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Midlands Engine will splutter all the way to Grimsby unless funding is right - COMMENT

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On the face of it, £392 million sounds like a fair amount of money to fire up the Midlands Engine.

But let's look at the detail. For starters, the cash is to be spread over four years, amounting to an annual investment of £98, writes Express & Star Political Editor Peter Madeley.

Then there's geographical issues to take into consideration.

The Government's definition of the Midlands takes in the entire middle of England, stretching from The Marches close to the Welsh border to East Lincolnshire on the North Sea coast.

In the documents accompanying the Midlands Engine strategy launch there is mention of a new food enterprise zone in that well-known Midland town of Grimsby.

We have to ask what interest your average person in Smethwick will have over the proposed teaching university in Hereford and the new visitor centre at Sherwood Forest.

It is fair to say the Government has spread its net far and wide.

The Chancellor chose Dudley as the venue to announce the strategy, taking him away from the glare of the London media on the day after he had infuriated millions of self-employed workers with his budget tax hike. From here on in it will be Communities Secretary Sajid Javid who will be overseeing the Midlands Engine.

Mr Javid is currently embroiled in the controversy over the recent changes to business rates, which prompted such an outpouring of fury and confusion that the Chancellor had to step in to clarify the Government's position in his budget speech. And he may have to get used to dodging a few more bullets as the detail of the Midlands Engine plans starts to emerge.

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Bearing in mind that he represents nearby Bromsgrove, you would think Mr Javid would be acutely aware that £25m to reduce traffic congestion in the Black Country is woefully insufficient. Many drivers who spend endless hours every week stuck in traffic jams on the region's roads would consider £25bn a more accurate figure. The white paper announcing the Midlands Engine talks of the region being left behind in economic growth.

The productivity gap between the Midlands and the rest of the UK is 15 per cent, it says, while there is a shortage of skilled workers and 'a lack of entrepreneurship'.

The £392m figure, about the same amount it cost to build half of Wembley Stadium, is starting to look a touch light. It may also sound familiar to some, as it was first announced by Mr Hammond during November's Autumn Statement, giving rise to fears that the the funding may not all be new money.

Business leaders are saying all the right things, but they are hardly in a position to criticise any investment pledge, no matter how small. It will be the job of our local enterprise partnerships to work out how to best invest the new resources. However, it is clear that the Midlands Engine may not be the gift from Whitehall that it first appears.

By the Government's own economic forecasts the Midlands has got a lot of catching up to do. But if the investment is not right, it will not be long before the Midlands Engine starts to splutter before eventually running out of steam altogether.

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