Well another November brought with it another extravagant Advantage West Midlands conference where – as usual – public sector executives vastly outnumbered the very private sector business people who create jobs in the region, and each speaker managed to identify just why the RDA model doesn’t work without actually addressing the issue.
Let’s start on a positive – the organisers at this year’s conference managed to get their alphabet in the right order (which was an improvement on last year) so registering was less of a cryptic challenge, and to be fair it seemed as though the quango might have even made some effort to cut costs for it’s 2009 bonanza. Gone were the huge suspended AWM banners that adorned the lofty ICC atrium last year, and what’s more, there were altogether fewer promotional stalls from the RDA and associated quangos dotted about the refreshment area. Could it be that AWM are taking heed of the thorn in their side that is the WMTPA? We shall only know when the reply to this year’s Freedom of Information request comes back with full costs for the day, but on the face of it, this was a slightly more prudent display than in years past.
And believe it or not, we even managed to survive without any pre-conference entertainment too. Last year we were treated (somewhat bizarrely at 10am in the morning) to the voices of an a cappella gospel choir, presumably intended to ‘warm us up’ for what they hoped would be a joyous, fever pitch love-in that in the end all but saw AWM execs high-fiving each other on the way to the podium, but this year we made do with Bryan Adams (thankfully not in person).
So AWM have learned how to hold a conference without quite as many swags and drapes, which must show they do know how to trim the fat, if only in a superficial way. The trouble is that the actual content of the conference, the real meat of the speeches, felt startlingly repetitive. An acknowledgement that the West Midlands economy is in poor shape (and – importantly – not only due to the recession) delivered by a poker-faced Mick Laverty who steered away from accepting any responsibility on behalf of AWM, though had it been a different story it’s unlikely he’d have been so shy of accepting credit. An impassioned plea to what all attendees and speakers clearly acknowledged was a predominantly public sector audience to encourage the private sector to ‘join with us’, even though we’re constantly being told that AWM are something of a bridge between government and enterprise. And then the usual expensive sounding plans, for example the “Tourism Action Plan” and the “Transport Priorities Action Plan”, both heralding more consultations, more money, and ultimately more talking. And we can only wonder what the latter ‘action plan’ has in store for our region’s drivers…
Regional Minister, Ian Austin MP also indicated that there would be yet more congregating and head-scratching as we were told of four new groups to be formed by AWM; the Low Carbon Group, the Digital Creative Industries Group, the Healthcare Technologies Group and the Advanced Manufacturing Group. Now there are a few people who would consider such pow-wows between well-remunerated ‘experts’ to be excellent and innovative ideas factories, but to most of us and to many business owners struggling in the West Midlands’ debilitating economic climate, this is just more money in exchange for hot air – money that could be put to much, much better use.
I’m sure the RDA’s Chairman Sir Roy McNulty didn’t intend to sabotage his own quango’s event, but seemingly he failed to spot the huge irony in the quotations he chose to display on PowerPoint to emphasise his speech. In-between his open acknowledgement of the lamentable employment statistics in the region and his broad questions with rather two-dimensional solutions (Q: Why isn’t it working? S: We should try to be better!) he quoted in bold letters “WE CAN SEE THE ENEMY AND IT IS US!”. Never a truer word? Or perhaps his second Erasmus Darwin quote is truer of AWM: “THE WORLD WAS NOT GOVERNED BY THE CLEVER MEN, BUT BY THE ACTIVE AND THE ENERGETIC”. Sometimes you just couldn’t make this stuff up…
As a spectator, the most striking thing about this conference was that Laverty, Austin and McNulty together with the panellists who later gathered to address our questions all voiced the same grumble – a grumble that ultimately points to the redundancy of AWM and it’s counterparts, and yet at one point we were quite literally told that those who work with the RDA must ‘get over it’. That is to say, the fact that it is predictably difficult and unnatural to galvanise a region that, though 80% rural, has vast industrial cities to maintain.
References to ‘small town politics’ abounded, and tales of both local businesses and authorities displaying more concern for their immediate locality than the wider region. We were told that this is an unhealthy attitude, and that those in Hereford should care about their counterparts in Coventry and Wolverhampton and Telford. Which surely begs the question – why? If local people feel that their issues are better addressed on a local basis, why is that wrong? Why should they have to ‘get over’ their deep affiliation with a particular area in order to have a 'regional strategy' foisted upon them? If you’re hitting a brick wall trying to unite enterprise under a modern, unnatural boundary then perhaps the model is wrong. It felt as though AWM were coming against the sort of resistance you might expect when you try to force a square peg into a round hole. “We need to pull together”, we were told, but when you draw a line around a particular area without any respect for natural or historical boundaries, how can you expect there to be any entrenched, unifying factors? Who or what is ‘we’? “You’re team West Midlands now”, this RDA tells the blob in the centre of the country that it oversees, but these teammates have little in common, understandable concern about their own predicament and hugely diverging economic issues to deal with.
Funnily enough, this issue has clearly been so prevalent that AWM almost recognise it. “Some things are better done at national level and some at local level”, we were told, “but some functions and tasks are best carried out in the gap in the middle” they were pleading, insistant. That’s a ‘gap’ that never previously existed until this extra tier of government elbowed it’s way in, appropriating powers as it went. They’ve acquired a no-man’s land and created a Narnia in between existing layers of government and now they wish to preside over their imaginary kingdom. Ian Austin told us that there was a need for ‘something’ at a regional level and Sir Roy McNulty (in between wildly inappropriate/appropriate quotes) told us that the region needed something to ‘connect’ the local and national operation, less like cement and more like governmental jam. All this seems like a pretty flimsy way of justifying a multi-million pound agency with hundreds of staff and unaccountable powers over the central region and, what’s more, it’s as though they’re holding their hands up and admitting they’re that most hated thing – the costly middleman. At one point Sir Roy said that AWM assisted needy businesses by allowing them to defer tax payments. Cut this middleman out and the TPA have shown that the savings could be used to fund a 4p cut in the small business rate of corporation tax.
Towards the end of the conference they requested questions for the panel, and at the risk of being caustic but in the hope of drawing attention to the elephant in the room, the WMTPA asked:
“Do expensive self-promoting conferences like this, involving very few representatives from the wealth-creating private sector offer any contribution or true value for money to ordinary people and businesses in this region, or is this just an exercise in public sector back-slapping?”
There were murmurings of ‘good question!” in the auditorium but flustered panellists entirely failed to give a good answer. And so the talking-shop resumed it’s usual business.