to change: many businesses
were relatively risk-averse while academic traditions tended to
prize scientific endeavour for its own sake, rather than for its
d. Three high technology corridors had been identified
for cluster development based on centres of excellence in universities,
research establishments and both traditional and new industries.
AWM's strategic priorities were nanotechnology, polymers, photonics,
medical sciences, advanced engineering, transport design, ICT,
e-learning, microsystems commercialisation and developing space
for new high technology business.
e. Five traditional business sectors were targeted
for concentration: transport and building technologies, food and
drink, tourism and leisure and high-value consumer products. The
new target sectors were specialised business services, information
and communications technologies and environmental technologies.
AWM also saw scope for developing interactive media for education
and entertainment and new medical technologies derived from the
ownership of IP by NHS trusts.
f. The "Spinner" project was designed
to help local universities and business exploit patenting and
IP opportunities and provide start-up capital for new technologies.
Other AWM schemes also helped to generate start-up capital. However,
in the current economic climate, SMEs had difficulty in finding
enough finance to carry higher technology projects through to
the point where commercial viability could be demonstrated and
longer-term financial backing secured. More long-term funding
g. English regions and their institutions had
traditionally tended to compete with one another for funds, commercial
advantage and attention. However, AWM felt that dialogue and information-sharing
within and between regions was improving. RDAs realised that a
more co-operative approach could avoid duplicating effort or missing
opportunities, and create synergies.
h. AWM was actively promoting the rapid improvement
of broadband connectivity throughout the region. The region's
road and rail infrastructure were also a serious constraint on
development, but AWM was able only to lobby about the inadequacies.
4. Mr David Blake, AWM's Acting Director of Business
Growth, Dr Alan Curtis of the Warwick Manufacturing Group and
Mr Barry Webb of Land Rover briefed the visiting party on progress
towards establishing a new Premium Automotive Research Centre
for the Region.
If the West Midlands was to retain a stake in car manufacture,
it was clear that new skills and techniques would be required
as new materials were introduced, particularly at the premium
end of the market.
5. AWM saw the initiative as a good example of
an RDA's role as a facilitator, in this case by linking regional
university-based research with local automotive manufacturers
and their suppliers. Each of the partners was planning a substantial
investment in the centre, aiming also to leverage other funds
for particular projects. Apart from the intrinsic value, AWM expected
to see wider economic and social benefits as the Centre's impact
was felt throughout the supply chain.
6. The Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University,
Professor Michael Sterling, kindly hosted a working lunch at the
University to enable the visiting party to meet senior figures
involved in the region's HE.
Among the key points made were the following.
a. The HE community in the region was already
feeling the benefit of AWM's work and valuable partnerships had
been formed. In particular, AWM's high technology corridor concept
had much to offer universities and research centres. However,
research could not be confined regionally. Indeed, even within
the region, the corridors tended to be knowledge-based, rather
than strictly geographical.
b. Shortage of university funds left little scope
for long-term investment. This made partnerships with business
difficult to broker, especially when smaller businesses had little
money to contribute. RDAs should explore more imaginative solutions,
such as helping to create strategic joint posts where graduate
researchers could divide their time between working for business
and pursuing research for higher degrees.
c. Undergraduate engineering courses lacked an
effective national strategy. Although this was a national issue,
RDAs might help to advise the Government on how course re-structuring
could make science and engineering students more aware of entrepreneurial
culture and commercial possibilities.
d. Universities should work with RDAs to remedy
the shortage of managers capable of running joint cluster projects.
RDAs could also help to make secondary science education more
interesting and relevant to the business environment.
e. RDAs had useful autonomy to pursue business-led
strategies. If and when they became answerable to Regional Assemblies,
care would be needed to avoid politicisation of RDA strategies.
7. After lunch, the visiting party toured Birmingham
University's Nanotechnology Centre and was briefed on its work
by Professor Graham Davies and his colleagues. Because of its
significance in the region and beyond, AWM was actively involved
in supporting the Centre and extending its reach further.
8. Given the regional strengths, AWM was also
working closely with the Centre and others (including other RDAs)
in the bid for the Centre to accommodate the Government's proposed
National Microsystems and Nanotechnology Manufacturing Centre.
While being a national resource, that development would be of
great significance for the region.
Learning and Skills
9. Finally, the visiting party met representatives
of further and higher education establishments and other relevant
regional organisations to discuss the skills needed to support
the emerging cluster and technology areas. They welcomed AWM's
support of initiatives (articulated in the required FRESA) to
develop learning and skills and make the culture of HE more receptive
10. It was hoped that RDAs might do more, in
partnership with others, to address the shortage of science and
engineering students. Effective action on this needed also to
include pre-16 education in which RDAs had no formal role.
11. Members endorsed the Chairman's thanks to
AWM for hosting the visit, and to all those involved in the various
sessions which had been very helpful in clarifying the issues
to be addressed in the Inquiry.
62 Knighted in the Birthday Honours 2003. Back
AWM subsequently submitted written material to the Inquiry and,
on 4 March 2003, also gave oral evidence (see pages 24, 49 and
65 of Volume II). Back
The "International Automotive Research Centre" was formally
announced on 2 April 2003, see the supplementary memorandum from
AWM on page 65 of Volume II. Back
Many of those present were members of the West Midlands Higher
Education Association which subsequently submitted written evidence
to the Inquiry (see page 347 of Volume II). Back