Q & A with Mark Rogers, chief executive of Birmingham council

Birmingham council is undergoing a process of culture change

Q. Trickle down economics is not working in Birmingham. What’s the alternative?

A. We need to dispense with orthodoxies. Trickle down economics is rhetoric. It doesn’t happen. The same areas are suffering the same challenges and the heat map of the city is unchanged. I don’t believe that by investing in the city centre you somehow you get that beneficial halo effect across the city. The answer is to focus not only on top down but on bottom up. Every investor should be morally obliged to create the halo effect deliberately. When we work with top investors and developers they have to sign up to a business charter which asks them to invest in local labour skills and development in relation to the size of their scheme. We expect anyone we do business with to provide sustainable local employment opportunities.

Next, we need to generate much more grassroots level enterprise. We need to take some of the resources aimed at improving worklessness – the Work Programme investment for example – and unpick it so we can invest in community-led initiatives and grow expectations of work from the bottom up. We have devolved our clean and safe neighbourhoods work, and that is now mobilising local people to be proud of their neigbourhoods. We can do the same and invest in initiatives around skills development at street level and make people proud of work.

Q: As Localise West Midlands’ work on community economic development has shown, it is the small and micro businesses that build and sustain a healthy local economy and yet city regions are very focused on attracting large organisations from outside. How can you change that?

A. It’s true that Leps are often focused on strategy and doing deals with government and less focused on the local agenda. Leps and local authorities need to rethink the top down and the bottom up. We’ve been largely focused on planning the local economy – thinking through skill development for example – and less focused on neighbourhoods and street level initiatives but that is part of our future vision.

One of the things that came from the Kerslake review was the need for an initiative in the east of Birmingham where there is lots of poverty and worklessness. We’re now researching to see what are the alternatives to the present interventions we make so that we can have community-led approaches to employment and reskilling.

Q: Should we also shift economic measurement away from growth?

A. I like the idea of a happiness index. Wouldn’t it be good if Birmingham was the happiest place or where people experienced the best health and wellbeing? Happiness is the result of a number of other things including having a job. Measuring GDP or GVA are fine but we are more than the sum of our economic contribution. I was chatting to the Bishop of Birmingham a while back and we talked about churches that put those fundraising barometers up. I suggested they should put a child poverty barometer up instead so that we can visibly be held to account for what we have changed. But why not have happiness barometers on all of our faith and community buildings?

Q: What’s your vision for Birmingham’s local economy in 10 years?

A. In 10 years I’d like to think those heat maps had gone at least from red to amber and that a significant percentage of those people who had fallen into worklessness have got jobs and that the halo effect is happening across the city. I would like us to be leading edge in terms of the best performance of the core cities around employment and skills and renowned as an advanced manufacturing hub and have diverse sectors. As a young city I’d like us to be the creative and digital capital of the UK and for Digbeth to be world famous.

And when HS2 arrives all the hard work will have been done. The arrival of the train line will be the affirmation of ten years of economic development predicated on the advantages that line will bring us around connectivity. The laying of the track is almost the icing on the cake.

Clare Goff is Editor at New Start magazine

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