Looking across: Devolution is finally being taken out of the “too difficult” box

Waheed Nazir – director of planning and regeneration and chief planning officer at Birmingham City Council​ – gives an outside perspective of the civil service, and says Whitehall is improving the way it works with local partners

By Colin Marrs

13 Jul 2015

In your experience, what are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of our civil service?

The civil service is staffed by many highly talented and committed people with a deep-seated public service ethos. I have a great deal of respect for their drive to support growth across the UK. However, I am not sure that this is ever something that can be realistically achieved from being based in Whitehall. It is too difficult to design and deliver policy from the top down when the country is so diverse and complex. 

Fortunately, I think there is now a growing acceptance that the vast majority of decisions are best made closest to those whom they affect. Many of us in local government are now waiting to see if there is a readiness among the civil service to meet the new challenges now that devolution is finally being taken out of the “too difficult” box. And of course there is also a big onus on local government to demonstrate that, despite the scale of cuts that we have had to manage, there is capacity and capability to take on devolved powers.

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What is the biggest misconception about the civil service among local authority workers?

That it’s not concerned with what happens outside of London – my experience of engaging with the civil service doesn’t really fit with that. For example, working on High Speed 2 has been an incredibly positive experience. We all have a common belief that HS2 should be a force for future economic growth, particularly in our regional cities, and we have been able to work together to develop some really exciting proposals to enhance our rail connectivity and strengthen our economy.

In your opinion, how could partnership working between government and local authorities be improved?

There does seem to be a growing recognition that economic growth is best enabled by partners working at a local or sub-regional level, which is really encouraging. I think the way in which we are delivering our plans for HS2 in Birmingham illustrates how this can work. Where government has set the strategic direction, we have developed proposals for how this can be best delivered locally and are now working together, as part of a special regeneration company, to provide the leadership and co-ordination that this transformational project needs.

What was the most inspiring government project that you’ve been involved in, and why?

Being able to use the Enterprise one programme in Birmingham as a ‘super-TIF’ has been hugely rewarding. We quickly took the view that rather than solely focus on the benefits to business such as rates relief, which are quite short-term and often marginal, we needed to maximise the potential from our ability to retain business rates uplift.

In doing so, we have created an investment fund worth £1.2bn, which we are using to provide much-needed investment in our infrastructure as well as unlocking some really difficult and complex regeneration projects like 'Paradise'. The EZ is actually a fantastic example of what we can achieve when we have the freedom to be able to innovate and apply public funding in ways that meet local economic priorities.

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