The Birmingham Post is claiming that a Tory plan to strip Regional Development Agencies of some of their powers will damage the economy of the West Midlands and centralise decision making.
This is absolute nonsense. Removing the regional quangocracy will empower local communities, increase democratic accountability in the decision-making process and could provide a vital boost to the local economy at a time when the global economy is taking a nosedive.
Planning and transport are important areas of policy – the West Midlands has a population the size of Scotland (about 5 million) and the policy that determines when and where a road will be built, the buses and trains run and houses and factories are built is in the hands of an unelected quango with a Birmingham-centric view. Birmingham may be the largest city in the West Midlands but it’s not the only place to live or do business. There are about a million people living in Birmingham – that leaves another 4 million “West Midlanders” treated as an afterthought by the quango that’s supposed to represent their interests.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland planning and transport has its own ministry with dedicated, qualified staff and elected ministers answerable to the electorate for the actions of their department. In the West Midlands we have unelected quangos unanswerable to the 4 million or so voters in the West Midlands.
It is wrong to assume that abolishing regional quangos will result in centralisation – there is no reason why the powers given to regional quangos shouldn’t be given back to the local authorities that they were taken from in the first place.
The Birmingham Post cites the collapse of MG Rover as an example of the value of the Regional Development Agency, Advantage West Midlands. “Whilst the MG Rover collapse was a very substantial shock to the West Midlands economy, the impact would have been much greater if the firm had collapsed in 2000? says David Bailey, the author of the Birmingham Post article. True, the collapse of MG Rover had a major impact on the West Midlands conurbation. It had an impact all over the country but the main impact was felt in Longbridge and the urban core of the West Midlands. The effect of the collapse of MG Rover was probably no worse in Worcester or Oswestry or Stafford than it was in Edinburgh or London or Cardiff.
There is no doubt that the collapse of MG Rover required a response on a grander scale than the local authority covering Longbridge but is the Birmingham Post really suggesting that it is beyond the wit of our elected local councils, who themselves manage multi-million pound budgets and provide hundreds of services under close scrutiny of the electorate, to work with each other to cope with the fallout from the collapse of MG Rover or any other “big issue”?
Whilst Advantage West Midlands was diverting all its energies into buying the Longbridge site and providing advice to businesses in Longbridge and the surrounding area, other parts of the West Midlands were losing out. Making certain polices and functions the sole responsibility of Advantage West Midlands is rather like putting all your eggs in one basket. Local authorities either aren’t allowed – or don’t have the resources – to provide the services Advantage West Midlands would have provided if they weren’t concentrating on MG Rover.
Just like a local solution to a problem isn’t always appropriate, a regional answer isn’t always right either – especially in a euroregion so economically and demographically diverse as to contain England’s second city and most rural county. This is why regional quangos like Advantage West Midlands need to be wound up and loose alliances formed on an issue by issue basis by local authorities and other interested parties. This way decision making remains in the hands of democratically accountable local councils but a “joined up” response to bigger issues is still perfectly workable when it’s needed. And more importantly, from the point of view of the local economy, businesses can be reassured that they won’t be subject to the whim of an unelected, undemocratic quango based in Birmingham.
Perhaps Professor David Bailey’s profile at the Birmingham University website might shed some light on his defence of the indefensible:
Industrial policy, economic development policy, policy towards transnational corporations and FDI, transition in Central and Eastern Europe, European integration and enlargement particularly with reference to EU Structural Funding and Regional Policy, structural change in the Japanese economy, economic freedom, the automotive industry.
David is Professor of Economic Policy and International Business and Head of the Industrial and Labour Economics (ILE) Group at the Birmingham Business School. He is also an attached member of staff of the University’s European Research Institute and co-chairs the University’s Europe Group.
Outside of Birmingham, David is Chair of the Regional Studies Association and is a member of the ESRC Virtual College. He is also an Academician of the Social Sciences, a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
Of course, you’d have to be one of life’s cynics to think that his defence of Advantage West Midlands is influenced at all by the funding Advantage West Midlands provides to his department or his support for European integration and regionalisation.