Coventry's capital ideas

30 Nov 11
Martin Reeves

The chancellor need look no further than Coventry to see the benefits of infrastructure investment in terms of jobs and growth. Such activity will boost local economies and guarantee the success of UK Plc

For most people, seasonal TV adverts, festive pop songs in the shops and mince pies on the menu are the traditional annual reminders that Christmas is coming. But for many of us in local government the yearly ritual that really reminds us it's time to get the Christmas shopping underway is the final shaping of budget plans for the coming financial year.

At Coventry City Council we've just published our pre-budget report, done a round of media briefings and begun consultation with local organisations. While our proposals for setting a balanced budget next year don't see the seismic shift in our finances of a year ago it's been a tough haul for us. Our director of finance, as you'd expect, is already gloomily reminding us of the financial cliff edges further ahead.

A 28% reduction in resources across local government is a daunting prospect and we should never underplay the adverse impact the global financial crisis and deficit reduction plans have had on our staff and the people we serve.  However, I'm actually pretty energised about some of the challenges ahead for us in Coventry and, more widely, across the sector.

If ever there's been a time to innovate and be radical in local government it's now. Balancing the budget over the past couple of years has been difficult, but we've managed it through better ways of working, getting more efficient, tackling longstanding problems and, in general, sorting ourselves out.  For the past couple of years we've all been furiously agreeing with each other that doing the same is no longer an option. Now we need to stop talking about doing the unthinkable and start doing it.

In Coventry we've been bold, rather than radical, over the past couple of years. So our internal transformation programme (ABC; A Better Council for a Bolder Coventry) to review key services has seen us taking outsourced services like ICT back in-house with a saving of £5m a year. Olympics football in Coventry next year has prompted politicians to make brave decisions to pump money into city-centre regeneration schemes to kick-start our local economy. Next year's budget proposals include making an investment in a council apprentice scheme – while we continue a voluntary redundancy programme to reduce overall numbers in the workforce.

So what next for us that's truly innovative and different? We've begun to explore how we use our assets more innovatively – and we're doing this at a sub-regional level with Warwickshire. We think there's a real opportunity to unlock some of our transformational regeneration schemes through the use of new financing tools such as Tax Increment Financing. I'm convinced key infrastructure investment in cities like Coventry is vital for stimulating jobs and growth locally, regionally and guaranteeing the future success of UK plc.

So, it seems, is Chancellor George Osborne whose Autumn Statement included £5bn of investment over the next three years aimed at stimulating growth and prosperity.  So Coventry’s bold, early move to put its scarce capital to match European Regional Development Fund monies and private sector capital to deliver an ambitious programme of public realm and infrastructure projects is now being replicated on a national scale.

Whichever side of the economic and indeed political argument you sit, what can be agreed is the criticality of confidence in stimulating the economy on both a micro (local) and national level.  This is why Coventry, as a core part of the Local Enterprise Partnership for the wider sub-region, has been focusing on producing a coherent prospectus for growth, aligned to an investment strategy.

Inward investment follows some pretty simple and universal truths; namely that it is attracted to existing activity and to places that exhibit self-confidence in their individual, unique offer.  Seeing many cranes in the sky-line across Coventry, major public realm improvements being made as we dig up a significant part of the heart of the city, may not provide all the answers to the financial position we face – but it most certainly sends out an unequivocal message that the city is open for business and is confident of its future.

Martin Reeves is chief executive of Coventry City Council and CEO of the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership. He will be a member of the panel for a ‘Question Time’ style debate hosted today by CIPFA in the Midlands at PwC's Birmingham offices

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