Andy Street: The BBC’s Birmingham plans represent a cultural “levelling up” this country needs

23 Mar

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

This weekend Line of Duty, one of the BBC’s most successful shows, returned to our screens for its highly anticipated fifth series. The hit crime drama is one of a number of major TV productions made in Northern Ireland, making a significant contribution the local economy there.

However, few people know that the first series of this hit show – the one that established it as a fans’ favourite – was made in Birmingham, with filming taking place across the West Midlands.

In fact, Line of Duty was created by West Midlands-born Jed Mercurio, who lived for several years in Birmingham where he worked as a doctor in local hospitals.

I don’t know why production of the show moved away from Birmingham, but its move was certainly emblematic of a shortfall in investment by the BBC here, resulting not only in an economic imbalance but also in a lack of representation of West Midlands life on national TV schedules.

Now, all this is changing – with a landmark announcement this week from the BBC and significant plans for independent production studios in Birmingham, following years of lobbying by myself, and huge combined efforts by our talented creative industry. In TV parlance, we are “ready for our close up”.

I believe the announcement by the Beeb represents a kind of cultural “levelling up” – and follows the announcement that the Department for Transport is to move to Brum and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government to Wolverhampton. All of these moves are crucial to the ongoing success of devolution, as they ensure opinion formers and decision makers, whether in the media or the Government, understand and engage with life outside the capital. But this has been a long time in the making.

For decades, Birmingham boasted one of the biggest BBC centres in the country – Pebble Mill – which was home to the Archers, Top Gear, The Clothes Show, Countryfile, Gardeners’ World and the daily magazine show Pebble Mill at One. Its studios were used to film All Creatures Great and Small, Boys from the Blackstuff, Doctors, Dangerfield, Howards’ Way, Juliet Bravo, Dalziel and Pascoe and more.

After the BBC closed the famous studios in 2004, its presence in the region shrank to a shadow of its former self. By 2011, the Corporation had opened its huge base at Salford’s MediaCity, in Greater Manchester – where it employs more than 3,000 people.

This, for me, was another symbol of how our region was being left behind other parts of the country. It wasn’t just about the loss of jobs and investment, critical though that was, it also meant that talent from our region would be forced to move elsewhere.

It also showed a major national institution turning away from us, and not just any institution – the BBC isn’t like any other business. It is one we all pay for through our licence fee and it was clear that West Midlands people were getting a poor return on the money they were contributing to BBC coffers.

Four years ago, the BBC’s annual report revealed the Corporation spent just 1.5 per cent of its programming budget in the Midlands, down from 1.8 per cent the year previously. It meant that while licence fee payers in the wider Midlands region were paying £961 million a year, the broadcaster was spending just £135 million a year here, while pumping money into London and the North. Quite simply, the BBC was investing less in the Midlands than any other part of the country.

And it’s not just about money – it’s about representation. Think about this: how many TV shows can you name that are set in the Midlands? TV schedules are full of gritty northern dramas, London cop shows or programmes that use famous regional landmarks as their backdrops. Happy Valley is set in Yorkshire, Unforgotten, Luther and Marcella in London, Broadchurch in Dorset. The biggest soaps are in the capital, Manchester and the Yorkshire Dales. Doctor Who may travel anywhere in time and space, but the Tardis chose to move its regular base from Wales to Sheffield.

Yes, we have the sublime Peaky Blinders, created by proud Brummie Steven Knight, and Line of Duty subtly hints at an anonymous Midlands setting, but there are very, very few shows where you can see life here on your screens, or hear our accents. As one of the UK’s most densely populated places, this underrepresentation is simply wrong.

Last week, the BBC announced ambitious plans for its biggest transformation in decades, including moving more programme making and investment to the West Midlands, finally delivering the kind of investment that our region has been crying out for.

This followed months of negotiations with Tim Davie, new BBC Director General, and means that over the next six years the corporation will increase activity across the region, with at least one new primetime drama series and one new primetime entertainment series commissioned here.

This will not only bring new jobs and opportunities, it will also give us the chance to tell our own stories, express our creativity, make our voices heard and ensure a fairer representation for the region on the cultural landscape. However, it will also mean that the BBC will benefit hugely from the incredible pool of talent here.

This is an industrious, innovative place. In the last four years our creative sector has really begun to regain momentum. Creative and digital was the fastest growing sector in the West Midlands between 2016 and 2018. There are nearly 1000 creative businesses in the region, contributing £4.7 billion per year to the economy – that’s why I have always championed it as a sector.

Now, this new BBC investment will feed that momentum, creating more jobs and giving us the opportunity to be a leading light in the sector again, just as we were in the heyday of Pebble Mill.

There have been setbacks. There is no doubt that years of BBC under-investment impacted on independent production here, which was cited as one of the possible reasons Channel 4 chose in 2018 to overlook Birmingham’s bid to be its new base outside of London, in favour of Leeds.

I was personally hugely disappointed by the Channel 4 decision, because I thought we were the best choice, but I don’t regret the fact that we tried. In fact, going through the process with Channel 4 helped us to galvanise our creative sector, work out where our strengths lay, and it has laid the foundations for the successes we are now seeing.

Under my leadership, the West Midlands Combined Authority helped set up Create Central to bring together the local screen industry to lead the development of plans to grow the sector. This included £2 million for Create Central to fund a programme of activities to boost the film, TV and games sector in the region, with £500,000 to run bootcamps to teach young people the skills they need to work in the TV production sector.

All this activity means the arrival of more BBC activity coincides with a creative explosion here, centred around Birmingham’s Digbeth. Two major new production facilities are already planned in this creative quarter of the Brum – Mercian Studios, an international film studios and media village, led by Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight, and a new Creative Content Hub for independent TV and content production.

Over the next few weeks, the UK will be gripped by Line of Duty, a TV phenomenon that began here in the West Midlands. Soon, the Peaky Blinders will return to our screens too. The news that the BBC is to finally take full advantage of the immense talent to be found here will mean viewers can look forward to many more West Midlands-made TV classics, while local people will get a fairer share of the nation’s cultural currency.

Andy Street: Here in the West Midlands, we have been ‘levelling up’ for four years

9 Mar

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

When I became the West Midlands’ first Metro Mayor four years ago, one of my pledges from the outset was to be a Mayor for the whole region, not just Birmingham.

I knew that, in order to properly unite our seven constituent boroughs, it was vital to dispel the long-standing notion that the Second City usually got all the attention, and the lion’s share of inward investment.

My ambition has always been to ensure all of our areas benefitted from the significant growth we enjoyed before the pandemic hit, to ensure that no communities were left behind as we revived the fortunes of the region.

In that sense, my job, and the work of the West Midlands Combined Authority, could be seen as a regional version of the ‘levelling up’ agenda. I am certain that one of the most successful aspects of devolution has been the ability for local decision makers to direct investment proportionally in this way, using local knowledge to ensure money builds a robust economy across the region.

I want to use this column to explain how one of our great cities – Wolverhampton – continues to benefit from this approach, and how investment and major projects are set to propel its recovery.

Much like constituencies in the North, Wolverhampton returned two ‘red wall’ Conservative MPs in Stuart Anderson and Jane Stevenson, so it is important that voters see results in terms of investment. However, the fact is that here in the West Midlands, we have been busy ‘levelling up’ for four years.

Just this week I visited to see Wolverhampton become the first big city to unveil our cycle share scheme, which will quickly spread out to cover the entire West Midlands. It was a fitting place to launch our version of Boris Bikes, because the city is buzzing with good news and progress at the moment.

Arriving, it was brilliant to see the progress being made on the new £150m transport interchange. We have demolished a drab 1960s station and are transforming it into the new interchange, that for the first time will link up with our expanding metro network, plus newer, greener buses and, of course, the new bikes. Backing this investment in Wolverhampton was one of the first decisions I made as Mayor, because I knew that improving transport connectivity would be crucial to driving forward investment and the city’s future. It has also provided the kind of tangible improvement that is so vital to the concept of ‘levelling up’.

Supercharged with support from Government, especially Wolverhampton-born Robert Jenrick, the Communities Minister, the plan is working – with projects transforming the city.

My vision is to make Wolverhampton the national centre of construction, and the Black Country’s position as a pioneer of ‘brownfield remediation’ (the science of reclaiming derelict eyesores) makes it perfectly placed to achieve this position.

Last year we put Wolverhampton at the heart of our bid for the Government’s funding of ‘shovel ready’ schemes, securing £14.9 million for the National Brownfield Institute at the former Springfield Brewery. Itself a major regeneration project, which is now well underway, this will put the city in a national leadership position when it comes to the skills, training, and expertise needed for remediating and redeveloping brownfield sites – meaning local people will be in pole-position to get a brilliant career in our successful construction industry. It will also mean that my ‘brownfield first’ housing policy for the region can be delivered by workers from our region.

On Boxing Day, we saw Wolverhampton win over £15 million from the Future High Streets Fund to drive the local economy forward. This was a very significant investment, which was followed by an even bigger £25 million in the budget through the Towns Fund. Crucially, the local spirit of levelling up means that this £40 million will not just go to the city centre, but will be shared with two other Wolverhampton communities, Bilston and Wednesfield.

And last month saw the culmination of a plan we have been working on as a local team for months: to persuade Government to move hundreds of good-quality civil service jobs from Whitehall to Wolverhampton.

With the move of Jenrick’s own Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to Wolverhampton we will see a major boost to the City’s trade and local businesses and open up brilliant civil service careers to local people.

But, more importantly, an idea like this moves decision making into the regions, further raising the Government’s understanding and commitment to Wolverhampton, the Black Country and the West Midlands.

Last week’s budget provided the first glimpse of this baring fruit – with the announcement that a new taskforce to accelerate Methods of Modern Construction would be based in the MHCLG’s new Wolverhampton offices, with £10 million of seed funding.

Another important factor in building a level economy across the region is to ensure that all of our areas can benefit from each other’s economic strengths. I have made no secret of my determination to support the West Midlands place as the UK’s car-making heartland, not least with my calls for a ‘gigafactory’ in Coventry, which is the centre of our automotive cluster.

So I was delighted to open a new Electrical Vehicle and Green Technologies Training Centre at the City of Wolverhampton College, which will deliver the UK’s first scheme to train technicians to work on electrical and hybrid vehicles.

Finally, there can new few better ways of levelling up across a region than by connecting people to job opportunities through the ability to travel easily between neighbouring boroughs. Our ambitious plans to reopen a rail line between Wolverhampton and Walsall – which has been closed to passengers since the Beeching cuts – is now fully funded, with work set to start imminently.

Wolverhampton has faced many economic challenges; the collapse of Carillion hit the city hard, and the closure of the iconic Beatties department store provided a powerful symbol of the problems faced by its city centre. Throughout the pandemic those challenges have continued, with key employers heavily affected by the economic impact of Covid-19, such as aerospace firm Collins or hospitality giant Marstons.

But these last few months have shown by working effectively with Government – and employing the full power of devolved decision making – we can secure the resources and investment needed to not only compete regionally, but nationally too.

Andy Street: I haven’t raised a mayoral tax during my term, and commit to not doing so if I’m re-elected

23 Feb

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

As we await next week’s Budget from the Chancellor, here in the West Midlands we’ve just considered our own local financial plans for the next year. Approved by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), it is a budget of more than £900 million – funding infrastructure, regeneration and job training schemes that can support our post-Covid-19 recovery.

After such a difficult twelve months, and with significant challenges ahead, this year’s financial plan for the region stands out in terms of its ambition and breadth, delivering on my core commitments of new jobs, better transport and more homes.

But our plans aren’t just about big spending to kick-start the economy, they’re about public funds working hand-in-hand with private sector investment. This is about delivering investment into projects that are based on solid business cases.

In this column, I want to tell you about how we intend to spend that investment and also explain how, as Mayor, I believe it’s vital that I set a financial example to ask only for money when it is needed – and ensure it is used properly.

So what’s in the region’s budget? For a start, there is £142 million towards skills and training – to support people as they adapt to the new world we face and get high-quality, stable jobs in the industries of the future.

Despite the pandemic, we have already made a good start on the 20-year transport plan that I unveiled 12 months ago, and this budget includes a further £363 million towards delivering our ever-expanding Metro lines, reopened railway stations and better, greener buses.

Then there is ‘brownfield first’, our ground-breaking policy of reclaiming derelict industrial sites for development. Our budget includes £116 million towards maintaining our progress in making ‘brownfield first’ a reality, not a slogan – regenerating communities and easing the pressure on our Green Belt.

Plus, of course, millions have been allocated to other big regional investments we have secured, for a whole raft of projects that are generating jobs and sustaining livelihoods now – projects such as the Commonwealth Games, Coventry City of Culture, the rollout of 5G technology and many more.

All told, since becoming Mayor four years ago, we have brought in £3 billion of new Government funding, a figure rising every day, and topped up with millions more given to our councils, and supported by us as a regional body.

When the pandemic struck, the West Midlands economy was motoring, with record employment, record housebuilding and the strongest growth anywhere outside of London. Government support played a huge part in that success, but I believe that our ability as a region to put together compelling business cases has been crucial to winning that investment. Now, as we plot our recovery post-pandemic, this approach will be more important than ever.

It’s not surprising that I do things differently as Mayor, when you consider that I came to the role from a business background, rather than via the world of politics. My business experiences have certainly informed how I tackle the role, in terms of setting strategy, building a team, ensuring delivery and understanding that the UK’s regions are in a competitive race.

However, in financial terms, my 30 years at John Lewis have meant I build a budget based on business deals, not political decisions. Every penny we have brought into the region has been won through coherent business arguments, project by project, and working hard to make the case with Government.

Throughout my time as Mayor, I have worked with Ministers to secure the funding we need from across Government. I haven’t done this through megaphone diplomacy, or seeking out TV cameras to make demands, but through approaching each project as a business deal – and making sure we land as many as possible. Naturally, this approach also knits well with the business world, leading to big private sector investments which drive our economy forward.

There could have been another way. When it was established in 2017, the office of the Mayor was given considerable powers – powers I have often argued should be extended, for example to decentralise decision-making from London, or to give regions more ability to direct how money is spent locally.

However, there is one significant area where I have not used the powers on offer to me. During my time in office, I have not used the ability available to the Mayor to introduce a precept – an additional Mayoral tax.

In the last four years I have never used this power to tax the people of the West Midlands and, where we have borrowed, it has been to push forward projects – and never at a rate which means citizens end up with a precept.

Our model of retaining local business rates has also helped balance the books, by ensuring we benefit from the fruits of our strong economic growth, paying in part for the work of the WMCA.

I could have got our region into heavy debt to make my transport plan happen, or raised extra taxes to press ahead with Brownfield First. As a person with a business background, and someone who believes good housekeeping, this hasn’t been my way. Areas served by Labour mayors levy a precept. This has not happened here.

As households across the region face the hardships caused by Coronavirus, I’m proud to say that this year we have once again balanced our books and delivered a budget that hasn’t cost local people a penny in extra tax from their Mayor.

It is an approach I want to continue. After four years of no extra tax due to the Mayor’s office, I am planning to do the same again if I am fortunate enough to continue in this job – that’s zero tax again for another three years. I do not intend to introduce a precept.

I consider it a great privilege to be the Mayor of the region where I grew up, the place that made me what I am. I passionately believe that the office of Mayor should exist to the benefit of local people, not to their cost. By continuing to approach this job in a business-like way, I am confident I can continue to bring real money into their region, without taking it out of their pockets.

Andy Street: My transport plan will get the West Midlands moving as never before

9 Feb

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

A year ago, I stood in the halls of Aldridge Transport Museum, surrounded by historic vehicles of all shapes and sizes, to unveil my 2040 Transport Plan. The museum is a great place to learn how we got about in the past – and it was the perfect venue to launch a vision for the future of transport in the West Midlands.

An ambitious 20-year vision of how our towns and cities will need to be linked in the coming decades, the 2040 Transport Plan involves various modes of transport including the Metro, rail, bus, and high-tech vehicles. It envisages 150 miles of new Metro lines and calls to reopen long-closed railway stations, as well as pioneering ‘Very Light Rail’ technology and driverless vehicles.

My plan captured the imagination of local people, partly thanks to a Tube-style map which lays out just how all of these new networks would knit together to provide the connectivity needed for the West Midlands in the second part of the 21st Century.

Of course, creating an Underground-style map also clearly signalled my determination to build a transport network of the standard enjoyed by the capital for decades – with the funding to match. The message was clear: this was no fanciful vision, it was an achievable route to overcome decades of underinvestment, creating a transport network that will link communities, attract business and investment and connect people to new opportunities.

Yes, it requires serious investment. But if we truly want to ‘level up’ our nation’s economy and repay the trust of voters in the Midlands and the North, this kind of ambition is vital. In fact, the investment required – costed at £15billion over 20 years – is the same as the initial budget for Crossrail, which forms just one part of London’s network.

As we plot our way out of the coronavirus pandemic, transport infrastructure will be critical to our economic recovery as a region. And despite the many challenges of the last year, we have been getting on with the job. Thanks to the determination and professionalism of our teams, work has continued apace, despite Covid-19.

In central Birmingham, the ‘Westside’ Metro extension from Centenary Square to Edgbaston village is set to open later this year, while work has started in Digbeth on the ‘Eastside’ line, which will take the Metro through to link with HS2 at the new Curzon Street station.

However, the crucial point about my plan is that it is not just about pouring money into Birmingham City Centre. This represents our own West Midlands version of ‘levelling up’ – as we focus well beyond the Second City. Two of our largest projects are brand new stations for our other two great cities – Coventry and Wolverhampton. Both are progressing fast and Wolverhampton will open in the Spring – along with a new link to the Metro network.

Elsewhere on the railways, we have made major progress on our plans to work with Government and our local councils to reverse the Beeching cuts and reopen long-closed stations. Planning permission has been secured for five new stations – including in the heart of the Black Country in Darlaston and Willenhall, with the local business cases approved and work set to start soon.

This is just the start. We are about to bombard Grant Shapps and his team with plans for many more stations, including Tettenhall in Wolverhampton, three more in Coventry at Binley, Coundon and Foleshill, and at the Fort and Castle Bromwich in North Birmingham, creating Birmingham’s third cross-city line.

The Metro section of my plan is also progressing at pace. Not long after becoming Mayor, I secured £250 million of Government support to extend the Metro network. Looking back now, that early win not only indicated a shift in onus after years of underinvestment in the region, it illustrated that a Conservative Mayor could get things done after decades of Labour inaction.

That money has underpinned the rapid expansion of the Metro, putting diggers in the ground, laying track, and providing tangible, visible evidence of ‘levelling up’ in action. For example, the work to extend the Metro through more of Sandwell, past Tipton, and out to Dudley and Brierley Hill is now well underway, with the major engineering work started. In many ways, Metro is the West Midlands’ Crossrail, creating an East-West link across the conurbation.

Huge progress has also been made on the bus network, which remains the backbone of public transport here, with 267 million journeys a year compared to 50 million for rail and about seven million on the Metro. Our bus fleet has been continually improved, with new vehicles and cutting edge technology. National Express’s Platinum buses boast comfier seats, USB points to charge phones, crystal-clear CCTV, bright LED interior lighting, and improved sound proofing.

This spring, 20 new hydrogen buses – which consume four times less fuel compared to diesel buses and cover 300 miles on a single tank – will be introduced in Birmingham. Coventry has been selected to develop a business cases to switch the entire city’s bus fleet to electric vehicles. Finally, National Express has announced a fourth consecutive annual fare freeze – a huge contribution to millions of families here at such a difficult time.

Then there is ‘Very Light Rail’, a pioneering concept that draws on design and component expertise from our auto industry to create a relatively low-cost streetcar system.

The Very Light Rail Innovation Centre, now being built in Dudley, will design and develop lightweight rail vehicles and include 2km of test tracks. It will test the new VLR system that is being built now in Coventry and will soon be rolled out in the city and hopefully more places across in the UK and around the world. In VLR, West Midlands industry is once again driving innovation.

What the transport map doesn’t show are the numerous other schemes on the table to improve cycling, walking, and healthier ways of getting around which will also play a part in revolutionising how people move about the conurbation.

We aren’t going to overturn 40 years underinvestment in the West Midlands in just four years, but we are moving forward at pace and are on target. That has been possible because of our partnership working with Government, councils, transport operators, and the region as a whole. It has also shown the ability of a Conservative Mayor to get things moving after so many decades of congested roads, poor services and neglected infrastructure.

And what of Aldridge, home of the Transport Museum where I launched my plan last year? Well, we’ve just purchased a site in the village to enable us to re-open the station there, which would see a passenger service reintroduced for the first time in 56 years. It is another stop on a route map that is showing real progress.

Andy Street: A transport revolution is under way in the West Midlands – with the launch of a new bike hire scheme

26 Jan

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

The West Midlands is undergoing a transport revolution. Old railway stations will be reopened. Ground-breaking Very Light Rail networks are being designed. Miles upon miles of Metro tram track are being laid to link up communities. Fleets of electric buses are taking to our streets.

After decades of underinvestment, my regional transport plan is finally starting to deliver a world-class transit system to one of the UK’s most densely-populated places, connecting people with opportunities and providing healthier forms of transport, cutting pollution and easing congestion.

Before the pandemic struck, passenger numbers were rising in the West Midlands on every mode of public transport. The West Midlands was on the move, an example of how a Conservative mayor can make things happen, after decades of Labour inaction left the region lagging behind.

And next month will see the start of the next phase in this transport revolution – and this time, it’s on two wheels.

February will see the launch of the West Midland’s bike hire scheme – an ambitious project designed to appeal to the 30 per cent of people here who don’t cycle but say they would like to give it a go.

Almost every great city has a bike hire scheme, most famously London’s “Boris Bikes”. This is another area where the West Midlands has fallen behind the capital and places like Edinburgh – but we are catching up fast.

Through the unifying power of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), which has been committed to my goal of spending £10 per head of population on cycling per year, our ambitious plan covers not just a single city centre, but all seven boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

Sutton Coldfield, the Royal Town to the north of Brum, is pioneering the scheme with the first 75 bikes, thanks to a partnership with its forward-thinking Town Council.

It’s the ideal place to launch the scheme – a major self-contained community that sits within the city’s borders, which is also the home of Sutton Park, the region’s biggest urban beauty spot.

After Sutton, a further 1,500 bikes will be rolled out across the region in a matter of months, all in time for summer. Lockdown has deprived people of the freedom of getting out and about. I want this scheme ready for them to discover the freedom cycling can bring.

This is a project that is truly “Made in the Midlands”, with the bikes built by Pashley cycles, a firm that was founded in Birmingham in the 1920s and now has a factory in neighbouring Warwickshire. What’s more, 10 per cent of the bikes will be electric, with the charging docks also made in the region.

I hope that local people will take to these bikes, along with the electric e-scooters recently introduced to our cities both of which are an example of real investment in high-quality alternatives to the car. With Coventry’s City of Culture celebrations this year and the Commonwealth Games on the horizon, they will also provide a way for visitors to get around too.

But bikes are only part of the investment we are making, with truly ambitious plans to establish a world-class cycling network across the region.

The planned £270 million regionwide “Starley” network – named after the Victorian family who pioneered cycle manufacturing from Coventry – will be for the whole region, not just the city centres.

The vision is for 500 miles of safe routes across the region, linking our communities with either dedicated bike routes or miles of cycle lanes separated from traffic.

The Starley project would be a game changer for cycling in the West Midlands, building a vast new transit network reminiscent of the canal system created here during the Industrial Revolution.

Thanks to that era of innovation, it’s said that Birmingham has “more canals than Venice”. Well, a completed Starley Network would give the West Midlands a cycle network to rival Berlin. We are working now to attract the investment to make this ambition a reality.

Key to our cycling plan is identifying viable routes, like in Coventry, where the WMCA is investing £5 million in the flagship Binley Cycleway, linking Coventry University to the city’s main Hospital.

More than half of West Midlands residents say safety concerns put them off cycling. Binley is a great example of providing safe, separated lanes for bikes to remove the tensions that sometimes happen when cyclists and motorists compete for the same road space.

We are also looking to link up our cycling network with my wider transport plan. For example, there will be cycle provision alongside the new metro expansion in the Black Country, along Wednesfield Road to the brand-new railway station. It will also be integrated into our Sprint bus schemes.

All of this has been supported by the Government’s commitment to cycling, with the Department for Transport, under Grant Shapps, investing heavily.

Our region has securing £17 million from the Government for cycling schemes, from cycle lanes and pedestrian-friendly areas in Moseley, Birmingham, to routes along Tipton Road, on the boundary of Dudley and Sandwell, connecting residents to a Metro stop on the new Black Country line.

Locally, the WMCA has earmarked £2 million of Whitehall’s Transforming Cities cash to launch our own Better Streets Community Fund, which received 144 applications from residents, resulting in 31 projects that will be delivered by the end of this year.

This local engagement is vital, as building cycle provision is disruptive, and unwanted proposals can be rejected by communities, wasting time and cash.  If cycling is to really succeed, it requires grassroots support in the areas where routes are created.

There is, of course, a serious health issue driving our cycling revolution. We have a significant air quality problem in the West Midlands, particularly in denser cities like Birmingham and Coventry.

This, combined with the very real threat we face from climate change, makes clear the health and environmental benefits of cycling. We are investing in public transport to tackle congestion and pollution.

After years of inertia, a Conservative mayor has provided the push needed to finally get public transport moving in the West Midlands. We can do the same thing for cycling.

Until now we have lagged behind other parts of the UK, but with our new Bike Share scheme and ambitious plans for a region-wide network, I’m confident we can quickly catch up with the leading pack – and then power past them.

Andy Street: The big opportunity for the West Midlands in the small print of the EU deal

12 Jan

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

As the nation continues to grapple with the immense impact of Covid-19 it already seems a lifetime ago that Brexit was the dominant issue on our TV screens.

Right now, all our efforts are rightly focussed on the two key challenges of bringing down the infection rate while rolling out vaccinations. At the same time, unprecedented financial support continues with huge investment in projects that will help kickstart the economy and create new jobs.

Yet only a few weeks ago the Government achieved what for a time seemed in peril – a free trade deal with our biggest trading partners, the EU. We must not overlook what a critical moment this was for our nation, or the countless businesses and jobs that depend on it.

The news was met with real relief here in the West Midlands. I had long argued how vital a deal was for our economy, given that exporting makes up a bigger proportion of our GDP than any other English region.

Throughout the Brexit debate, much was made of the new opportunities that would flow from leaving the EU. Now we must be relentless in seeking and securing those opportunities. In this column, I want to outline how one of these lies within our all-important automotive industry – and how investing in its future success can deliver benefits far beyond the car factories themselves to create a new post-Brexit economic bedrock for the region.

Of course, when we talk about the automotive industry we primarily think about the car manufacturers themselves, like Jaguar Land Rover here in the West Midlands. Today, JLR is the flagship of a 21st-century automotive cluster, a concentration of businesses which has evolved from our heyday as Britain’s motoring heartland.

After all, Jaguar is just one of the many motoring brands with historic links to our region: Rover, Singer, Triumph, Healey, Humber, Standard, Land Rover, Daimler, Morris, Austin, Hillman – the list goes on and on.

But while these famous names employed thousands on their assembly lines, it was the vast supply chains that supported them that were the backbone of our broader industrial strength. Back then, huge Birmingham companies like Lucas and Dunlop dominated the supply chain and provided mass employment at landmark premises, but a myriad of smaller operations supported them too.

Here is the opportunity that Brexit brings – in the small print. As part of being able to continue to trade tariff free in the future, products built here will have to have a minimum amount of their parts made here (or in the EU) to count as British when it comes to exporting.

This concept is called “Rules of Origin” – not the most exciting of phrases but something I, and others, have been campaigning relentlessly on. It simply means that for a product to be classified as “Made in Britain” it has to include a significant proportion of British parts – and not just be a collection of foreign components with a Union flag stuck on it at the last minute and marked “British”. This requirement offers a huge opportunity to expand the local supply chain for our biggest manufacturing industry.

As in many manufacturing sectors, in recent decades much of our automotive supply chain has, regrettably, moved from the West Midlands to Asia and the rest of the world, taking with it quality jobs. Now, as a result of the EU trade deal, the automotive industry and others has a driving imperative to source more parts and components from the UK – or face tariffs that will make its exports uncompetitive in our biggest trading partner.

The threshold for British-made parts starts at 40 per cent but will rapidly reach 55 per cent as a minimum – creating huge scope and opportunity to rebuild and expand our automotive supply chain. Crucially, as part of the agreement, components can be made here or in the EU, retaining trading ties that allow important practices such as “just in time delivery”. However, there is a real imperative to expand our local supply chain.

Let’s be clear: we already have a good start, with a successful supply chain already in place. We have a huge network of support firms that have developed over decades, with a track record of transforming to meet the changing demands of the automotive sector. We also have the foundation industries that make the metals and materials that underpin vehicle manufacture at more than 20 sites.

Some firms are already leading the fightback, like Alucast in the Black Country, who I recently visited – an automotive supplier expanding and growing by adopting new technology. We are well placed to take advantage of the trade deal and grow this ecosystem of suppliers. While the days when almost every car part was made locally are a distant memory, we now have a real chance to bring some of these jobs and plants back from Asia to the West Midlands.

However, this is not about returning to the past, it is about embracing the future. In ten years’ time, the only new cars sold in Britain will be electric or hybrids. The entire sector is on the cusp of a revolution that will require not only rethinking its products but retooling and refitting much of the industry itself.

The highest value parts in any electric car will be the batteries that power it. So, ensuring our own ability to build these car batteries at scale in this country is critical. That means ‘gigafactories’, like the one built by Tesla in Nevada. The Government has recognised this by allocating £500m towards this technology. Here, in the West Midlands, £108million has already been invested in a state-of-the-art Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry.

A gigafactory, and the supply chain that would gravitate around it, will make a huge contribution to meeting the need for British-built parts in our cars. It will be vital not just future jobs, but for keeping the ones we have.

The pandemic has had a huge impact on the West Midlands economy, and of course the impact of coronavirus must remain our main focus as we fight to protect the NHS and livelihoods.

But the Brexit deal provided one of the few moments of real optimism for business. Now we must grasp the chance to start a major expansion of our automotive supply chain. For the British car industry to thrive in the future it needs more British-built parts – and that means more British jobs.

As we plot our way out of the pandemic, the small print of the EU trade deal offers a very big opportunity indeed.

Andy Street: Our pioneering bus partnership will get the West Midlands economy moving

15 Dec

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Andy Street: 15 years on, we can finally heal the scars of MG Rover’s collapse

1 Dec

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

The battle to protect our economy from Coronavirus has brought comparisons with previous downturns, re-examining past recessions and reminding us of the impact felt when major industrial players have collapsed.

The levels of borrowing outlined last week by Rishi Sunak are testament to the unprecedented efforts being made by Government to draw on past experiences and protect jobs as we face a new kind of recession.

Here in the West Midlands, there remain acres upon acres of former industrial land which remind us of previous slumps. With government backing, we are now reclaiming these eyesores to provide new homes and job opportunities.

And as we face this latest challenge, I am hopeful that we will finally heal one of the biggest, and most painful, of these scars. Longbridge, in Birmingham, offers an opportunity to use this economic crisis to erase the results of an infamous economic shockwave.

Completing the regeneration of Longbridge would be a powerful example of Conservative policy actively “levelling up” the economy. For 15 years, local people have waited to see this site fully reclaimed. Let’s show them that after three years under a Conservative mayor, and with a new Conservative MP in place, we are ready to deliver it.

For anyone whose roots are in the West Midlands, car making holds a special place in our hearts. As someone brought up in Northfield, just up the road from the famous Longbridge car plant, I am also very conscious of the past of our car industry. Home of “the Austin”, Longbridge at its 1960s zenith was one of the world’s biggest car factories, employing tens of thousands of people producing ground-breaking vehicles like the Mini.

Then, of course, came the painful decline through the disastrous British Leyland years and beyond. The causes of that decline are still the cause of much debate, but no-one can argue about the individual and collective pain that each job loss brought.

This culminated 15 years ago in the collapse of MG Rover, with the loss of the remaining 6,000 jobs. It remains one of the darkest days in the history of Birmingham and the West Midlands.

Psychologically, the closure dented the confidence of a region with a proud automotive pedigree. Economically, MG Rover’s collapse impacted on the thousands of people who worked for the firm and the massive supply chain that supported it.

Physically, when MG Rover shut its gates for the last time it left behind a vast industrial site that reminded us of the closure.

Since then, much of the site has been redeveloped. Developer St Modwen has shown real ambition and vision, effectively building a new town centre on part of site, which also boasts a fantastic college. Aquapak, a firm at the cutting edge of recycled polymers, recently welcomed Alok Sharma to their premises on the new business park there.

The old MG Rover site is being reshaped by a sustainable mix of businesses and housing redevelopment, including state-of-the-art senior living. Yet every time I pass Longbridge, I look across to the parts that remain empty and think about what it once meant for local jobs.

Now I’m determined to complete the regeneration of Longbridge, reclaiming a site that once represented one of our region’s most established industries, by applying one of our newest.

In the last year I have been joined by fellow Brummie Gary Sambrook, the Conservative MP for the area, in this ambition. He has been working with developer St. Modwen to get MG Rover’s “West Works” site redeveloped, and once again generating opportunity for local people.

Together we are promoting Longbridge’s strong business case to be a critical site for Government support through the Urban Transformation Fund. That’s why I submitted Longbridge to Government as one of our region’s top funding bids and it is why Sambrook passionately pitched it to the Chancellor last week in the Commons debate on the Spending Review.

To put it simply, this derelict site – which has been levelled for years – could provide a quite profound and tangible example of “levelling up” in action, and illustrate the West Midlands ability to bounce back from adversity.

That ability is also reflected in the land reclamation technology being pioneered here, which up until the pandemic hit, was cleaning up derelict eyesores like Longbridge and helping us build new homes at record numbers, through our “brownfield first” policy.

The exciting investment in the National Brownfield Institute at Wolverhampton will cement our position as a national leader in remediation and construction technology.

It is fitting that this example of West Midlands 21st Century innovation can be put to use to “level up” Longbridge, given its links to our industrial heritage.

Of course, there is another reason why the fate of the remaining Longbridge site would resonate so much now. The automotive industry is facing huge challenges. The sector is going through a revolution, illustrated by the Government’s ambitious decision to stop the production of petrol and diesel cars in 2030.

Longbridge stood as a reminder of what happens when we fail to invest in our automotive sector. The promise of £500 million in the Spending Review, to back electric battery technology and production shows the resolve not let this happen again. That’s why the Gigafactory that is so critical to our automotive future must be built in the West Midlands.

Longbridge may, sadly, never produce another car – but the site can produce quality new jobs for local people. With a new Gigafactory, we can recharge the automotive industry 15 years after MG Rover’s collapse.

By backing the regeneration of Longbridge, while investing in the West Midland’s automotive future, the Government can not only accelerate its ambitions to “level up” the economy – it can also drive home a profound message about our ability as a nation to bounce back.

Andy Street: We must do more to save struggling town centres. Tackling business rates is a good place to start.

17 Nov

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Our traditional town centres and high streets have faced unprecedented challenges in recent times. First, our town centres were impacted by the drive towards out-of-town retail parks. Next, the rise of digital shopping impacted, as doorstep delivery hit footfall.

Then came Coronavirus, and restrictions that have brought town centres to a juddering halt. Now, in what retailers call the “Golden Quarter” – the critical run-up to Christmas – they are coping with another month-long closure.

Through the Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund, the Government is backing town centres, on top of the unprecedented support already shown for business throughout the pandemic. I believe that we must double down on this investment to secure the future of our high streets, but the challenge we face is also reliant on generating fresh ideas and local buy-in. It is not just about money – it is about how we spend it too.

While 2020 has brought unprecedented challenges, I firmly believe in the future of our towns and cities, and evidence suggests that many others do too.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many reconnected with their local high streets. In lockdown, many chose to return to traditional butchers and grocers rather than face supermarket queues. When volunteers mobilised to deliver food to the vulnerable, it was often the local convenience store that provided a base, looking out for their regular customers.

And, when restrictions relaxed, people wanted to reconnect with town centres. Here in the West Midlands, Halesowen Town Centre saw the biggest bounceback in trade of anywhere in the country. Despite all the challenges, towns like this have a future because we are fundamentally a social species. After so long apart, we want to return as soon as possible to culture, to sport, to conferences – social pursuits that are so often in town and city centres.

However, it’s clear that investment is needed. Why? Our high streets matter. They matter because they are the heart of local communities. They matter politically, as they provide a tangible, visible sign of economic success. The Government recognises this, through its Towns Fund investment programme, as it seeks to “level up” the economy and reach out to former “Red Wall”’ areas. But we must think afresh.

Before Covid struck, we drew up our West Midlands blueprint to revitalise local high streets, the ambitions of which are even more pertinent today.

The blueprint aims to encourage a more personal shopping experience – the type you can’t get from a phone screen – while bringing local services into town centres, broadening appeal beyond retail.

We want to encourage more urban living in our town centres, which should also be the natural place for public services. The blueprint also aims to make our town centres greener and cleaner – with more opportunities to cycle and walk – and safe and secure with good lighting, proactive policing and CCTV.

Above all, strong local leadership must drive these ambitions, to build the partnerships and attract the investment needed. A key part of that leadership is pushing for a fairer tax system that levels the playing field between high street and online retailers.

Taxation remains a real issue. If a swift bounceback is evading us next year, then exemptions will be vital – but we must also tackle the long-term problem of business rates. They are simply outdated and, given the financial challenge we now face, the often-suggested online sales tax looks even more attractive.

Investment is also key to repositioning our high streets. In the West Midlands, we are putting millions on the table to back our blueprint.

Schemes vary in size from our £95.5 million investment in the Coventry City Centre South scheme, which will transform the City’s future, to £5 million towards a transformation of Kingshurst, in Solihull, creating a new village centre with shops, medical and community facilities.

Sometimes, it’s about removing eyesores that have blighted places for decades. The demolition of the Cavendish House office block symbolises that the regeneration of Dudley Town Centre is no longer a hope – it’s happening, thanks to regional funding. In West Bromwich, we are pulling down the hideous Bull Street Car Park, reclaiming the site to build new homes in the town centre – bringing much-needed footfall to existing businesses.

We’ve backed opening hotels in Walsall Town Centre and the heart of Coventry, and even helped bring an old rival from my John Lewis days, Marks and Spencer, into Sheldon’s high street in Birmingham.

Targeted investments like these demonstrate a confidence in the future of communities, and we are determined to do more locally. However, I want these investments to be a pilot for securing hundreds of millions from the Government’s Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund. Across the region we have seen enthused communities, businesses and councils come together to work on their bids for this funding.

Perhaps the most ambitious of these is in the Black Country, where an energised Wolverhampton partnership is pitching for £48 million not just in the city centre, but crucially for high streets in Bilston and Wednesfield too. This funding would go alongside our own investment in the City’s future, like the £150 million new railway station and metro link which is nearing completion.

Elsewhere in the Black Country we have more towns in the running for game-changing investment – Brierley Hill, Bloxwich, Dudley, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, Walsall and West Bromwich – each with their own distinct pitch.

A great example is Brierley Hill – a traditional town centre that was badly hit by the opening of the huge Merry Hill shopping centre in 1990. Now we have the chance to reconfigure the town centre to open it up and ensure that shoppers visiting big retailers like Asda can easily access the rest of the high street. The extension of the West Midlands Metro into Brierley Hill will link it to the wider region.

Communities around smaller suburban high streets are grasping the opportunities of the Future High Streets Fun too. Erdington, in Birmingham, has a brilliant scheme designed not only to boost retail but to make the best of their assets, by opening up the historic Churchyard area to provide better, high-quality open space. They also want to turn the boarded-up Victorian baths into a job-creating business hub.

Too often the debate over “levelling up” is reduced to North versus South. Here in the Midlands, where the Red Wall was first breached, we are engaging with the opportunities to bring investment into our communities that will drive tangible, visible improvements.

The Government is putting in money. But as we plot our way out of the pandemic, it must be ready to double down on this investment, while enthusing communities to play a part in revitalising the civic centres they so cherish.

Andy Street: As we enter lockdown, we must protect our precious open spaces

3 Nov

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

As I write, England is once again preparing to enter lockdown. Families will hang their hopes on Christmas, as they say a temporary farewell to each other. Cafes, pubs, restaurants, gyms and businesses of all kinds are preparing to close their doors as the nation tries to bring infection under control and protect the NHS.

The extension of the furlough scheme throughout November and the unprecedented financial support already set out by the Government will provide some relief for businesses, as we balance the need to save lives with the need to protect the economy.

As before, some sectors will carry on throughout lockdown – this time the NHS, supermarkets, manufacturers and public services will be joined by schools, colleges and universities as they keep the nation ticking over.

And of course the construction sites, at the heart of the strategy to Build Back Better, will work on. In this column I want to write about the opportunities that lie ahead as we build the homes of tomorrow – and the potential pitfalls if we get things wrong.

Last week, the consultation ended on potential changes to the planning system – “Planning for the Future – which “proposes reforms to streamline and modernise the planning process, bring a new focus to design and sustainability, improve the system of developer contributions to infrastructure, and ensure more land is available for development”.

Driving this push for reform is the need to build more housing. Demand far outstrips supply for homes. As the Party which made home ownership possible for everyone, it‘s vital that we address this properly, and develop long-term solutions. Clearly the current planning system is far from perfect – indeed, it has got us to where we are today.

In the West Midlands we are ambitious – we have set the target of 215,000 new homes by 2031. When the pandemic struck, we were well on our way to that target, with our rate of housebuilding doubling in 8 years to just under 17,000 last year.

In the last three years, we have shifted the whole basis of housebuilding in the region. Instead of tearing into the Green Belt, we have moved to a ‘Brownfield First’ policy, reclaiming and cleaning up old derelict sites for new development.  The result is that we have protected green fields while regenerating former industrial sites, removing eyesores in often neglected communities.

The policy has been a great success, with the vast majority of new homes built in our recent surge put up on reclaimed land. We’ve only been able to do this thanks to Government support and their backing for our business plan, with a £350m investment in our game-changing Housing Deal which was recently topped up with another £84m. A new science of land reclamation is being pioneered right here, with a £24 million National Brownfield Institute planned for Wolverhampton.

We have achieved this by working together across the region’s seven member boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. After all, by helping one community that is crying out to see a derelict eyesore removed, we are helping another fighting to save its cherished open spaces.

We see this application of local knowledge within our boroughs too – developing on old factory sites in Walsall town centre to protect neighbouring green spaces in Pheasey and Streetly, or building in Dudley town centre to protect fields around Halesowen and Stourbridge.

So, my response to Government’s “Planning for the Future” consultation is simple – let’s build on what we have been doing together so far. However, there are aspects of the proposals which I fear go in the wrong direction.

First, the algorithm and methodology at is core tilts more homes onto Councils with more green space, and away from those with more brownfield sites. This is, of course, to try and address the issue of housing where demand is high.

But, in this case, I believe it is tilting the playing field too far. It would mean, for example, increasing pressure on Councils like Solihull where we already have a Green Belt under intense pressure, whilst easing the need for homes elsewhere where there are more brownfield sites and a pressing need for regeneration.

We must not let developers ‘off the hook’ by allowing them to pile into greenfield sites and turn away from more challenging regeneration sites. And they will pile in – we are seeing it now in Coventry, where a misguided Local Plan has opened up too many green spaces for development. For developers, these sites present a more lucrative and easier option. For the local community, they represent a loss of much-loved green space. Down the road, in neighbouring communities blighted by old derelict industrial sites, they represent a missed opportunity to reverse years of neglect.

So, I have argued that this should be looked at again to reflect the need not to let an algorithm – which is prone to all sorts of unintended consequences – drive planning diktats that imperil the Green Belt.

Second, I believe this timely planning reform is a chance to seize the moment to provide additional protection to critically important Green Belt sites. Across the West Midlands at sites like the Seven Cornfields in Wolverhampton and Tack Farm in Halesowen, residents are battling to save cherished countryside.

The new “Protected” status should represent a strengthening of Green Belt protection for sites.  The Green Belt came into being in the 1950’s and now is the time to look at reinforcing it through this reform.

We should, for example, identify some Green Belt sites where development is simply inconceivable – in our region, the “Meriden Gap” which sits between Solihull and Coventry, and Saltwells Nature Reserve in Dudley leap to mind – and give them more protection. That added protection would ensure no developer would attempt a frivolous planning application designed to test the resolve of councils under pressure to build.

And let’s recognise where some places have contributed some of their Green Belt land already to meet local and national need – like land for HS2 – and see if we can compensate them with more Green Belt protection in their area. I have, in the past, described Birmingham City Council’s plans to build thousands of homes on Green Belt in Sutton Coldfield as a ‘land grab’ – and there is a strong argument that the town has now made a significant contribution to a city which has plenty of brownfield sites.

We aren’t Nimbys in the West Midlands. But it is vital that Whitehall understands that if the cold data supplied by an algorithm offers up cherished green spaces to hungry developers, there will be a backlash from local communities – and from voters.

We want and need more homes and we are working in partnership with Government, councils and developers to deliver them. As we head indoors for a month of lockdown, many of us will miss the open spaces that surround our communities, where we walk our dogs, run for exercise and our children play.

We must Build Back Better, but let’s never forget the critical importance of the Green Belt – indeed, let’s seize the opportunity to do more to defend it.