Whither the future of the West Midlands Part 1
This blog forms one of four which relate to my recent panel appearance on 26th January as part of the Great Regional Debate sponsored by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).
This brought together experts from RTPI, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Royal Institute of British Architects, Institution of Civil Engineers and the Landscape Institute.
Each blog captures my response to the question asked and collectively contributes to a key debate about the future of the West Midlands region.
Q1 Is there a brain drain from the West Midlands?
This question poses the idea that there is a brain drain. However, we need to be careful that we identify clear evidence of this before intervening in a policy sense. So set within this note of caution I offer the following points.
1. People will always move out of an area to further their career and life prospects. This should not be stopped or lamented; indeed it should be actively promoted. Many graduates and professionals are seeing opportunities in the Far East and Australasia. That experience will be great for their career and knowledge. I think the key is to have a vibrant and prosperous West Midlands region so that at some stage in their life they come back so we can take advantage of those skills as well as attract new people with skills to the West Midlands.
2. We have had a significant loss of people from the built environment sector with the recession and also the sudden abolition of the regional layer of planning and economic development. With such large scale losses and retirements the question remains of how we capture institutional and individual memory and use that experience to tackle the many complex challenges the West Midlands currently faces. I am not sure we have invested in that process sufficiently which runs the risk of a significant brain drain.
3. In talking about the built environment in the West Midlands it is easy to forget the rural environment which actually is a crucial part of the region's capital. However, it is often overlooked with our fixation on tackling urban needs. However you can't separate these; they are inextricably linked. In terms of new investment in IT superhighways and good infrastructure our rural environment can provide increasingly accessible and attractive places to live and work.
4. As providers of higher education and training in the built environment it is important that we train the future professionals of tomorrow. There is a danger that we equip young people with inadequate skills to compete in the workplace of tomorrow. We need to think long term what the built environment industry is going to face within the next 20 years to future proof our graduates and maintain our reputation for academic and vocational excellence.
So how do we address these potential problems?
Firstly we need to recognise that the built environment professions need to work together more effectively. Planning, contrary to popular belief, is not an enemy of enterprise and it is a core component of the development jigsaw in a successful West Midlands.
Secondly, to achieve this we urgently need to develop a shared long term vision of where we want the West Midlands to be. In so doing we can create a climate of confidence and certainty which will enable developers to invest in the area countering the present short termism associated within contested planning reforms and economic uncertainty.
Thirdly we need to be mindful in our training programmes that we develop courses that reflect the future needs of society and the environment. For example BCU has a new Masters in Environmental Sustainability specifically addressing the need to have the environment at the centre of what we do.
However, training and continuing professional and personal development is for all of us, and we must be mindful of providing support to the built environment and public in rapidly changing times in the West Midlands.
The key to future success is articulating a vision that joins the needs of society, economy and environment within one unified lens; at present we are having too many separate lenses with visions that will inevitably conflict. In so doing we need to rethink the way we work and get out of our comfort zones and professional cliques.