Midlands Engine must learn from the North’s teamwork if it's to fire up

ACE Midlands chairman Steve Wooler also managing director of BWB calls for more unity between authorities to get regional devolution into gear

The proposed devolution of political power to the regions undoubtedly offers great potential; for more effective decision making, for better targeted investment, and for much needed improvements in efficiency of municipal administration and provision of services. 

Unfortunately, the political obstacles are proving great. 

As chairman of ACE’s Midlands region, I am increasingly frustrated that little of substance is happening in this strategically important region; a region that also forms the central piece of the political jigsaw. The sound ideals that underpin the case for major overhaul of local government are in real danger of becoming discredited and seen as just yet more empty political rhetoric. 

There’s no doubt that the region first out of the blocks and gaining most media attention is the Northern Powerhouse. In contrast, the so-called Midlands Engine has yet to fire up, let alone start running smoothly! There is growing support for the devolution agenda, feeding the momentum of the Northern Powerhouse. Its profile is growing and the concept appears to be catching the imagination of both business and political leaders.

 I recently attended a major Northern Powerhouse conference in Manchester and the quality of the debate and presentations was good, building on a lot of groundwork put in over the past year or so. Even more impressive was the apparent political consensus that has been achieved based on recognition that “together we are stronger”. 

The impetus is clearly coming from Manchester, which has capitalised on its strategic location at the heart of the North West, but even the cities east of the Pennines seem to see the benefit. I only wish the same could be said of the Midlands, which remains totally divided along its east-west historic legacy. The West Midlands engine is somewhat belatedly beginning to turn, but it does have significant political, economic and geographical agglomeration advantages that simply don’t exist in the East Midlands. 

The eastern half of the Midlands has historically lacked regional identity and critical urban mass. Consequently it suffers from lack of cohesion, and remains plagued by parochialism. Whilst Nottingham and Derby show a willingness to work together, Leicester is refusing to join the party. If the political prize of greater regional self-governance is to be claimed, all stakeholders – businesses and politicians – must show long-term vision.