After spending the last three years campaigning against its profligacy and questionable mandate, this year the new Coalition Government’s Emergency Budget announced the demise of WMTPA nemesis and regional quango, Advantage West Midlands, who will file their final accounts on 31st March 2012.
But before you reach for the tissues just yet, let’s remember that the astonishing waste, nonsense projects and the generally misguided use of taxpayers’ money this agency was responsible for. Each year they’d casually blow close to £120,000 on a self-congratulatory conference for their supporters (comprising mainly of civil servants and grant recipients) at the ICC in Birmingham; they eagerly masterminded and funded (respectively) internet flops like Biz TV and Odadeo.com; they ploughed money in to the notorious ‘The Public’ gallery/arts centre in West Bromwich which ran tens of millions over budget; they spent thousands and thousands maintaining offices in Japan, France, Germany, Brussels, Sweden and America; indulged in regular junkets, including wining and dining in the South of France to the tune of £30k in 2007 (including £4.5k for a barbecue!) and then in 2009 they spent £300,000 sending staff to the same conference, after which the Chief Executive himself expressed doubt over whether it was worth it, claiming “It’s difficult to track exactly what happened”.
This unelected, unaccountable middle-tier of government was loathed by many business leaders in the West Midlands, perhaps not least because they failed to make an impact on the economic landscape despite wielding a hefty multi-million pound budget. The recession, if nothing else, made it even harder to stomach as every non-project/event/conference/PC initiative seemed to bear the red AWM logo, just as many small businesses in the area began to flounder.
On the 27th October a collection of the region’s MPs met with AWM Chief Executive, Mick Laverty and former Minister for the West Midlands, Ian Austin, to discuss the wind-up of the Regional Development Agency and the instigation of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).
After cuts, the RDA’s budget still stands at a whopping £250m this year, with a further £3m being allocated to the i54 site – the land that cost them over £17m several years ago, after the whole scheme was dreamed up in the late 90s. The i54 was earmarked as a “strategic business park”, but with no developer coming forward it now stands almost fallow and, according to local news reports, AWM have started selling of the site piece by piece. Whatever the case, the one tenant they’ve attracted won’t be delivering the 6,000 new jobs the project promised.
According to Laverty, the agency ‘batted off’ numerous enquiries from distribution companies who were keen to take some of the empty space, but their blind commitment to its destiny as a site for Research & Development now means that the area could end up derelict.
On their website, they optimistically toot:
“The i54 is a 96-hectare (220 acres) high quality business park development. Planned to have its own motorway junction to the M54, the flagship scheme is expected to create around 6,000 jobs, primarily in the technology industry, by 2020.
Around 2 million sq ft of industrial floor space and 376,000 sq ft of hotel, office, retail and leisure floor space will be available.
The search for a private sector developer was announced by Advantage West Midlands at MIPIM 2007 property conference in Cannes. The selection process will begin in the summer of 2007 and completed by Spring 2008”.
It’s the combination of big ambitions like this and a lack of insight/foresight that has seen many of AWM’s projects crash and burn at great cost to the taxpayer, and ultimately the regional economy.
The first wave of redundancies have already begun at the RDA, and Laverty said that the agency is working with the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills to see if his staff can find jobs “elsewhere in Whitehall”, which is perhaps preferable to them finding roles in the administration of the new LEPs which, it’s already feared, could have the potential to become local, grant-chasing quangos.
The meeting in Parliament was just a day before Vince Cable’s announcement, confirming the number of LEPs and there was palpable confusion over the role these new partnerships will take, along with the predictable dimissiveness from AWM champions who appeared unable to comprehend that the measure is about dismantling much of the structures they’ve built rather than just passing them on to the new body. Laverty repeatedly stated that plans were “very unclear”, but unfortunately for taxpayers, the one thing the TPA has reason to suspect is that LEPs will be using public money to chase public money, as John O’Connell writes here. Which goes to show that, just because RDAs were the wrong way to promote growth, it doesn’t mean LEPs are the right way.
This little gathering in a small committee room was a long way from the full-throttle evangelistic AWM conferences of their heyday, and the resigned headshakes confirmed that the money they’ve been playing with for the past 12years is now being plucked out of their hands due to misuse. But going forward we need to make sure that their departure doesn’t give way to more of the same, and the TPA will be watching closely.