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News Release


Time to learn from the lessons of history - and today

Jan ThompsonBIRMINGHAM, 6 November, 2014 - Standfirst: As the debate about Greater Birmingham reaches its climax, Ian Halstead talks to a passionate believer in the concept, JLL's regional chairman, Jan Thompson.
It's long been said that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.
Quite who first made the comment remains of interest only to academics and pedants, but its message is of profound contemporary relevance to politicians, business leaders and many others across Birmingham and the wider West Midlands.
History informs us that Britain's attempt to pursue a policy of 'splendid isolation' was a spectacular failure, not least as it was impossible for one of the world's great trading nations to remain isolated.
Strangely though, the lesson hasn't been learned by a vocal minority who believe creating Greater Birmingham - not least to compete for crucial foreign direct investment (FDI) with other combined authorities elsewhere in England - will somehow diminish the identity of its component parts.
Thompson, who was heavily involved in one of the biggest inward investment deals in Birmingham - Deutsche Bank's move to 5 Brindleyplace - believes we are failing to learn from the present - as well as the past.
“Everyone in the world of property and business has seen the tremendous FDI success achieved by those centres  that have consistently presented themselves over a number of years as a coherent, single location to overseas investors and employers on an international stage,” he says.
“Despite the tremendous success which Marketing Birmingham has achieved in recent years, it would really be a significant boost if we could all present Greater Birmingham to the world, because in this era of globalisation, big FDI brands really sell … and little ones don't.
“I was delighted to note that Greater Birmingham at long last had a stand at MIPIM last year replacing the previous confusing array of stands from all over the region; when you deal with international investors and corporates, who are footloose and have their pick of multiple locations in the UK and worldwide, you don't want to start by having to explain that (for example) places such as Solihull, Wolverhampton and Dudley are - by global standards - in the same area.
"Being part of Greater Birmingham in my view does not dilute these places independence or identity.
You only have to look at how regional brands are used very successfully elsewhere in the Western world - again without protest from their constituent elements.
“In Brussels a while back I noticed the state of Illinois had an office there, covering all its activity in Western Europe. It's much more effective and efficient to talk to employers and potential investors under that brand, rather than to talk about Chicago and all the other individual locations in Illinois.
“The message about the merit of such combined brands seems so obvious, to me and many others.  Some may think Birmingham will dominate Greater Birmingham, but it already dominates the region, so I don't see what is to be lost. A major corporate such as JLR has operations all over Greater Birmingham clearly reflecting the reality that Local Authorities will do well to emulate in some form. ”

‘’Thompson, who expects significant progress in realising the Greater Birmingham concept before the end of 2014, as confirmed by Sir Albert Bore at a recent Council House debate, says its timing is also right because the devolution of powers from central government is high on the political agenda.
“Successive governments of all persuasion have centralised power in London; partly as they simply enjoy having the power, but also because they don't really trust local authorities, which I think goes way back to the 1980s when Derek Hatton and Militant ran Liverpool, and managed to be ostracised by both Labour and the Conservatives,” he says.
“Yes, it is a long time ago, but their actions did an awful lot of damage then, and we are still feeling the impact now in terms of how government views the regions.
“However, there's no doubt that the 'Yes' campaign for Scotland, and the promises which the two main parties made to persuade people to vote 'No', have created a new mindset about devolving powers from Whitehall to local authorities.
“There would then be the question of whether local politicians and their administrations were good enough to handle the new power effectively and spend the resources wisely, but that's for the future. In the short-term, I think any government would prefer to work with a combined authority, such as Greater Manchester, rather than separate authorities.
”I am optimistic that the coalition has a genuine commitment to devolution, but equally, I am certain that the existence of Greater Birmingham would increase our chance of getting a better deal, so we all need to make sure that structure is agreed and in place, before devolution becomes a reality.
”It would be desperately sad, and damaging for the regional economy, if other areas benefited from new powers and resources in 2015, but local authorities in the West Midlands were still seen to be squabbling over an issue which has been around for many years.”