Northern powerhouse? Midlands council leaders respond

George Osborne Image copyright PA
Image caption George Osborne has spoken of a need for a northern powerhouse but what about the Midlands?

As the Conservatives gather in Birmingham for their annual conference, it won't just be the English question that'll be on their minds.

Some will also be asking about the Midlands question. It was an issue that surfaced at the Labour conference in Manchester.

The worry is .....are the East and West Midlands in danger of being by-passed in any post-Scottish referendum devolution settlement?

The alarm bells have been ringing. One reason is George Osborne's enthusiasm to create a "northern powerhouse".

Northern powerhouse? That's the increasing economic and political clout of northern cities linking up with Manchester to have their voice heard at Westminster and the treasury.

Being leapfrogged?

In his mini-budget later this year, the chancellor is expected to announce a £15bn investment in science and manufacturing knowhow for the North. That's big money.

But council leaders from the Midlands increasingly feel too many London-based government, business and cultural organisations are being encouraged to look to our friends in the North.

Is the Midlands in danger of being leapfrogged? They say the BBC's shift to Salford is an example.

"London and the South East will always grow as an economy and there's this growing perception of the northern powerhouse economy," said Councillor Anne Western, leader of Derbyshire County Council.

"If we are not careful, the Midlands is the bit in between that everyone forgets, and I'm not prepared to allow that."

Ms Western was one of the platform speakers at a fringe meeting at the Labour conference to consider a response to the northern challenge.

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Image caption Will HS2 help boost the economy in the East and West Midlands?

Sir Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham City Council, was also a key speaker.

Improved transport links between the East and West Midlands are on the shopping list of investment projects that the Midlands - East and West - are now seeking.

There's a feeling among Midlands political leaders that the combined voice of the northern cities - Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle - has been quicker off the mark and sharper in presenting its case to government.

Investing in better rail services and connections is one of the northern powerhouse ideas that has also caught the ear of ministers.

"Just look at the rail service between Nottingham and Birmingham," said Sir Albert.

"It's appalling. It's quicker to get from Birmingham to London by train than to Nottingham and it's half the distance."

A sign of a new joint approach is Midlands Connect, a lobbying group that's bringing together council leaders from both the East and West Midlands.

Sir Albert said: "It's about trying to ensure the same message is out there for the Midlands as a whole."

Midlands Connect is already pitching a strong message of a dynamic region: 20 universities, an economy worth £178bn and a population of 10m, expected to grow by 10% over the next 20 years.

"The roads and railways that connect our two regions - the East and West Midlands - are simply inadequate," said Lillian Greenwood, Labour's rail minister and the MP for Nottingham South.

Will HS2 and its high speed rail link to the Midlands from London boost the economic clout of the region?

Lillian Greenwood said: "Both Birmingham and Nottingham already have relatively good connections down to London, but really poor transport links with each other. That needs addressing."

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Image caption The Prime Minister wants to restrict the voting rights of Scottish MPs

Anne Western says HS2 may end up being part of the problem for the Midlands.

"HS2 is about improving connections between London and the North, and it's a long term project," she said.

"We've got to work on what can be improved to transport links locally in the short term."

David Cameron may use his conference speech in Birmingham to outline some of his thinking on devolving powers beyond the slogan: "English Votes for English laws."

In any debate on England's evolving and devolving north-south future, council leaders from the Midlands - East and West - are determined to be heard and are joining forces to turn up the volume.