Construction industry wants clear plan from Midlands Engine

A high-profile debate about a government initiative designed to rev up the regional economy suggests its success will be measured by how much money it secures from Whitehall.

The Midlands Engine, which is chaired by Nottingham entrepreneur Sir John Peace, has been set up to raise the region’s profile, attract investment and identify ways the transport network can connect better. The initiative came under the spotlight during a panel debate organised by the Construction Industry Council in the East Midlands which saw politicians, planners, developers and economists examine its potential in front of an audience of more than 70 industry professionals.

Sponsored by BWB Consulting, Turner & Townsend and Skeleton Productions, the discussion took place at the University of Nottingham’s GSK Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry and featured Labour MP Lilian Greenwood, Fairgroves Homes chief executive Steve Midgley, and Nick Ebbs, chief executive of specialist development company Blueprint.

They were joined by Andrew Pritchard, director of policy and infrastructure for East Midlands Councils, and Will Rossiter, head of the economic research strategy bureau at Nottingham Trent University, with the discussion chaired by John Hess, former political editor for the BBC in the East Midlands.

Discussing whether the Midlands Engine amounted to substance or spin, the panel concluded that it was a mix of both, with serious potential to influence investment in infrastructure and skills and an opportunity to give the regional economy a higher and more influential profile at home and abroad.

Andrew Pritchard said that with government funding streams already committed up until 2020, the Midlands Engine’s main opportunity would come after that point: “The test will be in its ability to secure a bigger chunk of investment after that,” he said.

Nick Ebbs suggested London’s dominance in political and economic decision-making hindered regional progress, a point supported by MP Lilian Greenwood. “We need to get away from parochial thinking here,” said Greenwood. “MPs perhaps need to think of themselves as Midlands Engine MPs if we are to challenge London,” she said.

In the face of audience criticism that Nottingham had failed to grab the agenda in the same way as Birmingham and Manchester, Ebbs said the East Midlands’ three key cities must find ways to cooperate: “There is nothing wrong with competition between cities provided there is intelligent unity on the big issues,” he said.

A more imaginative approach to meeting housing targets, better transport networks and greater business involvement in schools also came under the spotlight at the event.

Afterwards, Maria Coulter, chair of the CIC in the East Midlands, said it was vital the Midlands Engine communicated a clear plan for the future: “Though there is £12m in place to help draw up a detailed strategy for improving the regional transport network, it doesn’t look like serious funding will be available until after 2020. Yet this is an initiative with ambitious targets – and we need to know how it will achieve them.

“As Andrew Pritchard observed, what we secure after that will be the acid test for the effectiveness of the Midlands Engine in making the case for regional investment. So as an industry we need to stay close to it, work with it and demonstrate why investing in Midlands infrastructure makes sense,” Coulter said.

Mark Deakin, director, cost management, at joint sponsor Turner & Townsend, said: “The UK economy faces significant challenges, public finances remain stretched, and against that background government often takes some convincing to back major infrastructure projects.

“What the CIC debate demonstrated was that the construction industry in the Midlands combines the ambition and pragmatism necessary to take some of the risk out of those decisions. But we do need Government to commit – UK plc needs to be in the strongest possible position to compete globally as Brexit takes effect,” said Deakin.

Steve Wooler, chief executive of fellow sponsor BWB Consulting, added: “If we are to make the most of the potential that the Midlands Engine offers to secure investment and raise the regional profile then there has to be a balanced approach. This can’t be based purely on the strengths of one city or one industry.

“We want to see the East Midlands punching its weight and pressing the case for investment. It must leave behind wasteful, small-town squabbles and recognise that the Midlands Engine represents a golden opportunity to raise its profile on a much bigger stage,” Wooler said.

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