The one-day Advantage West Midlands conference cost taxpayers £118,000 last year, so this year the TPA were in attendance to see exactly how our Regional Development Agency spent this sort of cash, and whether any of it really represents value for money.
We actually arrived to find that AWM had ‘regenerated’ the alphabet as we were asked to collect our name tags and glossy conference packs from four different stalls with hoardings announcing them as ‘a-d’, ‘e-l’, ‘k-r’ and ‘s-z’. Though this is potentially confusing when your name begins with an ‘m’ I did choose my queue without too much hesitation but this lack of attention to detail really doesn’t say anything positive about the organisation of the event.
The day kicked of with forty-five minutes of refreshments, chatter and networking in a sizeable room filled with largely neglected stalls and diversions, presumably intended to catch our imaginations and impress us with their AWM-funded successes, so it was quite a surprise to see the notorious failure Business Link West Midlands being showcased amongst them (see here and here for typical mishaps). Let’s hope they don’t set the standard…
Suitably buoyed by caffeine we took our seats in the main auditorium accompanied by the excellent but largely irrelevant “Black Voices”, a singing group whom we were reliably informed are part of the West Midlands Cultural Olympiad, a concessionary side-show to the 2012 Olympics supported by a veritable clutch of local quangos and paid for by you. Then into just over an hour and a half of self-congratulatory speeches, most of which happily avoided any criticisms launched at RDAs or AWM in favour of focusing in on some particularly well-selected tit-bits.
But why be controversial in a room full of acquiescent public sector workers? And why create a forum for uncomfortable debate when you can avoid the bother of being called to account by ordinary West Midlands people who couldn’t hope to understand your grand plans? AWM clearly didn’t want anyone but their champions and industry buddies to attend as the event had (uncharacteristically for AWM) very little publicity and exposure beforehand, and in fact didn’t even appear on the official Advantage West Midlands website events calendar (and still doesn’t) – it’s hidden away on a website of its own.
Consequently, the delegates list represents hardly any of the private business sector they claim to work with (less than 30%, with far fewer from businesses who haven’t received AWM assistance) but reads like a roll-call of local councillors and quangoists keen to partake in a morning of mutual back-slapping.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that even the very few who attended from the private sector have created more sustainable jobs in the region than AWM could claim to have created or ‘enabled’. For those who prospered under Thatcher’s ‘Enterprise Zones’ and the tax breaks they offered it must seem absurd for the taxpayer to be funding a questionable body with a multi-million pound budget to fritter unaccountably in the name of ‘assisting business’. And who can forget some of those ridiculous projects, like the £3.6million unwatched website ‘BizTV’ which claimed to help local business-owners, the ‘Graduate Advantage’ recruitment services that cost the rest of us £9,000 per young person in work last year and the £24,000 spent on carving a tree and painting it purple?
After hearing presentations from Jaguar Land Rover and Channel 4 we filed out of the auditorium, utterly confused as to what possible benefit the morning lectures could have been to anyone in business or otherwise. We might already have assumed that two companies who’ve benefitted from generous AWM ‘collaboration’ would be first in the queue to publically support the RDA, but this isn’t dependable advocacy and these aren’t impartial sources. The inherent lack of accountability in the RDA system means that, unlike similar events involving local or central government, this gathering wasn’t a forum for debate with a view to adapting and improving, this was one side of the story, a tale of success modified for its particular audience and paid for by taxpayers.
Following on, we attended the transport ‘case study session’ where we got to listen to an AWM representative wax lyrical about the new New Street station plans before admitting that he ‘wasn’t a rail expert’ (despite being responsible for the £100m AWM investment in the project) and that there were no intentions to actually improve track capacity – so no additional trains. And another man told us about an odd, and presumably expensive, rural scheme called ‘Wheels 2 Work’ which involves loaning scooters to the unemployed free of charge and then subsidising driving lessons for them.
But notably, at the 2008 conference of the Regional Development Agency representing the West Midlands the break-out session focusing on transport had nothing to say about the contentious issue of the regions roads. And what is more, they weren’t too keen to answers questions about them either, with the meetings chair Nick Paul nervously side-stepping the opportunity to elaborate on road plans when confronted. They wanted to talk about trains, not traffic.
We skipped ‘lunch and networking’, though I’m sure it was great, and leaving early we missed the final euphoric sentiments, no doubt engineered to send delegates home singing AWM’s praises, but it’s important that these organisations don’t pull the wool over the eyes of the rest of us, those of us who are seeing no tangible benefits and yet noticing our tax pounds disappear into this black hole:
- In the West Midlands the number of jobs and the number of people in work has slowed since 1999.
- The area grew quicker in the 7 years before AWM came into being (in both per head and total output terms)
- The West Midlands relative contribution to the overall economy has also dropped.
- Employment in the public sector rose quicker than that in the private sector.
If this was the record of a private company we’d be seriously questioning their viability, yet AWM live to fight another year and as they look forward to taking on even more powers with the demise of regional assemblies, we should be genuinely worried about the important powers we're investing in these unknown, unelected and highly paid executives.