Debating the power of innovation with the West Midlands Mayoral candidates

By Jane Holmes, Project and Partnership Manager, Birmingham Science City

Developing the region’s expertise in innovation was discussed earlier this month by candidates for the role of West Midlands Mayor.

Birmingham Science City invited all of the candidates to take part in hustings focused on innovation at the West Bromwich Albion football ground. Four candidates took part: James Burns (Green), Beverley Nielsen (Liberal Democrat), Pete Durnell (UKIP) and Andy Street (Conservatives). The event was chaired by Andrew Sleigh, deputy chair of Birmingham Science City.

Each candidate gave an open address to the audience, highlighting their views on the topic. Every speaker praised the West Midlands for its continuing record in delivering cutting-edge work and products, and preparing itself for the future of science and technology.

Funding was raised as a key issue, with the West Midlands needing to attract more investment into science and innovation. Street noted that there needs to be an economic solution to improve the region’s productivity – such as investing in infrastructure and skills development. Meanwhile Burns proposed that support for SMEs should be consolidated, a West Midlands bank should be set up to provide more capital, and community development financial institutions should cater for those without capital.

Nielsen proposed the creation of a £1 billion innovation fund, while Durnell agreed that some of the region’s towns needed more finance and mentoring.

Each candidate also welcomed the West Midlands Combined Authority’s Science and Innovation Audit (SIA), which is currently underway, as identifying areas of excellence and new opportunities for the region.

Further devolution to the region would have a positive impact on the West Midlands according to Burns, allowing the region to explore its untapped potential – a comment echoed by other candidates. Street also noted that innovation was not locked into the governance of the West Midlands Combined Authority yet, but felt it needed to be.

While health isn’t part of the mayoral remit, the speakers were asked to comment on how innovation in the NHS, and reform through its Sustainable Transformation Plans (STPs), could make it more economically sustainable. Nielsen recognised that health is a massive area of opportunity, with the West Midlands able to become a health innovation lab. Street noted that sharing best practice would be vital to promoting innovation and encouraging greater efficiencies. Health was also an area for concern, with Durnell raising issues over cuts to the NHS, while Burns mentioned a lack of transparency around STPs.

The candidates were also told that there is a severe lack of available power in the region – so how would they provide enough power for innovative companies? Both Street and Burns emphasised the importance of energy efficiency, with Burns pointing out that a localised resilient supply such as a local community energy company could plough back profits into generating more energy. Nielsen and Street both highlighted the need for innovation in areas such as housing, with Nielsen also wanting to secure more funding for battery storage or Combined Heat & Power (CHP) systems, building on local research and development.

Another question focused on promoting the region as young, digital and diverse, and a number of the speakers emphasised the importance of digital skills in the West Midlands. Nielsen stated that more money should be invested in digital inclusion in less deprived and privileged areas. Digital skills are critical, explained Street, who proposed a ‘Digital Boot Camp’ with Further Education colleges. Durnell explained how he supported the roll-out of broadband and educating people about how to use it best.

To round off the discussion, Andrew Sleigh asked the candidates about the role of public services as an early adopter and a driver for innovation.  How can the Mayor re-architect how public services adopt and procure services?

Street and Durnell responded by highlighting the importance of working with, and learning from, the private sector. Burns explained that cross-sector working would be crucial for this issue, while Nielsen would use procurement to drive the multiplier effect and help to grow SMEs.

The event was very well attended, with all candidates agreeing that hustings focused on a topic like innovation allowed them to take part in some in-depth discussions and thinking.