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.

Bill Bowkett: The pandemic has shown the value of localism. But the Government seems to be ignoring this lesson.

31 Dec

Bill Bowkett is a MA Newspaper Journalism student at City, University of London. He is a former editor of the University of Kent’s student newspaper InQuire and has worked as a researcher in Parliament for Sir Oliver Heald MP.

New year’s resolutions are always a fitting tradition. The Romans birthed this trend with the worship of Janus – the two-faced God of beginning and end. Back then, citizens gifted presents to their enemies. In return, Janus would forgive those who confessed their sins.

And lo, two millenniums later, the sun rises in 2021 and a chance to start anew. When news of a vaccine was announced back in November, an ending to this Covid-19 impasse looked imminent. But as the last few weeks have proven, hopes of a ‘social reset’ have been quashed.

New tiering measures meant Christmas was cancelled for families across England. Those that were hoping to spend some time with nanny and pappy last week had their plans shattered because of rising cases, particularly across the south-east. Not to mention a new mutant strain.

This year has dealt multiple blows, but these authoritarian restrictions leave a bitter aftertaste like a par-boiled Brussel sprout. Each of us who have sacrificed our freedoms in the name of public health – and were promised family festivities and an imminent return to normality – have been betrayed.

Serious questions continue to be raised about No 10’s handling of the crisis. But it seems that voters have had enough and have made their intentions clear: they want to take back control.

A recent survey by community network Locality showed that out of 2,000 adults polled, half lack faith in central government to make the right decision for their local community. Moreover, 56 per cent said that they wanted more local decision-making powers.

For all their efforts, this overbearing administration has failed to deliver on multiple fronts. Contract tracing has left thousands of infected individuals missing from the national database. Testing targets are repeatedly being missed at a cost of billions to the taxpayer. And with thousands of shops, pubs, and restaurants forced to close at this, the most wonderful – and profitable – time of the year, the economic forecast looks grim.

Funny that. The Conservatives usually pride themselves on being the party of localism. Yet, they certainly have enjoyed the powers given to them in the Coronavirus Act.

Just a fortnight ago, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, threatened Greenwich and Islington councils with legal action if they failed to keep schools open (even though keeping children in class, with days left until the end of term, was illogical).

Why the government is acting in this manner is anyone’s guess. They wish to be in command, yes. But this is not a job they can face alone. With anxieties of a third national shutdown on the horizon, we need new grounds for optimism.

Where should change come from? The answer is centred on those who are normally responsible for wellie bin collections and allotments. Because in 2020, local government has stepped up big time.

Take Leicester, the first city to go into local lockdown back in June. Authorities chose to ditch the NHS Test and Trace App. They used their own methods that applied local insight, calling residents over the phone and knocking on doors. Shortly after results started to show, and cases dropped in the short space of time the initiative was running.

The same goes for the West Midlands where Andy Street, the region’s metro mayor, said piloted tracing identified between 98 and 100 per cent of cases. Remarkable.

And in Sunderland, the council and local Mack’ems are looking towards the future, with the two working on a draft neighbourhood plan that aims to combat health inequalities.

The pandemic has changed the way citizens think about where they live. It has anchored us closer to what happens on our front door – whether that be civil associations working to deliver essential goods, or local authorities setting up support networks to care for our most vulnerable. Localised planning has made a positive difference (certainly a breath of fresh air to the ruckus coming out of Westminster).

With all that being said, if there is one New Year’s resolution the Prime Minister should make that will help the country in the long run, it is sharing the balance of power in England — and a comprehensive devolution framework that meets the needs of those closest to our doorstep.

Rishi Sunak’s “Shared Prosperity” funding announced in this month’s spending review – allocated to local authorities to help stimulate growth – should be spent by independently-minded legislators, not those in London. No conditions, ifs, buts, or maybes. As the Northern Powerhouse think tank director, Henri Murison, said, the government should not “top slice” funds and “pocket it in Whitehall for their own programmes”.

And like in the summer, authorities in England should have lockdown abilities returned so as to have the same power-status as the rest of the home nations. A hyper-localised approach means decisive action with local residents and businesses in mind. That also means control over mobile testing in places like care homes where the Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently announced £149 million of additional funding.

All aspects of life are going to bear the brunt these next few years, if not decades. The Tory’s manifesto pledge to ‘level up’ left-behind Blighty will invariably be set back amid Britain suffering the worst recession in history, as well as having the worst regional inequality in the developed world. Frankly, these are tasks beyond the executive’s capacity.

Radical thinking is needed to disperse fiscal and political responsibility away from high office, whilst also retaining accountability to those who govern. Therefore, a bottom-up approach holds the keys to our destiny – a meaningful partnership based on forward-thinking – because this epidemic impasse cannot last any longer.

Each new year brings the opportunity to resolve, and 2021 is no exception. If the frontbench continues as they are doing right now, we will continue to get the same. It is time to change our current trajectory. Time to give power back to the people.

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.

Robert Jenrick: We’ve made real progress on reducing rough sleeping since the pandemic came – but there’s much more still to do.

7 Dec

Robert Jenrick is Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and is MP for Newark.

At the start of this pandemic, the Government knew that we had a duty to protect the most vulnerable people in society, from the elderly to those shielding with health conditions.

And this was especially necessary for those people sleeping rough on our streets – a part of the community who are especially susceptible to the dangers of the virus.

We were elected on a manifesto commitment to eradicate rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament, and the pandemic meant redoubling our efforts to take urgent and decisive action. Our immediate task was to mobilise all levers of government to accelerate our plans to provide urgent support to rough sleepers.

Working closely with local councils, charities and faith groups we created the ‘Everyone In’ campaign in a matter of days. By helping over 90 per cent of those sleeping rough on our streets into safe accommodation, we mercifully avoided many deaths, and to a great extent the scenes of vulnerable people left in deserted city centres seen in places like New York.

We have now housed 29,000 vulnerable people, supporting over 10,000 into emergency accommodation and 19,000 into settled accommodation or with move-on support. Relatively few of those helped in have returned to the streets. This work has not stopped – and will not stop.

As we look back on a tumultuous and difficult year, the progress made in this area is one of the most positive legacies of the pandemic and has been recognised as one of the most successful policies of its kind in the world. Subsequent studies by the ONS and in the Lancet have estimated the lives saved and as far as one can ever know, they are considerable.

I want to thank everyone – including the many ConservativeHome readers, Conservative councils and Mayors like Andy Street – who have been involved in this huge national effort.

It’s only been possible due to a coalition of central government, local government, charities, volunteers and outreach workers who have delivered life-changing support to rough sleepers since the onset of this pandemic and I am grateful for their tireless work during such a challenging time.

Money alone is not answer to this most complex of challenges. But we are providing the resources needed. This year alone, we have already committed over £700 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping from all angles. The recent Spending Review increased our commitment by 60 per cent on the last one, so this level of investment will continue beyond Covid.

We always knew this winter would be especially challenging, and so began planning in the summer. The new Protect Programme is providing a further £15 million for councils requiring extra support throughout winter to provide accommodation for rough sleepers and we will continue to work closely with local authorities to develop these plans.

This is in addition to the £92 million allocated to 274 councils in September to fund their individual plans for rough sleepers over the coming months, as well as the £10 million Cold Weather Fund for all councils to help keep rough sleepers safe this winter – meaning all councils are eligible for support to bring forward Covid-secure accommodation this winter.

We are also making a further £2 million available for faith and community groups to support rough sleepers into self-contained and Covid-secure accommodation.

Through such programmes as Housing First, we are also tackling the root causes of rough sleeping for those with multiple and complex needs. This includes building partnerships with housing providers and finding innovative ways to access secure and safe accommodation.

Not only have we introduced unprecedented support to protect renters throughout the pandemic, but we have approved grants to deliver 3,300 new long-term homes across England for those sleeping on the streets.

This is part of a broader £433 million package which will provide 6,000 homes for rough sleepers over the course of the Parliament – the largest ever investment in this kind of accommodation, and one that will leave a lasting legacy of this Government’s commitment to protecting vulnerable people. It takes inspiration from the homes for the homeless established 30 years ago by the then Conservative Housing Minister, Sir George Young.

Once allocated housing, rough sleepers will receive the specialist support they need and an opportunity to turn their lives around, taking forward the Housing First approach and expanding it into almost every local authority in the country.

But we know that our work is not done. In addition to the significant pressures caused by Covid, the winter poses a new series of challenges for both those sleeping rough on our streets and the services working around the clock to help them. And if history is a guide, rising unemployment risks more people finding themselves on the streets.  My department is working with all councils in England to update their rough sleeping plans for winter and beyond to ensure that we are able to meet the challenges in the months ahead.

Building on the unwavering partnerships born out of this pandemic, let us now continue to secure brighter futures for those who are most in need of our help.

This is not an easy issue to solve. Rough sleeping is as much a health issue as it is a housing issue – it is often a crisis of addiction and mental health as well. As more than 50 per cent of those sleeping rough are ex-offenders – it requires a new approach to those leaving prison. And as more than 60 per cent of those on the streets of central London are from outside the UK, it requires a different approach to immigration enforcement, making use of the controls available to us after leaving the EU. The Home Secretary, Justice Secretary and Health Secretary are all working with me to ensure the most coordinated approach we’ve seen.

Nobody’s path is predetermined. Working across government, we will help as many of those living on the streets as possible to transform their lives and fulfil their potential. This is our duty as Conservatives, and one we will continue to strive to meet.

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.

Conservative MPs, mayors and council leaders urge a localist approach to reducing the virus

12 Oct

The brave new dawn of the Coalition Government in 2010 might have meant some mushy consensus. It might have ensured that Parliamentary arithmetic required compromise to triumph over radicalism. Some might even have felt this was inevitable. Yet it was rather impressive how bold the reforms David Cameron managed to achieve during that time – notably in education and welfare. One approach that the Conservative and Lib Dems agreed on was localism – an end to the New Labour centralised control freakery of the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years, where town halls were given such detailed targets and instructions that local democracy ceased to amount to much in terms of practical difference.

Nick Clegg, when he was the Deputy Prime Minister, rightly declared:

“Opponents of localism brandish the phrase “postcode lottery” to dramatize differences in provision between areas. But it is not a lottery when decisions about provision are made by people who can be held to democratic account. That is not a postcode lottery — it is a postcode democracy”

I don’t think that Theresa May was of the same Cameron/Clegg mindset. Nor, to be fair, did local democracy always rise to the challenge. In any event, localism seemed to go out of fashion. Until now. The abject failures of the centralised track and trace efforts have been set out on this site by Charlotte Gill. The usual Labour response is to demand that more money be spent – but already £10 billion has been thrown at it, which already seems rather a lot. It is no surprise that many are now wondering whether local authorities could do any worse.

The Sunday Times reported yesterday:

“Mayors will be given more control over the coronavirus test-and-trace system as ministers try to secure their support for tough new local lockdown rules. In an admission that the national system is failing, ministers will empower town hall bosses to deploy an army of new local volunteers to knock on doors and ask people to self-isolate. With Covid-19 running rampant, they want local people to take charge of controlling the spread of the virus in the hope it will generate “community spirit” and “improve compliance”…Ministers have spent months pinning their hopes on the NHS Test and Trace system, which has cost £10bn. But the national system of call centres is failing to trace many of those at risk. Local contact tracing has been trialled for several weeks in more than 60 council areas. Public health officials tap into the national database and pick up “difficult cases” where people cannot be traced. A source said: “We want to extend that.” Local authorities will also be given greater control over mobile testing units and walk-in centres.”

On Wednesday I wrote about the Government facing growing backchat from prominent Labour figures in local goverment. But the Sunday Times report adds that Andy Street, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, has said localised test-and-trace programmes piloted by councils in his region had been successful, with between 98 per cent and 100 per cent of cases identified – so he would resist his region having a new lockdown imposed. He adds:

“It has always been clear that there was a need for local capacity and our councils have done it very well, and there are now thousands of people being contacted by council staff and related agencies on the ground.”

Then yesterday Cllr David Greenhalgh, the Conservative leader of Bolton Council, took the airwaves to ask:

“I’m urging the Government to listen again…We can not throw our local economy to the wall….There has to be an exit package about we get ourselves out of these restrictions….Why should the north of England be treated any differently?”

Though public opinion is supportive of tough coronavirus restrictions, the resistance to being told what to do by “people in London”  is becoming more outspoken – among Conservative, as well as Labour, MPs. In a House of Commons debate last week, Jake Berry, the Conservative MP for Rossendale and Darwen, warned:

“I think the Government have fallen into the fatal trap of making national decisions based on a London-centric view with London data. I hope that the Minister will go away and reflect on that, and take the opportunity to take a new approach.”

Dehenna Davison, the Conservative MP for Bishop Auckland said:

“If localised measures are to become the norm, will it be possible to have data analysed on a more localised level, allowing areas with minimal cases, where local residents are working hard to follow the guidance, to enjoy more freedom? After all, we are the party of freedom.”

Richard Holden, the Conservative MP for North West Durham, added:

“We all understand that localised restrictions are better than national ones, especially when there are particular spikes in local areas, but there are variations within our communities as well. Weardale in my constituency has far fewer cases than much of the rest of my constituency, so it would be great to see some really localised data and some really localised regulations.”

There is a strong case that the national lockdown was a crude approach and that better targeting – both geographically and demographically – would have been more effective and less harmful. National rules have the advantage of simplicity and clarity – Ministers are less likely to be caught out during interviews; remembering all the local variations is tricky. Yet the logic of containing the spread, while keeping the cost to a minimum, would require a hyper-localised approach. Not regional. Or even by local authority. Holden is right to speak up for Weardale even if elsewhere in Durham the argument against further restrictions is less strong.

The more the case for such nuances is conceded, the weaker is the claim the man in Whitehall knows best. There are limits to what can be done. The NHS – despite its popularity – is a slumbering monolith with an inflexibility which may well explain why most other countries have achieved a lower death rate from the pandemic than we have. The health service can not be restructured in a few days. Still, an enhanced role for local autonomy would surely have a positive role to play. Better late than never.

Shaun Bailey: We can’t let London grind to a halt

23 Sep

Shaun Bailey is a member of the London Assembly and the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London.

Remember the days when London’s transport network led the world? It wasn’t that long ago. Look back to before Sadiq Khan and you see what we used to be capable of. When Boris Johnson was the Mayor of London, we signed off Crossrail 1. We started planning Crossrail 2. We got Boris bikes. We rolled the Overground out to more areas than ever. And we had a congestion charge that raised money without being extreme.

How times have changed. Now we’ve got a Mayor who spent four years managing Transport for London so inefficiently that he had to be bailed out by the government. He let TfL debt rise to a historic £13 billion. He hiked the congestion charge to £15 and extended it to seven days a week. He came into office with Crossrail on time and on budget, but managed to delay it and increase its cost. And he has allowed countless bridges to close, turning journeys across the river into Homeric odysseys, as our former Mayor might have said. These days the only way our transport system leads the world is in headlines about how London’s bridges are falling down.

It’s incredibly disappointing. Forget about the rest of the world — our transport system is what makes this city possible. It’s how businesses get around but it’s also how we see family and friends. That’s why I believe Londoners have the right to an efficient transport system. And I believe it’s the Mayor’s responsibility to deliver it. So I can’t understand why Sadiq Khan has let our transport network fall into its current state.

I don’t buy the narrative that failure is inevitable. After all, it’s not like we’ve seen these transport failures in other parts of the country. Far from it. Conservative mayors like Andy Street and Ben Houchen are setting a great example for London, something our Mayor should take note of.

Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, is pioneering a Metro system and opening new stations in Coventry and Wolverhampton. Ben Houchen, the Mayor of the Tees Valley, saved the local airport from closure and helped bring new investment into the region. They are doing exactly what Conservative mayors always do: working with business and government to deliver improvements in people’s lives.

Recently, Greg Hands and I had to take some of Khan’s job description into our own hands. When Hammersmith Bridge was closed yet again, Khan refused to take responsibility yet again. But the consequences were too great for us to ignore. Residents faced three-hour bus rides just to get across the river. Emergency services struggled to respond to call-outs. Businesses were reporting that trade was down between 30 per cent and 40 per cent.

So together, Greg and I asked the government to intervene and take over Hammersmith Bridge. And we are hugely grateful that the government listened. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, bailed out Sadiq Khan by taking over the bridge and funding the repairs.

But even though Grant Shapps did the right thing, it should never have come to this. As the Mayor of London, I’ll make it my priority to get TfL’s finances back in order. I’ll cut waste, end inflated executive pay, and provide the leadership TfL needs. That way, Londoners will have a transport network fit for a global city — and we can start to lead the world once again.

Andy Street: Coventry could provide a blueprint for the nation’s city centres

8 Sep

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

Five years ago, Coventry was the seventh and final Council to vote to join the West Midlands Combined Authority, embracing the new spirit of cooperation sparked by the devolution of power to the region.

As one of England’s top 10 Cities, Coventry’s inclusion alongside the other six boroughs of Birmingham, Dudley, Solihull, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton was a vital component of a confident and assertive new West Midlands.

Like all of its new partners, Coventry brought to the table not only a proud and distinct character but some of the driving force that helped make the West Midlands the UK’s industrial heartland.

As a consequence, the city made a major contribution to the strong regional economy we had built here before COVID-19 struck, which was second only to London. Now, as our region plots its recovery, new jobs and investment will be key.

Just as I believe an innovative ‘can-do’ attitude made Coventry one of the big winners from working regionally, I believe we have laid much of the groundwork to create the jobs needed for the city to bounce back, after the pandemic. I’d like to use this column to navigate what lies on the road ahead for the ‘motor city’ – and illustrate how Coventry has benefited from taking its place at the West Midlands table.

As the UK cautiously attempts to return to normality, the future of our city centres has become a hot topic. Coventry is on the cusp of a major investment that could provide a blueprint for the nation’s city centres, which will see old and tired tracts of retail-focused land repurposed for a new era.

More than £95m of regional funding has been set aside for the “City Centre South” transformation, with the plans being consulted on over the Summer.

This huge scheme represents a 21st century rethink, moving away from the reliance on big anchor stores and making city centre living a reality, by creating 1,300 new homes – all on reclaimed brownfield sites.

While there will, of course, still be plenty of room for high-quality retail, leisure offerings such as bars, restaurants, a hotel and potentially a cinema will drive footfall from new city-centre dwellers as well as attracting residents from the suburbs.

It is estimated that City Centre South will bring at least a thousand new jobs, with another 620 when construction begins. But this is just one facet of our plans for Coventry, which are transforming the city.

By investing in our ‘brownfield first’ policy, we can boost jobs in the construction sector and provide footfall for the high street. We are providing funding to reclaim more brownfield sites to turn them into homes and ease the pressure on green spaces around the city’s edges.

For example, Coventry’s former National Grid depot, a derelict eyesore since 2010, is set to be transformed into hundreds of homes backed by regional cash.

This kind of regional investment is important, as one of the biggest challenges the City faces is pressure for more homes and development – which is causing much angst for communities facing threats to their Green Belt.

Regional investment of £51million is going into the flagship Friargate office development – right next to Coventry’s central railway station – bringing in good jobs to support the City Centre economy.

And the station itself is being completely upgraded from the 1960s building of the past to create the modern gateway this growing City needs – with £39.4m of regional cash underpinning the £90m+ scheme.

Added capacity at the city centre station will help us deliver a package of new suburban stations in the City, working with the Government to improve transport links and connect Coventry’s communities with new opportunities.

Wider investment in the City’s transport will include a pioneering “Very Light Rail” system. Recently backed by the Government’s Get Britain Building Fund, the prototype of this system is being designed and built-in Coventry, before being tested in Dudley.

In the last few days, local roads have seen the roll-out of the city’s first modern electric buses. These clean, eco-friendly vehicles will use battery power to help Coventrians get about. And it is this technology that offers the biggest opportunity for the future of the UK’s motor city in terms of jobs.

Regional money has contributed £18m towards the National Battery Industrialisation Centre, which is due to open later this year in the City, cementing Coventry’s place at the heart of the technology that will transform the automotive industry.

Crucially, we want this centre to be the pilot that helps bring a “Gigagfactory” to our region to mass-produce electric batteries for the sector.

The West Midlands is already the UK centre of driverless car testing, with both Coventry and Warwick Universities providing valuable local input into the emerging technology. Driverless vehicles are being tested on the streets of the city and the region’s motorways. Cutting-edge testing facilities down the road in Warwickshire are a hotbed of autonomous motoring too.

The Prime Minister has spoken of bringing the Gigafactory here, saying our region is seeing ‘a 21st Century industrial revolution’ in battery and low-carbon technology’. Electrification can provide the power to drive new jobs for Coventry and the region as a whole.

Finally, we are backing Coventry to shine on the national and international stage with City of Culture festivities next year.

There is £35m of regional money going into making this a success. It is focused on projects that will leave a lasting legacy for the City and its residents – above all jobs.

In the last five years, Coventry has embraced the benefits of a collaborative West Midlands, while contributing the drive that has always made it one of the UK’s most industrious places. As we look to create the jobs of the future, that combination of regional support and local innovation will be key.

Jay Singh-Sohal: I’m promising our West Midlands communities a robust response to crime

4 Sep

Capt. Jay Singh-Sohal works in Strategic Communications for M&C Saatchi and serves as a captain in the Army Reserve. He is the Conservative candidate for West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner.

It’s now been over a year since I was selected as the Conservative candidate for the Police and Crime Commissioner role in the West Midlands. While the national emergency with Covid 19 has delayed last May’s elections to 2021, I feel as motivated as ever to deliver the change we need in my home region.

That’s because the West Midlands is crying out for a new approach and leadership when it comes to local policing. Labour has been in the role for the entire eight years that it has existed, and over this period we have seen a rise in the local precept as well as a rise in crime.

Ahead of lockdown, crime was already increasing with knife crime and violence of particular concern. Meanwhile, suspects in the West Midlands are far less likely to be charged or issued with a summons than they were five years ago, with fewer than one in 14 crimes reported to police resulting in a court appearance.

Currently, the West Midlands is yet to see the benefit of the extra police officers the government has funded.  We had 366 allocated for the first year, but in the nine months to June 2020 only 27 have been recruited in the region.  Why? Meanwhile, the threat to police stations continues with zero clarity on what will happen to those earmarked for closure this year in Aldridge, Sutton Coldfield, Solihull, Tipton, and Wednesfield. All Conservative areas. What a coincidence!

Priti Patel, our Home Secretary, has delivered the bold and robust measures needed to tackle crime and accompanied this with extra funding.  The West Midlands has certainly benefited with an increase of nearly £50m taking the total funding for 2020/21 to just over £620m. It’s a vast amount of resources with which to set local priorities and targets that tackle rising violence, knife crime, county-lines drugs, theft, and burglary.

What it now needs is a Conservative to target these resources effectively. The fundamental truth in the West Midlands is that the approach to setting the police budget to tackle crime has to change. The current Labour incumbent is obsessed with using the powerful role to play party politics, constantly lamenting “austerity” cuts, shirking responsibility and favouring particular communities over others.  He’s even placed himself as an unofficial opposition to our successful Mayor Andy Street and got involved in issues outside of his brief.

What we need is more policing and less politics. A fresh approach built around my key policy pledges of stopping police station closures and increasing frontline policing meant we were winning the argument in the West Midlands, and still can.  And so as I reflect upon what has changed since a year ago, the ground appears to be fairly similar to where we were in 2019. Although the journey has been anything but ordinary.

When I first considered the PCC role, I, like many other approved Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, was awaiting a general election. What convinced me to commit to the police and crime role was the opportunity to deliver a better public service for our six million residents living across twenty-eight Parliamentary constituencies in seven metropolitan boroughs.

Knocking on doors and speaking to residents I have found them ever-ready to give me a chance with their vote, because as a Conservative I put taxpayers money and duty above partisanship. It also helps that the incumbent is retiring and Labour have selected a Momentum candidate to replace him, a man who joined a Black Lives Matter rally in Birmingham during lockdown – to bend the knee alongside those who seek to defund the police.

I stand as one of a new generation of pragmatists looking to make positive change happen. I’m half the age of the current Labour PCC and representative of a third of my region that is Black And Minority Ethnic, so I bring new ideas as well as a deeper understanding of issues affecting diverse communities regionally as well as nationally.

I also  draw upon more than a decade in the Armed Forces as an active Army Reservist, I see the PCC role as a continuation of my duty to serve in this way – providing the leadership, new thinking, energy and innovation that we now require to tackle crime.

Indeed, when this year’s elections were cancelled back in March, I did not hesitate in voluntarily mobilising with the Army on Operation Rescript, the military response to the pandemic. Seeing the impact Coronavirus was having from the privileged position of my special role brought home the severity of the situation as well as the knock on effect it would have on law and order. On many occasions, I saw the challenge presented to the government as well as local Commissioners. In some instances, I lamented that some PCCs were not being more effective by stepping forward, being more visible in their communities and helping guide their forces to deal with rule-breakers.

It’s become cliched to say everything’s changed because of Covid 19.  But returning to the “civilian” fold in July and with lockdown easing, I certainly felt it.  There are heightened tensions in diverse communities over the policing of lockdown as well as tensions over alleged racial profiling.  But I’ve also seen a great amount of togetherness in so many communities like mine – both the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield and the Indian community.  I take pride that many have rallied, helping and serving others during this ordeal.

But I fear for what time spent in lockdown has meant for people’s mental health in particular, both in terms of their wellbeing and potential knock-on effect into crime. It is a hidden danger which we might not realise straight away, yet not a day goes by when I am not concerned about the manner in which the continuing rising crime levels in the West Midlands are manifesting.

Recently, the cross-party Youth Violence Commission reported that there could be a knife crime spike as children who’ve witnessed domestic violence are released from lockdown. While we are seeing lawlessness post-lockdown, with almost a weekly occurrence of shootings in the West Midlands, police officers attacked and the elderly and vulnerable burgled in more horrendous ways. Illegal raves are on the up, which Nicola Richards, the MP for West Bromwich East, and I recently highlighted on social media. West Midlands Police responded by breaking up 125 parties last weekend including one in Birmingham attended by 600 people breaking social distancing rules.

While all this goes on, there is once more a clear lack of leadership from my region’s Labour Police and Crime Commissioner, who offers neither a response nor a strategy nor plan for how to tackle these issues. He is missing from the scene, anonymous to the diverse communities affected by his failed policies who need engagement and reassurance that they and their families will be kept safe.

There is no doubt in my mind from the evidence I’ve seen that we need an increased police presence in our communities and a robust response to crimes ranging from violence to anti-social behaviour.  So as I mark a year as PCC candidate, I have reaffirmed my commitment once more to keeping police stations in Aldridge, Solihull, Sutton Coldfield, Tipton, and Wednesfield if elected. All face closure by Labour, but I would work with local and community groups to get more out of them while increasing trust and engagement with the police within.

It’s far too easy for Labour to blame the government, and sit back and watch the repercussions of rising crime unfold. This is not leadership. It is a dereliction of duty. So for me, the May 2021 PCC elections cannot come soon enough; the West Midlands is crying out for change.