Friday, July 22, 2011

More people; no more jobs

Is it good news that the population of the Black Country has increased in the past 12 months by 4,500?

It’s supposed to be, at least for the Black Country Consortium in pursuit of its 20-year “vision”.

The Consortium is a quango run by the leaders of the local councils with other public sector worthies and a few businesspeople thrown in for window-dressing.

It is dedicated to increasing the area’s population.

So it will be happy with the latest figures showing there are now 1,096,500 people living in the Black Country (or “residing in the sub-region” as the officials put it).

It seems the biggest increase was in Sandwell where the population rose 1,800 to 292,800. Dudley is the most densely populated area, with 307,400 residents, while 256,900 people live in Walsall and there are 239,400 in Wolverhampton.

The Consortium’s stated aim is to increase the area’s population to 1.2 million by 2033 so it’s well on its way.

The question is why the leading lights in the Black Country should feel the need to state this as one of their main purposes in life when – without trying – they are bound to reach the target.

It surely hasn’t escaped their attention that the population of the whole country is growing faster than at any time in history.

It’s risen by 3.1 million in the past decade. The Office for National Statistics puts the country’s population today at 62,262,000.

The ONS reckons the population will rise by another 4.3 million by 2018 and hit 71.6 million by 2033.

These are massive numbers. They are due partly to everyone living longer, partly because young women are having more babies – especially the more recent arrivals into this country – and because of the unstoppable rate of immigration.

If the Black Country Consortium can’t entice another 100,000 or so to move to the area then it really will have been a waste of space.

As the population will soar with or without the help of a 20-year vision for the Black Country, the real question is what on earth will all these extra people do?

It’s all very well hoping for a bustling and busy metropolis with lots of shiny, happy people in it. But how is everybody going to earn a living?

The prospects are not good.

First off, the Consortium wants us to earn an average of £3,806 a year more (excluding inflation) than we do now. It’s a nice idea and one I’m sure we can all support.

Surprisingly, the Consortium thinks it’s already making progress. It says average pay in the Black Country rose by £228 a head – double the national increase – in the past year.

It’s hard to believe, especially when the number of people earning anything at all is on the slide.

The Consortium wants to create 112,613 new jobs just to bring the Black Country employment rate up to 80 per cent of the national figure.

But their own “state of the Black Country” report suggests we are further away from that than ever.

At the moment, almost one person in every five of working age has no work, compared with 12.5 per cent nationally.

That’s 124,890 people who could be in jobs but are actually workless.

The Consortium thinks it needs to get 39,578 of these people, almost a third, off the dole if it is to achieve its ambitions.

Unfortunately the number of workless people soared 16 per cent in the past nine years and there are few signs that the trend will be reversed in the near future.

There is only one way more jobs can be created and that’s if private-sector businesses grow and flourish – especially as public sector jobs are falling.

So there will have to be more companies setting up shop or expanding. At the moment there are still 32,350 businesses in the Black Country and let’s hope they all continue to prosper.

Last year 3,270 new firms opened for business in the Black Country but the start-up rate has fallen by a third in seven years. And the area needs 1,000 more new companies every year to reach the national average.

It seems the Consortium is pinning its hopes on a boom in advanced manufacturing, building technology and construction, aerospace, business services and – with depressing inevitability – green industries.

Let’s hope this analysis of the economy consists of more than simply looking at what businesses are doing well and hoping for the best – though I doubt it.

There are many excellent companies in the Black Country. Mostly they will live or die according to national, European and global economic trends well outside the control of a few local councillors.

What they need from the locals isn’t fatuous reports and pie-in-the-sky targets.

They need lower local taxes, better roads, cheaper parking and no bus lanes, easier planning permissions, fewer rules and regulations and better-educated school-leavers.

They need encouragement and opportunity – not the dead hand of bloody-minded bureaucracy.

It’s hard to believe encouraging more people to move to the Black Country is likely to help – unless all the newcomers are rocket scientists, I suppose.

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