Tory plans to scrap RDAs won't help the region's economy.
This week David Cameron laid into Regional Development Agencies. The Tories, it now seems, would strip RDAs of their transport and planning powers and might even scrap some of them completely, aiming to unravel Labour's regional agenda "piece by piece'.
Cameron went on to say that "the whole experiment with regional assemblies has been a complete mistake. The halfway house we've now got, where RDAs are being given planning powers, is a disaster too... there's a very strong case, at least in parts of the country, that RDAs should go altogether".
Hang on a minute. Scrapping RDAs could well lead to a recentralisation of policy making and delivery in London. Do the Tories really think that this will help the West Midlands economy?
Rather, this proposal seems to miss the point; a lot of good has actually been done by developing policies at the regional and local level rather than in Whitehall, and in providing strategic oversight regionally.
Take the decline and ultimate collapse of MG Rover. Whilst the MG Rover collapse was a very substantial shock to the West Midlands economy, the impact would have been much greater if the firm had collapsed in 2000.
In the five years up to the collapse of Rover, RDA Advantage West Midlands worked with suppliers to diversify firms away from Rover, helping them to supply other car firms and to move into new growth sectors such as medical technologies.
Around 10 - 12,000 jobs and critical engineering skills were saved in the process before Rover went bust. This was a very real success for local policy makers. The response after the collapse was also a major effort that minimised job losses.
That doesn't mean that some things couldn't be done better, and some of our current work at the University of Birmingham is looking at key policy lessons from the work of the Rover Task Force, and how ex-MG Rover workers are now getting on (for more details click here).
Of course, there is clearly a role for the national coordination of regional strategies. For example, 'clusters' or sectors like the car industry often extend well beyond a single region like the West Midlands. An isolated regional initiative may not be enough: linked initiatives across regions, perhaps co-ordinated nationally, are required to assist some clusters.
But this means joining up regional initiatives at the national level, and not scrapping them completely. It also points to the need for an industrial policy, something on which the Tories haven't been too strong in the past despite Michael Heseltine's famous declaration in the early nineties that he would intervene 'before breakfast, dinner and tea".
Rather than a neo-liberal, non-interventionist approach, government needs to do all it can to help regional economies adjust and develop.
Coming back to the West Midlands case, this needs to involve retaining manufacturing capacity (yes, manufacturing really does matter) whilst also helping to retain the key competencies and to apply them in new ways.
Using the car industry example, these will have to be in higher value added activities such as engines and drivetrains, R&D, consultancy and in other sectors such as the growing aeronautics industry.
But transferring skills and knowledge into new growth industries (whether aerospace, nanotechnology or medical technologies...) isn't always easy; policy can go a long way to help this process along. Indeed, Industrial policy is back on the agenda. Perhaps the Tories ought to wake up to this.
Cameron has spoken of the need to decentralise more and has criticised the "London centric" nature of the Labour government. Yet scrapping RDAs will do nothing to help on either front.
Rethinking what RDAs do and making them more accountable is one thing; scrapping them altogether misses the point of having strategic oversight located in the best place to deliver policy effectively.
Something doesn't quite add up here in the Tory proposals. Please think again, Mr Cameron.