Is the Chancellor Manchester’s not so secret weapon?


Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein are, quite rightly, given a significant amount of the credit for their city’s 25 year run of growth and success that has culminated in the much publicised ‘Devo Manc’ deal that has been progressed over the past eighteen months or so.

However, news this week of disquiet in Birmingham, and a bit of an internal rift within the higher echelons of the government, would seem to confirm that Manchester has another talented and influential politician driving forward their cause in the name of Chancellor George Osborne.

His latest intervention on behalf of the city that has inevitably emerged as the capital of Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse initiative has reportedly put the nose of his business minister Sajid Javid out of joint, along with the leading movers and shakers of the ‘West Midlands engine’.

The Chinese are in the UK this week and Birmingham’s leaders, headed by Javid alongside senior councillors and officials and the chair of the Greater Birmingham Local Enterprise Partnership and John Lewis boss Andy Street, had been confident that their lobbying had secured a visit from the Chinese President today.

However, the Chancellor is said to have intervened, and instead the Chinese entourage will rock up in Manchester today, visiting Manchester Town Hall and the University, before heading off to the Etihad Stadium. Both Osborne and the Prime Minister will be in attendance.

Given that Birmingham has secured investment that will see Chinese manufacturer Changan Automobile create hundreds of jobs in the region by relocating its UK operations to Birmingham Business Park; and the fact that China will build the HS2 high speed rail line, which will initially run between London and Birmingham, it is easy to see while West Midlands leaders feel aggrieved.

However, this latest episode is a further demonstration that the Northern Powerhouse agenda means more than devolution and rebalancing the UK economy to George. It’s about helping him in his ambition to be the next resident in Number ten Downing Street. And that’s good news for Manchester!

The ‘Powerhouse’ isn’t just about the North

Northern powerhouse

It is very easy for us folk ‘up North’ to get carried away with the notion that re-balancing the UK economy means closing the North-South divide, with Manchester in the vanguard of securing the type of devolution deal that will hopefully be rolled out across the region, parochial politicians permitting.

However, the idea of ‘powerhouses’ and big, influential Combined Authorities, is not simply exercising the minds of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle et al. Everywhere located this side of the Watford gap are beating a track to Whitehall and shouting ‘Me too.’

No more so is this the case than the city that in modern times had managed to claim, and lose, the title of undisputed ‘second city’ – Birmingham.

Aesthetically, it is not the easiest on the eye, Brum. Indeed, you could go as far as to say that she is as ugly as she has ever been, as the city currently boasts a backdrop that could be happily used by Hollywood film makers for movies set in a war torn location of the Middle East.

However, there is good, and positive, reason for that. Birmingham is experiencing a long overdue facelift. A wholesale regeneration of the place is happening that will create a £2 billion plus ‘paradise’ project that cannot help but breathe new life into the economy, the night time economy in particular.

Additionally, the investment that has been confirmed by HSBC, the crucial role Birmingham will have in delivering HS2 and the fact that its city region takes in a population of 4 million people signals that this is a sleeping giant that has well and truly been awoken.

Of course, like all modern UK cities, it faces challenges, none more so than the crushing austerity programme imposed on the city council by central government, that has seen exciting initiatives such as an iconic new library and community facility turned into an albatross around civic leader’s necks.

At some point I hope the chancellor recognises that great cities can only continue to thrive and grow if they are allowed to maintain a level of service provision and activity that is relevant to the 21st rather than the 19th Century. But more of that post- Osborne budget statement.

Nevertheless, despite these challenges, Birmingham has so much else going for it that it is difficult to imagine that it is not approaching a period of huge renaissance.

I have spent the past eighteen months going down and up the M6 meeting a good number of Brummie businesses, entrepreneurs and decision makers to know that these guys and gals mean business.

Talk about energy – it is incredible. Commitment – in abundance. Determination – as Ed might say – hell yeah!

Coupled with this vibrant business community, a pragmatic public sector leadership that is keen to engage with the new up and coming business leaders of the future, whilst maintaining a strong relationship with its traditional commercial sector, makes Birmingham more than a little bit interesting.

All of this leads me to one conclusion. A city with so much attitude needs a business club to match. Downtown Birmingham in Business? We launch there in September, and I can’t wait.