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'May could make relationships with businesses more vital than ever'

Phil Swann
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LGC’s request to chief executives for ideas on what the priorities of the new prime minister should be has produced some interesting suggestions but I am as interested in understanding what Theresa May might want from local councils.

That the political hero of her joint chief of staff Nick Timothy is Joseph Chamberlain, Birmingham’s most effective political leader, may provide clues as to what that is.

Chamberlain’s biographer Peter Marsh places great weight on the fact that he was the first industrialist to become a leading politician. Marsh argues that “the concerns which carried Chamberlain into public life arose from his discovery of the needs and impact of his business”.

Summing up Chamberlain’s, career Marsh says “his genius as a politician lay in keeping in touch with his urban industrial roots,” but he adds that “his social vision and his constructive capacity… lessened when he moved from Birmingham Town Council to the House of Commons”.

Marsh also claims that Chamberlain’s most enduring achievement in Birmingham did not lie in the council house but in the foundation of the University of Birmingham, “with its emphasis on applied science and its pioneering faculty of commerce”. Similarly, in his book, Building Jerusalem, the historian turned Labour MP Tristram Hunt argues that “Chamberlain’s greatest achievement was to position the elected council as the motor and repository of civic pride”.

I was re-reading Marsh and Hunt in the context of May’s commitment to an industrial strategy and her emphasis on enabling the whole community to benefit from economic growth. For either to be successful, policy makers must have a deep understanding of the needs and impact of business. As with Chamberlain himself, the clarity of that understanding deteriorates the further from real places and real businesses those decision-makers get.

If this is correct, then local councils and their partners have a major part to play capturing that local industrial and business intelligence and using it to drive policy-making nationally and locally. In this context the relationship between councils and their local enterprise partnerships, and the quality of the business representation on LEPs, will become more important than ever.

Finally, returning to Chamberlain and Birmingham, there’s one question at the back of my mind: if he was alive today, would Chamberlain be leader of the council or chair of the LEP? Oh, and isn’t Andy Street, John Lewis chief executive and chairman of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP, reported to be seeking the Tory nomination as the West Midlands metro mayor?

Phil Swan, executive chair, Shared Intelligence

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