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Chairman’s Report from Waheed Saleem – AGM 21.7.15

Chairman’s Report and Annual Review given by Waheed Saleem at The Lunar Society’s AGM, 21st July 2015. These were his final remarks as Chair of the Lunar Society, as he stepped down after two years in the position.

Today I do my final official duty as Chair of the Lunar Society after two memorable years.

The annual review sets out what we have been involved in over the last year, so I won’t repeat that now, but I will provide my personal views on some important issues.

I became the Chair with the intention of increasing the profile and making the Society more relevant to the City and region. This required changing the administrative support, to enable the Society to have the wide range of skills to support the Chair and Executive Committee to not only organise high profile events but also enable us to participate and contribute to the policy discourse.

At the last AGM, in my speech I set out my views on a number of key policy issues facing the City and society generally, which was positively received, at least in most quarters!

It did nevertheless get a conversation started on what the Society should be involved in. I did make a point that we as a City require a clearly defined narrative to what we stand for and that we should project this both nationally and internationally.

As yet we don’t have this narrative. The LEP has engaged a well-known London based agency to support the city region in its endeavours.

I’m sure the Society could have engaged with the process of defining what the City stands for by engaging with our members who have a long history of what has happened previously and also individuals from a wide range of backgrounds who have participated in our events.

Now it is more important then ever to be proud of all the great things the people of the City are doing; the major economic developments in the City Centre, the major inward investment with international companies locating to the City led by companies like Deutsche Bank and HSBC.

The major development of the Birmingham Science Park, will also provide a great opportunity to incubate local companies to hopefully find the next Google, Apple and the like.

I passionately believe that as The Lunar Society’s founders heralded the industrial revolution, we can once again find today’s revolution here in Birmingham.

This leads me to consider three key themes that I believe society and this Society in particular should address. They are themes that we have debated and discussed during my two years as chair and I would hope that under the new chair, with an emphasis on continuity, they will continue to be high on our agenda.

1. The first of these relates to the future economic prosperity of our city and region.

And that is dependent on our ability to create jobs, to provide excellent education and to develop training programmes that lead to jobs.

We need a clear economic strategy that enables us to plan the education and training programmes that will make the city and region attractive to inward investors and provide the conditions to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of our City and region.

For this to happen the City Region requires powers and budgets from Central Government under a devolution settlement. Indeed the first steps of this are already in train through the Combined Authority covering Birmingham, Solihull, Black Country and Coventry and I commend the Council leaders who come together with the LEPs to launch the West Midlands Combined Authority.

However, like many others, I am disappointed that they could not get over the fact that Birmingham is recognised across the globe, whereas West Midlands doesn’t mean a lot. The Combined Authority should have been named as Greater Birmingham, as is the case with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Our Northern friends could have called it the North West Combined Authority, but they understood the need to promote a brand as well as a place and that Manchester has the international cache. Indeed they also saw the great advantages of having a named individual in charge.

I am on record as someone who supports the concept of an elected Mayor for the sub region. I won’t comment on the speculation in the Chamberlain Files about my candidature if a role is available, but I would urge our political leaders and civic organisations to engage with the public in an open and honest conversation on this, so there is a wide range of individuals involved in the future governance of our City Region.

The referendums in Birmingham and Coventry voted no for a City Mayor, but this devolution deal is for a Mayor with very different and the powers and responsibilities.

2. The second element is that we must ensure that we as a city engage with and involve all sections of the community.

Birmingham has a long tradition of being a “melting pot” and a city of immigration. Back in the 18th Century Birmingham became a magnet for the hinterland as workers moved from the shires to work not in agriculture but in industry. That tradition has continued over very many years and today, we can boast one of the most diverse and varied populations in the UK.

However, as we know from experiences over the past 12 months or so, such diversification is not always free of problems.

I fear we are in danger of alienating important sections of our community and in particular, that might well be the case with the Muslim community.

The threat from international criminal organisations such as ISIL, committing atrocious crimes for their own twisted ends, has not only put a significant strain on the City but also put a spotlight on the whole community.

People from many religions and cultural backgrounds have rightly stated that these hideous acts are not being committed in the name of Islam, yet we still have the mainstream media referring to it as Islamic State, when they are neither a state nor Islamic. We must play a major role in countering the narrative and make it clear that this is not part of being a Muslim and is in fact against every tenet of Islam.

However, the Government and wider society must also play their part in not falling into to the narrative of giving legitimacy to these criminals by calling them a State and labelling them Islamic.

The media and Government must start to promote the enormous positive contributions that Muslim make to this City and this Country. We have just ended the month of Ramadhan and most evenings there have been events organised to raise money for charitable causes –  as much as £100,000 in just one evening, in some instances. Few other communities can boast such an achievement.

Across all of society, we need to promote the positive role models in our communities, the individuals who feed the homeless, the elected politicians work tirelessly, the youth workers volunteering to provide activities for young people in their area …. the list goes on.

I fear the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair may have contributed to this notion that Muslims can not be trusted in position of power, especially in the education field. This can not be allowed to seep through and become acceptable in our City and across the country, as this will alienate individuals that will be able to make an excellent contribution to our educational system.

Our children, especially in those schools that are under huge amounts of media interest, deserve to have a good education and to have adults working to make things right for them.

3. The third and final element relates to the challenges that are facing this city.

For instance, yesterday’s report from the Birmingham Child Poverty Commission lays out starkly the significant challenge of child poverty in our City.

The Independent Improvement Panel has reported progress as being too slow at Birmingham City Council. And there’s a significant disparity between the City Centre the rest of the outer City core in terms of life chances are just a few of these challenges.

However, there is a lot to be optimistic about.

We have a Council Chief Executive who engages and understands these issues and the City; we have progress being made in tackling underperformance in our City schools; we have significant investment in the City Centre and HS2; we have excellent examples of community cohesion and community spirit across the City –  but we need clear strong and visible political leadership to bring these strands together and spread the prosperity across the City.

Let’s move at pace with finding tangible solutions to the issues and challenges we are facing, let’s learn from the best in the world and translate this into our area, let’s be bold.

Let’s start a revolution in our thinking of how public services are delivered and managed.

One example could be for a community to demand from the public services the ability to manage and have ownership of budgets and assets to support communities in tackling the challenges they face.

So the library, the health centre, the swimming pool, the police station are transferred, together with the budgets, with some safeguards, to the local community to utilise as a basis to deliver appropriate public services based on the needs and prioritises they consider are right for them.

No more central edicts on how long the library should be opened, or if the swimming pool should be closed or when the police station should open. Instead the community with their elected Councillors can decide within a given budget the priorities and usage of these public buildings.

We should also use public buildings as incubators for entrepreneurs. I have heard countless examples of young enthusiastic people who want to make a difference finding it hard to just get on with things with barriers and lack of support from, what someone called the ‘established classes’.

I’m sure I’m not breaking confidence in mentioning Immy Kaur and the Impact Hub project here, who has on numerous occasions mentioned the barriers she and her team faced in opening the Impact Hub in Birmingham. I’m glad that they succeeded through the great community of Birmingham giving money through crowd funding, but shouldn’t the City have done more?

Thank you for your support over the past two years. It has been a privilege to serve as chair and play a part in enabling Birmingham to stand proud.

As I hand over the chairmanship I hope the Lunar Society will continue to engage with the issues facing the City, through discussion and events, but also through the media. We should not be afraid to make our voices heard on areas of significant importance to the City.

As Joseph Priestley said:

“It is no use speaking in soft, gentle tones if everyone else is shouting.”

Waheed Saleem – Chairman 2013-15
21st July 2015