What passes for an economic policy these days? As each day passes we hear of another scheme to create thousands of jobs in different parts of the country with no evidence behind the claims at all. It seems to be all the rage since the coalition got together, to allegedly rebuild our nation and our economy. And local authorities and their semi detached relatives in Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP), City Deals, Enterprise Zones and Portas Pilots pile in behind waxing lyrical about regeneration and once in a life time opportunities. Yet the truth is somewhat different.
Politicians take note. If you continue down this path of raising unrealistic expectations to get cheap and easy headlines, don’t be surprised if the public rumble you and take their revenge. In the end, all that happens is the public stop believing what they are told and their cynicism of pledges and promises grows yet further.
Only the other day I heard on the BBC news of another project which could create up to 100,000 jobs in the area of the M42 corridor, known as UK Central. It promised working with High Speed 2 and Birmingham Airport as it expands and grows. Sounds fantastic doesn’t it? Until that is, you realise there was no detail about organisations or companies or where the money was coming from, never mind the logistics of it all.
If you then look closer to home in Coventry in my case, the trend is set fair! The LEP has trumpeted for the last two years a project known as Gateway on and around the site of Coventry Airport. Job creation claims talk of up 15,000 jobs. Exciting, hey?
Or take the proposed development around Coventry Train Station, known as Friargate which has been on the starting blocks for the best part of 5 years and two planning applications later– one under Tory Administration and the other under Labour. To get things moving the Council has decided to relocate there at the cost of £59M with the hope this will kick start the whole project. The owners of the site remain ‘totally committed’ even though they have struggled to attract any real private investor and its own bank remains sitting on its hands over in Dublin. The good news though; the council have made improvements and alterations to the local road network to cope with the potential increase in traffic movements in the event of 13,000 jobs being created. In this both the council and the Friargate Company have worked well with residents and local Councillors like me to help move matters along. Everyone agrees: the place needs improving and updating. Let’s hope it works.
Then there is Bishopgate. Note all the gates in these names? This is the old Royal Mail sorting office which was to be redeveloped in a £50M investment and turned into an all singing and dancing shopping complex. I remember walking round the area with council officers looking at the changes required to accommodate the new centre. So far nothing though and the plans have recently altered due to lack of interest from investors. No claims of massive job numbers but the big 50 million stays! Impressive heh?
And let’s not forget Jerde! Six years ago, the American architectural firm were commissioned to come up with a bold new plan for the City Centre. What emerged was an egg shaped library and a puddle where the River Sherbourne once ran. The river’s still underground just like Jerde’s £1bn resurgence of the city.
Last but not least – City Centre South, a £300M project to transform part of the City Centre. The council have been very helpful here in that outline planning is already in place. Should be an incentive though so far no one’s biting.
Is Coventry unlucky then or is this just a sign of the times in our country? The government keep promising to devolve power and responsibility to local people. Yet here in Coventry we seem to be bypassed by this brave new world. Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool have all benefitted in part from City Deals and Enterprise Zones giving new revenue raising opportunities to those cities by incentivising business to move in on favourable terms. With hardly a real shift in economic terms when you look at growth figures with all this ‘activity’, you do have to wonder what’s left for the rest of us. It’s been made harder still with the recent Spending Review from the Chancellor. He ‘announced’ £2bn to give to LEPs around the country. Seems good until you realise the government’s own adviser on regeneration Lord Heseltine, the great saviour of our inner cities in the 1980s wanted £50bn!
With High Speed 2 powering metaphorically ahead direct from London, its first stop is Birmingham and then on up to the north of England. Coventry doesn’t even get a mention. We are up against it as a city, to directly benefit from this enterprise and from any alleged largesse from the government.
It is clear that a new dynamic and alternative economic policy is required in our country and in our city. We need to give local authorities the power and the means to start building houses on a grand scale. We need a massive drive on apprenticeships to tackle the crisis in unemployment in young people. We need democratic institutions looking after money and regeneration. LEPS are not democratic. We need a new version of the Regional Development Agency with real strong representation from Coventry and realistic ambition. MPs should be involved. We need an increase in business rates back to the city yet this can’t happen until regeneration kicks off. And, what is the point of having a number of banks we as a country own if we don’t make them lend to business?
This unvirtuous circle is perpetuated by a government talking devolution to the media but in reality is centralising power and emasculating Councils, in the hope that the private sector will pick up the tab. In Coventry and elsewhere in the country, we know different.