Andy Street: The BBC’s Birmingham plans represent a cultural “levelling up” this country needs

23 Mar

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

This weekend Line of Duty, one of the BBC’s most successful shows, returned to our screens for its highly anticipated fifth series. The hit crime drama is one of a number of major TV productions made in Northern Ireland, making a significant contribution the local economy there.

However, few people know that the first series of this hit show – the one that established it as a fans’ favourite – was made in Birmingham, with filming taking place across the West Midlands.

In fact, Line of Duty was created by West Midlands-born Jed Mercurio, who lived for several years in Birmingham where he worked as a doctor in local hospitals.

I don’t know why production of the show moved away from Birmingham, but its move was certainly emblematic of a shortfall in investment by the BBC here, resulting not only in an economic imbalance but also in a lack of representation of West Midlands life on national TV schedules.

Now, all this is changing – with a landmark announcement this week from the BBC and significant plans for independent production studios in Birmingham, following years of lobbying by myself, and huge combined efforts by our talented creative industry. In TV parlance, we are “ready for our close up”.

I believe the announcement by the Beeb represents a kind of cultural “levelling up” – and follows the announcement that the Department for Transport is to move to Brum and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government to Wolverhampton. All of these moves are crucial to the ongoing success of devolution, as they ensure opinion formers and decision makers, whether in the media or the Government, understand and engage with life outside the capital. But this has been a long time in the making.

For decades, Birmingham boasted one of the biggest BBC centres in the country – Pebble Mill – which was home to the Archers, Top Gear, The Clothes Show, Countryfile, Gardeners’ World and the daily magazine show Pebble Mill at One. Its studios were used to film All Creatures Great and Small, Boys from the Blackstuff, Doctors, Dangerfield, Howards’ Way, Juliet Bravo, Dalziel and Pascoe and more.

After the BBC closed the famous studios in 2004, its presence in the region shrank to a shadow of its former self. By 2011, the Corporation had opened its huge base at Salford’s MediaCity, in Greater Manchester – where it employs more than 3,000 people.

This, for me, was another symbol of how our region was being left behind other parts of the country. It wasn’t just about the loss of jobs and investment, critical though that was, it also meant that talent from our region would be forced to move elsewhere.

It also showed a major national institution turning away from us, and not just any institution – the BBC isn’t like any other business. It is one we all pay for through our licence fee and it was clear that West Midlands people were getting a poor return on the money they were contributing to BBC coffers.

Four years ago, the BBC’s annual report revealed the Corporation spent just 1.5 per cent of its programming budget in the Midlands, down from 1.8 per cent the year previously. It meant that while licence fee payers in the wider Midlands region were paying £961 million a year, the broadcaster was spending just £135 million a year here, while pumping money into London and the North. Quite simply, the BBC was investing less in the Midlands than any other part of the country.

And it’s not just about money – it’s about representation. Think about this: how many TV shows can you name that are set in the Midlands? TV schedules are full of gritty northern dramas, London cop shows or programmes that use famous regional landmarks as their backdrops. Happy Valley is set in Yorkshire, Unforgotten, Luther and Marcella in London, Broadchurch in Dorset. The biggest soaps are in the capital, Manchester and the Yorkshire Dales. Doctor Who may travel anywhere in time and space, but the Tardis chose to move its regular base from Wales to Sheffield.

Yes, we have the sublime Peaky Blinders, created by proud Brummie Steven Knight, and Line of Duty subtly hints at an anonymous Midlands setting, but there are very, very few shows where you can see life here on your screens, or hear our accents. As one of the UK’s most densely populated places, this underrepresentation is simply wrong.

Last week, the BBC announced ambitious plans for its biggest transformation in decades, including moving more programme making and investment to the West Midlands, finally delivering the kind of investment that our region has been crying out for.

This followed months of negotiations with Tim Davie, new BBC Director General, and means that over the next six years the corporation will increase activity across the region, with at least one new primetime drama series and one new primetime entertainment series commissioned here.

This will not only bring new jobs and opportunities, it will also give us the chance to tell our own stories, express our creativity, make our voices heard and ensure a fairer representation for the region on the cultural landscape. However, it will also mean that the BBC will benefit hugely from the incredible pool of talent here.

This is an industrious, innovative place. In the last four years our creative sector has really begun to regain momentum. Creative and digital was the fastest growing sector in the West Midlands between 2016 and 2018. There are nearly 1000 creative businesses in the region, contributing £4.7 billion per year to the economy – that’s why I have always championed it as a sector.

Now, this new BBC investment will feed that momentum, creating more jobs and giving us the opportunity to be a leading light in the sector again, just as we were in the heyday of Pebble Mill.

There have been setbacks. There is no doubt that years of BBC under-investment impacted on independent production here, which was cited as one of the possible reasons Channel 4 chose in 2018 to overlook Birmingham’s bid to be its new base outside of London, in favour of Leeds.

I was personally hugely disappointed by the Channel 4 decision, because I thought we were the best choice, but I don’t regret the fact that we tried. In fact, going through the process with Channel 4 helped us to galvanise our creative sector, work out where our strengths lay, and it has laid the foundations for the successes we are now seeing.

Under my leadership, the West Midlands Combined Authority helped set up Create Central to bring together the local screen industry to lead the development of plans to grow the sector. This included £2 million for Create Central to fund a programme of activities to boost the film, TV and games sector in the region, with £500,000 to run bootcamps to teach young people the skills they need to work in the TV production sector.

All this activity means the arrival of more BBC activity coincides with a creative explosion here, centred around Birmingham’s Digbeth. Two major new production facilities are already planned in this creative quarter of the Brum – Mercian Studios, an international film studios and media village, led by Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight, and a new Creative Content Hub for independent TV and content production.

Over the next few weeks, the UK will be gripped by Line of Duty, a TV phenomenon that began here in the West Midlands. Soon, the Peaky Blinders will return to our screens too. The news that the BBC is to finally take full advantage of the immense talent to be found here will mean viewers can look forward to many more West Midlands-made TV classics, while local people will get a fairer share of the nation’s cultural currency.

David Sidwick: Police and Crime Commissioners should not be too cosy with Chief Constables

2 Mar

David Sidwick is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for Dorset.

As we face the May elections, there will be much debate about policing and the role of Police and Crime Commissioners.

The first question is why do we have PCCs in the first place? There has always been a local linkage of governance to a police force. First it was via local watch committees which were dissolved when it was felt these were not transparent enough. Then came police authorities, that whilst more transparent, had weak strategic input and no direct democratic mandate. Finally, Police and Crime Commissioners which can provide both the democratic linkage and the strategic input.

The issue is that there has never been a strong enough case put for the role to the public – and there has never been a strong enough differentiated case for Conservative PCCs and the unique benefits that they bring.

This has allowed a conflation and misunderstanding of the impartiality of the police and the political nature of PCCs. The independence of the police was enshrined both in the actuality of the legislation and in the spirit. PCCs in their oath of service clearly state they will not interfere with the operational effectiveness of the police force.

Conservative PCCs particularly understand the complicated and necessarily distanced relationship with the Chief Constable – it must neither be directive nor too cosy as both have the capability to infringe on operational independence.

Conservative PCCs also understand that they hold the grail in that the police must remain operationally impartial. It was in our DNA when Sir Robert Peel set up the Peelian Principles and it is worth restating Principle 5 – Police seek and preserve public favour, not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.

So this is the “no fear or favour” that lies at the heart of the operational policing and it absolutely has to be sacrosanct. But let’s be clear; this has to be impartiality to all, including the following – political parties, lobby groups, rich individuals or corporations, and also those groups that may be a public relations minefield – no matter how good the cause. The law applies to all that commit crimes and should be equally applied.

And therein also lies the issue with the suggestion about removing governance completely and letting the police run themselves via the National Police Chiefs Council – leaving aside the fact this removes the local democratic accountability that has been part of our police forces since the years of their inception – it also means that the institution will no longer serve the public, but themselves – having an internal view not accountable to the public is a very dangerous path.

So the concept of operational impartiality for the police remains at the heart of the concept of Conservative PCCs.

In the South West, there has been a deliberate message to the electorate that confuses the operational and strategic to make the case for Independent PCCs. Far more important and relevant for a PCC are the understanding of strategy, the ability to engage, and the right motivation to be an advocate for the public.

The governance therefore relies on the strategic plan (the Police and Crime Plan (PCP)) and less on the much more discussed but less important ability to dismiss the Chief Constable. This should always be the last resort and the true strength lies in the professional relationship founded on mutual respect between the PCC and the Chief Constable. It is not for a PCC to order about a Chief Constable – that contravenes their operational independence. It is however also vital that the Chief Constable should enact operationally the requirements of the PCP. This is the link through the plan to the democratic will of the people. A connection that too often is forgotten and is the most important.

A PCC therefore should have, above all else, an understanding of the strategic process: from communication with the electorate; to an overarching vision; with a clear mission; with objective-bound priorities that can be directly linked to impartial operational effectiveness.

A Conservative PCC understands this. Crunch the numbers and the vast majority of the areas with the lowest crime rates have Conservative PCCs. I would argue that they also show more clearly the rule of law and a strong moral compass at the heart of their plan. This structure is inherent to our party’s vision of aspiration – you can only build strong communities and businesses within a safe framework of law and democracy, where anarchy and mob rule has no place.

There are great examples of this – North Yorkshire and Devon and Cornwall are first and second lowest in the country for the overall crime rate. Those PCCs that put crime prevention / reduction high on their priorities have forces that not surprisingly perform well – it’s worth comparing PCP priorities across the country and looking at the differences. What links all the high performing Conservative PCCs is that direct link from their population to their force, through a PCP focused on preventing crime and anti-social behaviour. Both in the plan itself and commissioning services, Conservatism should be transparent to the voters – that is not incompatible with operational effectiveness in any way.

The operational effectiveness of the Police is sacrosanct to the Conservative Party and protected by legislation. Conservative PCCs understand the relationship between them and the Chief Constable to be professional not cosy. They demonstrate this with their clear understanding and ability to deliver both effective and efficient policing.

We understand strategy, engagement, and delivery. Conservative PCC candidates have a rigorous selection process including a written exam, literally dozens of informal interviews locally, a panel interview with other PCCs and local government leaders and hustings – this means the electorate can be reassured that we have candidates that pass muster. To truly transform police and crime, the party needs to, at all levels – (CCHQ, every MP, local councillor and party activist) strongly support the Conservative PCC candidates to ensure they get elected so that they can make the link between electorate and delivery, so crime and disorder is reduced for the good of us all.

Let’s unleash the true power of having a Conservative PCC.

Faye Purbrick: Don’t split Somerset in half

16 Dec

Cllr Faye Purbrick is the Cabinet Member for Education and Transformation on Somerset County Council

In 2009, Conservatives ended 16 years of Lib Dem control on Somerset County Council and set about doing what good Conservative authorities do; delivering efficient local public services and value for money. Of course, there have been challenges along the way, but we’ve balanced the books and are now in an enviable position with decent reserves and a stronger financial position than probably any other county council, despite Covid-19 pressures.

And we want that to continue. We also want to go further and be able to make sure that Somerset plays a leading role as we emerge from the effects of the pandemic, particularly in creating and attracting jobs and businesses with the long-term investment and infrastructure that we will need. The events of the last year have illustrated that local government has a key role to play in supporting local communities. But they have also shown the limitations of the current system with unnecessary boundaries, duplication and inefficiencies.

Let’s be very clear, this is not about district vs county. Indeed, the county council and the four districts (one Conservative and three Lib Dem) are agreed on one thing; that the current two-tier structure has run its path and is no longer fit for purpose.

The options therefore come down to a choice between one single council for Somerset, ‘One Somerset’, supported by the county council, the majority of MPs, local businesses, the Police Crime Commissioner and a majority of the people of Somerset who favour an end to confusion, duplication, and the generation of savings to reinvest in frontline public services.

The alternative proposal, backed by the districts, would in effect see a Berlin Wall placed down the middle of the county splitting it into small, rival East/West unitaries whilst creating a separate “Alternative Delivery Model” for children’s services, a shared services company, and an elected mayor/combined authority sitting over the top. It would therefore replace the existing five authorities, each with their own staff and separate cultures, with, five organisations, each with their own staff and separate cultures. Not only would this create confusion, it would disrupt existing county services (notably care for vulnerable adults and children) whilst each east/west unitary would struggle to be able to exist, serving a population smaller than the figure government believes is a credible entity. And that is before we start to look at the discrepancies in deprivation between East and West, twice as bad for those living in the West of the county – not just a split in our county but a blocker to aspiration and levelling-up.

A single unitary model has worked well in those areas that have adopted it in recent years including Dorset, Wiltshire, and Buckinghamshire. It is favoured by partners in the police, probation, and health service who care little about local government boundaries. It would allow Somerset to have a unified single voice, critical in attracting inward investment, and would join up local public services.

On every test, a single council delivers over the alternative five organisation approach; greater and quicker savings that can be reinvested back into public services with lower costs of implementation.

It would also deliver a boost to local democracy by creating a network of local community networks, working with local parish and town councils and at the heart of neighbourhoods and communities. People identify with their local village or town and their county and want to see services delivered at those levels; in fact, they just want to receive great quality and value, local services. And that’s what the One Somerset proposal would give them.

We have submitted a business case to the Secretary of State to do exactly this, but we are also setting out a series of clear commitments to the people of Somerset over the coming months to ensure that One Somerset delivers on what they want:

  1. No disruption to local services as we change, and a promise to keep residents fully informed.
  2. We will protect those front-line staff working with vulnerable people across the county.
  3. Council tax will not increase because of moving to a single unitary council.
  4. Physical, face-to-face council contact points across the county.
  5. One telephone number and one website to access ALL council services.
  6. Improved services for our vulnerable residents including housing, adults’ & children’s services.
  7. Improved services for our children and young people, including education, training, jobs and transport.
  8. More local decision making by our town and parish councils and new local community networks.
  9. Closer relationships with partners including the NHS, police, education, and the voluntary sector to deliver better services.
  10. And finally, we will not split Somerset in half, divide communities, lose our proud identity, or weaken our standing on a local, regional and national level.

What we are offering is simple and based on good Conservative philosophy: a blueprint for better services, better value for money and reduced bureaucracy, no artificial boundaries – and certainly not splitting our great county in half as we look to rebuild our communities and country following Covid. That’s what Conservatives stand for and that’s what we will deliver if we are given the opportunity to continue the journey that we started in 2009.