Last week, Derbyshire County Council voted unanimously, cross-party to investigate the potential for joining an East Midlands strategic alliance.
I know this blog is a bit longer than usual but I wanted to explain some of the thinking around our decision.
A strategic alliance would be new and different and complex to set up. It’s hard to explain in a few words but please bear with me…
We all know that the West Midlands Combined Authority is proving to be a force to be reckoned with, perhaps outperforming the Midlands Engine when it comes to drawing in resources from Government. In some ways this is to be welcomed – if someone in our region is doing well we all do better. However, I’m sure we all recognise that we all need to do well. Where drawing in infrastructure investment is concerned, our own performance in the East Midlands is pitiful compared to other regions. Just £91 per head is spent on infrastructure investment in the East Midlands compared to £746 per head in London.
An engine functions best when all its component parts are properly tuned and working efficiently. Right now, we are poorly tuned. Our components are out of sync and it is this that we need to address.
For too long we’ve been attempting to dive-in in between sittings and sweep the crumbs off the table. It’s time we took a seat at that table and took a decent slice of the cake. It impacts not only on simply getting about but suppresses the region’s economy. Already, for manufacturing, automotive, rail and other industries we have a great track record and a good economic performance compared to the rest of the Midlands Engine, but this will stall if we don’t take action now to improve matters. We are all familiar with the issues of getting in and out of our cities and larger towns and we have HS2 to come. If we don’t invest now we may end up with a poorly functioning economy in 10 or 20 years. We need action now. Something needs to give and I believe that exploring a strategic alliance as an option is critical not only to this authority but all local authorities in Derbyshire and, of course, across the East Midlands and to the country. Not to mention that our residents and businesses expect us to work in this way on their behalf.
The pieces are already there, we just need to bring them together and deliver this for our residents.
What are the benefits?
We can add significantly to the Gross Value Added (GVA) of the region, adding another £17bn over and above current projections quoted by the Midlands Engine, and add 117,000 jobs and 15,000 new businesses. We can also unlock investment in skills, be better coordinated, take a more strategic view of the region, help districts and boroughs unlock housing growth and enable sites to be delivered where significant infrastructure issues are the barrier. It would require us to bring together the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and chambers of commerce, to ensure our industrial strategies are aligned and we’re all pulling in the same direction – which I believe will add significant strength to the region. By this focus we can better coordinate infrastructure and regeneration growth in a joined up way. The pieces are already there, we just need to bring them together and deliver this for our residents.
What would it mean for Derbyshire post-Brexit?
In a post-Brexit world we need to be ready, work across borders and be united, clear and strong as a region when we make our asks. We can leave nothing to chance in delivering economic prosperity and growth developing infrastructure, skilling up our young people and creating jobs. Part of this centres on taking the best bits of the Metro Strategy, expanding it still further to include Leicester, recreating again the idea of the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ with the East Midlands Airport at its heart and ensuring our counties are very much tapped into that growth potential and recognising the rural and our market town economies as being key to that growth too. There is also much to do on tourism too, with a coast to moorland mountain offer that could be better joined up and promoted to deliver significant economic uplift and be the envy of the nation, creating a true world class destination. This sector is currently worth over £6.1bn to the East Midlands but could see considerable further growth.
What do other councils in Derbyshire think?
Importantly, the East Midlands Strategic Alliance would provide leadership of place, to unlock investment and bring forward more housing and maximise opportunities of HS2 and further develop east-west links across the region. I have engaged with other local councils about plans to pursue a strategic alliance and they are widely supported.
I believe the key to making this work is to work with our district and borough council colleagues along with all other partners, to make the time and space for conversations to happen when needed and to ensure colleagues are part of the process.
That’s very much the next stage – to explore the possibilities and develop the business case, to give this the best opportunity of working for the benefit of our regional and county economy. The Leaders hope to meet again later this month and begin the process of becoming a joint prosperity board, the first step towards furthering our plans.
Will the Government support the plans?
I believe, from active conversations held with officials and the Secretary of State that the time is now to develop and explore this further, that Government is ready to listen to locally formulated ideas and constructs.
These are challenging times for local authorities with ongoing budget pressures. And while I am proud of the focus of this council and its officers in delivering our vision for a more effective and efficient local authority, delivering an enterprising council agenda, and taking a more holistic view of the whole authority budget to deliver more investment in highways and children’s services, this will only take us so far. There is much uncertainty before us nationally and we do not yet fully understand how this will translate into impacts on council budgets in the future. Whatever the future we need to be more resilient, plan to grow our local economy – because we know it best – and plan to work with our partners across the region to see if we can achieve efficiencies or help each other do something better. Can others help us to do things better?
A strategic alliance, I believe, is critical to create the space where these things can happen.