Andy Street: Truss will deliver for the West Midlands. That is why she has my backing.

10 Aug

The Commonwealth Games are over. After a sporting spectacle that has shown the very best of the West Midlands to a global audience, we have passed on the baton to Victoria in Australia.

Now, the Conservative party is about to pass on the baton of leadership, selecting a new Prime Minister and the person who will lead us into the next General Election. Liz Truss is the favourite to win that race, and I am backing her.

I want to use this column to explain how I believe Truss will deliver for the West Midlands as Prime Minister – and why she can be a winner for the Conservatives at the ballot box.

Let’s be clear: the two are inextricably linked. The Midlands is at the heart of the ‘red wall’. In our region, 43 out of 59 local MPs are Conservatives. That means that delivering better outcomes for our citizens is not only mission critical for me in deciding who I think should be our next Prime Minister, but also to success in the next General Election.

Why? Sitting at the centre of the country, the West Midlands – with its long history of invention, its manufacturing and export prowess, and its diverse, innovative population ­– is the engine room of the nation. When we flourish economically, so does UK Plc. When we lag behind, the nation suffers.

So, when deciding which of the two Conservative leadership candidates to support, my overriding question was ‘who will deliver better outcomes for citizens of the West Midlands?’ I drew four conclusions.

First, we need a Prime Minister who will create more high-quality, well-paid jobs across the country, and inject dynamism into the economy. Truss’s proposal of a Plan for Growth, concentrating on new high tech sectors, can do this.

Here, in the Midlands, the Government must actively back our advanced manufacturing industries – such as electric vehicle production. This is already a real success story, but we need the levers the public sector has – from improving infrastructure and skills to targeted tax breaks – to attract more private investment, including the much-heralded battery Gigafactory in Coventry. This is how we will create higher-paid jobs across our region and super-charge the nation’s engine room.

Second, we need a Prime Minister fully committed to “Levelling Up”.  For decades, people here have not shared equally in the success of the UK. While strides are definitely now being made, expectations are understandably high that we will continue to make good on our promises.

The new Conservative leader must double down on policy commitments including accelerating devolution to English regions. I believe Truss is committed to this, and will follow through on the promised Trailblazer Devolution Deal to be negotiated with the West Midlands Combined Authority. This deal will show the new Government remains serious about Levelling Up, and enable us to use our new cash and powers to make a tangible difference to people’s lives. Freeing us from Treasury red tape, to spend our cash how we like, will show Levelling Up in action.

Third, I believe Truss is willing to do what it takes to seize the opportunities offered by Net Zero. Under her leadership we will see decisive action to reduce the UK’s dependence on fossil fuels – critical if we are to help those on low incomes cut their energy bills. The Government will double down on helping businesses to decarbonise, cutting their costs, just as we’ve piloted in the Black Country. And we will see new investment in public transport schemes ­– like building the Midlands Rail Hub, which will ease congestion, help people save money, time, and reduce their carbon footprint.

Finally, we need a PM whose leadership will be driven by values, and who will uphold our nation’s stature on the international stage. As she has shown when facing down Vladimir Putin, Truss is not afraid to stand up for our values. As Prime Minister I believe she will continue in that vein, ensure standards in public life, and battle for the values that have made Britain a modern, inclusive society.

Those are the reasons I think Truss can deliver for the UK and the West Midlands, but why do I believe she can deliver at the ballot box too?

Truss showed loyalty to the Prime Minister and laid out her stall for leadership after he had resigned. As a result, she is more able to draw a line under the past and, as a new leader, people will judge her on her merits.

She has an optimistic vision that can resonate with the electorate. She has the grip necessary to get our Government firing on all cylinders, to deliver tangible results that will impress voters.

Most crucially, she has the ability to connect with people. By appointing a cabinet of talents, she can unite our party and inspire the grassroots. By demonstrating her commitment to strong values in Government, and to improving our nation, she can reach out to resonate with the regions. That will be critical to success at the ballot box.

The Commonwealth Games were a confident, energetic triumph that celebrated both unity and diversity, illustrating the tangible results of investment while promoting our values to a global audience. In a way, they were an exemplar of what the UK can be.

Fittingly, this weekend I was able to welcome Truss to the Games ­– and what better place to think of her commitment to the regions, as it was her who signed the letter confirming Government funding for Birmingham to host!

She recognises the potential of the regions. I believe she is now committed to building on what we have already achieved here, delivering for the West Midlands, the Conservative party and the nation.

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Andy Street: A commitment to Levelling Up must be non-negotiable for the next Prime Minister

12 Jul

The Party is about to choose its next leader. As we go through this process – and there is an understandable desire to move swiftly – let’s think about one of the big issues which the outgoing PM correctly described as the defining mission of his Government: Levelling Up.

I welcome the return of Greg Clark as Levelling Up secretary and look forward to pressing ahead with him, building on the work we have already done here in the West Midlands.

And press ahead we must. I want to use this column to explain why the next Prime Minister must fully embrace the challenges and opportunities of Levelling Up – and recognise the importance of further devolving powers to the regions to make it happen. I’ll focus on one core area – skills – to illustrate just how that can work.

Taking powers back from Westminster to the regions predates the concept of levelling up. My own post as West Midlands Mayor was born from negotiations under David Cameron and was delivered under Theresa May, while Levelling Up has been an animating principle of Conservative Party thinking since 2019. However, it is now clear that Levelling Up and devolution fit together hand-in-glove, with local decision-making providing the knowledge to deliver tangible results.

Indeed, the two concepts are now developing in tandem. The Levelling Up White Paper was published this year followed by the draft Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, while the West Midlands has been named as one of two areas chosen to negotiate a trailblazing devolution deal with Government.

‘Trailblazing’ means that we will be able to push for new powers and funding – for levers that will give us unprecedented ability to shape our economic prospects and to take our future into our own hands. This, surely, should be intrinsic to the Levelling Up message.

After all, those new powers and funding can drive forward economic growth and extend opportunity to people here who for too long have been denied it. As developments since the publication of the White Paper have shown, securing growth is more critical than ever – facing as we do a cost of living crunch in the present and a deep productivity challenge in the longer term.

In skills, we have already benefited from significant devolution. It was one of the core responsibilities that we sought in our first devo deal, and we secured far greater powers here in the second devo agreement. Most importantly, we took on responsibility of the £130m Adult Education Budget (AEB) for the region.

What did we do with it? We refocused the AEB to put a greater emphasis on getting more people into jobs, developing higher-level and higher-quality skills, and in shifting provision to be more responsive to employer needs. Before we took on AEB we had over 400 providers delivering a gamut of courses – too many of which were low value add. We’ve now got around 50 providers who work in a joined up way with our colleges and councils. Then there is Colleges West Midlands, a pathbreaking partnership which unites providers to plan together for their long term strategic needs. This is the kind of joined-up, local thinking that can deliver Levelling Up.

The evidence of progress has been clear. At the end of 2018 only 48.5% of our people had NVQ Level 3+. By the end of last year – even with the pandemic’s toll – that figure hit 54.9%. We’ve had 9,231 people pass through our cutting edge courses on electric vehicle maintenance, cyber security, and coding, while our pioneering boot camps have now been adopted nationally.

But our work is not done, and it has been given greater urgency by the economic predicament we find ourselves in. Our skills investments have played their part in driving the wider region’s relatively strong labour market figures – 75.9% employed and 20.6% inactive, both ahead of the UK as a whole. But while we are getting more people into work, it is getting people into good jobs with career ladders where we still have so much further to go.

It’s our job to support the private sector – to give them the workforce they need and persuade them to invest in the region. But we will need new tools in skills to do this. What do we need? Well, the first of these tools would be to have a leading role in an enhanced Local Skills Improvement Plan (LSIP), which rightly centres the needs of employers when it comes to skilling up our people. We want the responsibility to deliver an integrated, regional skills response to those needs.

Right now, we commission post-19 skills provision. Through an enhanced LSIP, we could be empowered to lead new provision across 16-19 technical skills and oversee capital investment through the Skills Development Fund. We want to grow apprenticeships through managing the West Midlands’ share of the national Traineeship budget, and we also want to take on the co-ordination of careers activity and responsibility for the targeting of National Careers Service delivery here, to help young people make the best choices for themselves.

Yes, taking on these new responsibilities will result in higher productivity figures, higher average wages, and lower unemployment. But they will also extend opportunity to the hardest to reach, delivering Levelling Up at street level. Levelling Up isn’t just about investing in an area, in buildings and transport systems. It’s about investing in individuals.

Of course, skills form just part of our ambitions in the ‘trailblazer’ devo deal negotiations. We also want more control over housing and regeneration, and in our signature specialty of brownfield regeneration, where we will be proposing ‘Levelling Up investment zones’. On net zero, perhaps the single biggest ask we have is to have the funding Government has allocated for retrofit devolved to us.

Whoever the next occupant of Number 10 is, Levelling Up will remain mission critical. I believe a full commitment to Levelling Up should be a non-negotiable requirement of the next Prime Minister, and I cannot support anyone who does not intend to lean into the challenge we face.

Levelling Up is a signature ambition of 21st Century Conservatives, while the framework of devolved power has been built by Conservative administrations – and provides the perfect conduit to deliver that ambition. Our next Prime Minister must see the value of devolution, and of extending the decision-making powers of the regions, to deliver real change and renewal.

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Will Tanner: Devolution. Conservatives should embrace England’s mayoral moment.

24 Jun

Will Tanner is Director of Onward and a former Deputy Head of Policy in Number 10 Downing Street.

Conservatives have always had an uneasy relationship with devolution. Philosophically, decentralisation sits well within the conservative tradition of empowering people and places to make their own decisions, and restricting the centralising tendencies of the state.

We might naturally think of Burke’s little platoons, de Tocqueville’s foundations of American democracy, or Disraeli’s social reforms.

But at the sharp end of politics it is Conservatives that had to confront some of the worst abuses of decentralised control in the past, from Militant’s municipal control of Liverpool in the 1970s to Scottish separatism today.

And it is Conservative councils, particularly in the party’s rural heartlands, that have been most resistant to the imposition of powerful new mayors with a direct mandate to replace existing county and district councils.

It is tempting, on the basis of this recent history, to see the worst in plans to devolve power and control to a new cadre of city and county mayors.

Some fear the creation of more Sadiq Khans: figures who at times use their positions more as a rabble-rousing soap box than a mandate for delivery. Others ask why a Conservative Government would deliberately cede control of Britain’s biggest cities to local electorates that increasingly vote Labour.

And even those more supportive of decentralisation urge caution on grounds that England’s mayors are still relatively new and untested.

These objections are understandable, but they are not particularly convincing. The truth is that devolving power to more and stronger mayors is not just philosophically within the conservative tradition, but also economically and politically sensible for the Conservatives to pursue.

It offers an opportunity for a Government beset by challenges on other fronts to “give back control” to the places that most need levelling up, address the UK’s great economic weakness – poor regional governance – and should boost the Conservative vote too.

There are three reasons why conservatives should embrace a new mayoral moment. The first is the overbearing power of Whitehall in British politics. Conservatives rail against the ratio of tax to GDP but just as pernicious is the share of tax raised and spent centrally versus locally.

Just five per cent of tax revenue is raised locally in the UK, a third of the level in France and a sixth of that in Germany. Of that revenue, only a quarter is spent locally, compared to half in the US and three quarters in Canada.

And it’s getting worse: between 1995 and 2017, the share of public spending controlled below central government fell, from 26 per cent to 23 per cent, despite rising almost everywhere else in the OECD.

Even in London, which has enjoyed increasing levels of autonomy since the mayoralty was established in 2000, only eight per cent of revenue spending is currently controlled by the mayor. In other areas, this is far lower: in the West Midlands, just 0.4 per cent of the revenue budget is controlled by Andy Street; 84 per cent is controlled by national government.

And while Sadiq Khan’s control of Transport for London and affordable housing funding means that 43 per ccent of capital spending in London is controlled locally, in other regions this is far lower: just 26 per cent in the North West and 28 per cent in the West Midlands.

This centralisation is not just a block on local democracy – depriving local places of self-determination and control – it is a block on overall growth, too. Painstaking evidence collated by academics like Professor Philip McCann shows that countries with a layer of regional or “meso” government tend to grow both faster and more equally.

This is because local areas act as both local laboratories – trialling new policies to attract investment, support jobs and upskill workers – and competitors – forcing local leaders to be more ambitious and learn from what works.

The second reason is that, despite being new, mayors are not untested. In fact, in the short time they have been in place in England many have demonstrated the virtues of the mayoral model.

In the last few years, dilapidated regional bus, tram and train systems have started to be reinvigorated. In the West Midlands, Andy Street has streamlined the skill system to drive up apprenticeship numbers and quality. While Ben Houchen has overseen the doubling of Foreign Direct Investment into Tees Valley from almost £5 billion to almost £10 billion between 2016-19.

Conservatives can rail against the fact that some of these schemes were delivered by Labour mayors. But the reality is many of these services were neglected by national administrations of different colours over the last few decades.

And at a moment when central government is being pulled in multiple directions, from Ukraine to the cost of living and inflation, mayors offer a vehicle for getting things done. If devolution is the price of delivery, then so be it.

Third, mayors offer a route for the Conservatives to win. In every area outside London, mayoral turnout has risen steadily over time and name recognition is high. Six in ten Mancunians can correctly name Andy Burnham and four in ten Teessiders can name Ben Houchen as their respective mayors, compared to the one in ten voters who can name their council leader.

And, because people know their mayors, when they do good things voters are more likely to vote for their party.

Take the Red Wall seat of Hartlepool. Between 2012 and 2018, Conservative performance in Hartlepool almost exactly tracked nearby South Tyneside. But after Ben Houchen’s election in 2017, the Tory vote share in Hartlepool has started to tick up. In 2021, it was four points higher than South Tyneside, and by 2022 it was a massive 18 points higher.

This is not simply because the Hartlepool electorate contains more latent conservatism than nearby areas: Hartlepool is demographically similar to Sunderland, South Tyneside and Gateshead, so the Red Wall realignment should have played out evenly in all of them.

This suggests a “Houchen effect” that has boosted the reputation of the party in the area – and points to the possibility of Conservatives using mayoral delivery to increase their political popularity across the Red Wall.

In future, the Conservative beachhead established at the last election may well be built upon by Mayors in North Yorkshire, Hull and East Riding, Cumbria, and the East Midlands. And in the event of a future Labour government, these may be the Conservative outriders that give people confidence to vote Tory again.

So mayors have demonstrated their potential. But they have done it with one hand tied behind their backs.

Whitehall’s funding streams are so complex, and so tightly held, that the Levelling Up Department alone has 16 distinct funding pots that local areas can bid into, including one to fund public toilets. Mayors have very limited ability to raise local revenue for local priorities, and few direct incentives to grow the local economy to support local investment and infrastructure.

In the Levelling Up White Paper, Michael Gove rightly set out ambitious plans to expand the mayoral devolution model to every area of England that wants it – and many counties and city regions are currently negotiating deals. This is a good start.

But we should go further – by giving mayors a single funding settlement similar to those negotiated with Whitehall departments and devolving 1p in every £1 of local income tax revenue – equivalent to £6 billion a year – to fund new responsibilities over local trains, skills and energy systems.

In return for more power, mayors should submit to additional accountability, from strengthened mayoral scrutiny panels, select committee questioning and greater local tax raising. This would strengthen local democracy, while also extending its reach.

In the last five years, Whitehall has taken back control of power and money from Brussels. It is time to give back control to Britain’s historic cities and counties.

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Wendy Thompson: Next year will offer a chance to punish Labour for its mismanagement in Wolverhampton

20 Jun

Cllr Wendy Thompson is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Wolverhampton City Council.

Wolverhampton faces all-out elections in May next year. So what you may ask? Ordinarily, all-outs are nothing special. However, here in the Black Country’s only city, because of boundary changes, it represents a near once in a generation opportunity to break, in one fell swoop, Labour’s grip on the levers of power.

Normally, the city elects by thirds, and with Labour’s solid majority in place, it would take years of nothing but smooth sailing, without the ebbs and flows of national politics bleeding over, and yes, local challenges, to whittle away control from Labour.

We have a golden opportunity to take control and end the years of misrule that the residents of Wolverhampton have had to endure.

Much of the criticism I wrote of the administration on this site last year, sadly, still holds true:

  • The £4.4 billion of investment that they say is onsite currently, or in the next 12 months, in the city is still missing in action. In fact, if it wasn’t for Government funding I’m not sure anything would be progressing in the city centre (except for the years late, and four-times over budget, Civic Halls project).
  • The Green Belt is still under pressure as Labour refuses to proactively go out and hunt down the brownfield sites we know are there, so much so that they even voted against a motion calling on them to do just this, because they couldn’t stomach publicly following our lead nor could they cook up an amendment that was even in order.
  • Front-line services are continuing to let people down, with phone calls to Council officers going unanswered (in some cases for over 40 minutes), even when people are trying to give the Council money to pay for services they should receive as part of their council tax, like garden waste bins.

Perhaps worst of all for residents though is that as sure as spring follows winter, Labour, despite our attempts to stop them, puts up council tax as much as possible without fail. And in the latest cabinet reports, it’s reported that the Council is to post an underspend of over £2 million on top of the £4 million bunged into reserves earlier in the year, which would have more than covered the extra cash raised from Labour’s latest squeeze.

Residents are being let down by Wolverhampton and, as such, we will be doing all we can to take control of the Council in one go and do better for our poorly treated citizens (or ‘customers’ as the Council insists on calling them).

Preparation has already begun for the monumental task ahead and whilst this years’ manifesto formulation is in its infancy, we know the challenges the city faces and are fizzing with ideas to solve them.

As believers in low tax, we think that now more than ever the Council should be doing all it can to reduce the ask on hard-pressed Council Taxpayers. We know that there are savings the Council can make to limit or even freeze council tax increases. We also want to scrap the garden tax and stop charging people to have their garden waste collected – at a time when we want to boost recycling why are we penalising people for doing the right thing?

By far the best thing we can do to help many households (and the Council Tax base through the associated reduced council tax discounts) is to help more people into work and off out of work benefits. Wolverhampton has a chronic unemployment problem regularly being in the top ten nationally for out of work claimants. Whilst the Labour Council has slowly adopted two of our ideas to counter unemployment for those at the beginning and towards the end of their careers, we want to go further. Wolverhampton has a proud entrepreneurial spirit, and we want to see additional support for those who have a vision to turn ideas into reality.

One of the city’s most sacred resources are its green spaces – with just 11 per cent Green Belt, one of the lowest in the West Midlands – we owe it not just to current residents but to future ones too to see as much as of it as possible protected from development. We want to find and bring forward the brownfield sites out there so that the greenbelt fields can be removed from the draft Black Country Plan – fortunately for us and Wolverhampton, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street is already working on doing just that.

For too long Wolverhampton has been let down by Labour with the current administration seemingly content to manage decline and showing more concern for holding on to their Cabinet positions. Whilst the world has moved on, in Wolverhampton Labour want to refight past battles rather than look to the future, whether that is ending the unemployment crisis that has dogged the city since de-industrialisation or complaining about a lack of resource. Our city lags our Black Country siblings with the key difference being that in the two more successful ones it is Conservatives in charge.

So come May when all seats are up for election, we will be ready. With support from our two excellent local Conservative MPs Stuart Anderson and Jane Stevenson, the indominatable Andy Street, and the hundreds of Conservative Supporters across the city, we will be doing all we can to take control and deliver the positive change that Wolverhampton has so sadly been missing all these years.

 

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Andy Street: Birmingham’s canals show how good urban policy makes the best of the past

14 Jun

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

Great cities have their rivers or coastlines – think London, Paris, Sydney, San Francisco. Here in the landlocked West Midlands, we have our canals.

As the arteries of the Industrial Revolution, they once shaped our region, its geography, its economy, and its people.

Today, they reflect the renewal of the West Midlands, contributing to business and culture while providing valuable open spaces that inspire communities and volunteers.

In this column I want to explain how our region is utilising this vast network to help level-up communities and navigate a way to a greener future, and how our approach can provide a template for other post-industrial areas.

After all, it is estimated that nationally canals provide £4 billion worth of social value.

Birmingham, it’s often said, has more canals than Venice. The Canal and River Trust do a fantastic job of acting as guardian to the more than 520 miles of canal here, the oldest parts of which date back more than 250 years.

However today they are far from the blackened old waterways of the Peaky Blinders. Visitors to Birmingham are often impressed by Brindley Place, with its restaurants, bars, and businesses set around tree-lined squares and an enviable canal side location.

This city centre showpiece, first regenerated more than 20 years ago, continues to develop, and can now look forward to benefiting from improvements being made to adjacent Broad Street, perhaps Birmingham’s most dynamic entertainment destination.

It’s a model that has been repeated across the region, at places like Coventry Canal Basin and most recently with Walsall’s Waterfront, which includes sustainable homes, a hotel, a multi-screen cinema, café bars and restaurants.

Regenerating these places follows a core principle behind the renewal of the West Midlands – recognising that the remnants of our industrial past as a valuable resource that should be utilised.

My ‘Brownfield First’ policy, for example, has attracted hundreds of millions of pounds of government funding to reclaim former industrial land for housebuilding, rejuvenating eyesore sites while helping protect the green belt from developers.

It’s not just Victorian factories being rescued either – the biggest example is Longbridge, the former home of Rover, where St Modwen are creating thousands of new jobs and homes in a multi-phase, long-term plan.

Our canals are playing their part in this policy, providing waterside development sites across the region. In Birmingham, Port Loop is a 43-acre ‘island community’ of 1,150 new homes surrounded by canals, which is just 15 mins from the city centre.

In Wolverhampton, the £65 million first phase of the proposed Canalside South plan will create 366 homes – but the full vision hopes to build a mixture of 1,200 townhouses and apartments, forming a self-contained, low-carbon village.

This is just the start. A development framework is being drawn up covering a huge stretch of Birmingham and Sandwell’s historic canal district, reaching from Brum to Smethwick, which could deliver 4,000 new homes, with an emphasis on providing regeneration benefits to the existing community.

Amid all this development, heritage is being respected. At one end of the district stands the Roundhouse, a stunning 19th-century canal-side stables and stores which I recently visited. Brought back to life thanks to a unique partnership between the Canal and River Trust and the National Trust, the Roundhouse provides office space and a base from which people can explore the city.

From a health point of view, canals provide invaluable access to open space. Up to two million people in the West Midlands live within a kilometre of the waterways. Just over half of Birmingham’s population are within walking distance of their local canal.

I have no doubt that the regeneration of our canals has played a major part in the huge increase in ‘active travel’ here – that is journeys made in healthy ways, such as by walking or cycling. Fully 46 per cent of journeys here are now ‘active’, up from 29 per cent before the pandemic. Our scenic, safe and convenient network of towpaths is persuading us to get out of our cars.

These waterways also channel culture into our communities. Over the last year, they have played a major part in Coventry’s City of Culture green future programme, which focussed on nature and the benefits of green space.

The Canal and River Trust is also supporting the Commonwealth Games, including leading on the GEN22 youth volunteering programme, taking up to 100 young people who may not always have access to traditional volunteering.

They’ll be joining a huge army of volunteers who are the real driving force behind the successful regeneration of our canal network. Across the whole region, community groups are ensuring these historic waterways remain relevant by adopting stretches of towpath and creating community gardens.

I recently met Canal and River Trust volunteers in Birmingham on a litter pick as they helped us prepare for the Commonwealth Games. And this is not a rarity: in the year before the pandemic over 160,000 hours of time were given by local people to help look after their waterways.

The Trust’s volunteers are even helping to create one of the longest ever community orchards by planting fruit trees along the canal network. Once planted, the 3,000 trees will span 50 miles from Wolverhampton to Birmingham and out to Worcester.

In the West Midlands, we have shown that our once-neglected canals can be a driver for levelling-up, boosting economic regeneration, providing well-connected sites for business and attractive locations for new housing. As valuable open spaces, they also contribute to the cultural wellbeing of our communities.

Government investment in reclaiming our brownfield sites has paid real dividends. We have shown that the same approach can work for the blue-green corridors of our historic waterways too, and it can work on similar networks up and down the UK.

For this to happen, continued government support is vital, and more investment is needed, while local councils must work together to make the most of the networks that link their communities.

The West Midlands’ canals are no longer just remnants of our industrial past, they are a route to a greener, more sustainable future. Where they once carried coal and components to our factories, now they provide prime developments sites, economic activity, and valuable open spaces. By investing in them, we can ensure they can continue to deliver the goods.

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Andy Street: How thinking green, and levelling up, can insulate against future cost-of-living shocks

17 May

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

Rising inflation, soaring energy bills, and the spiralling cost of living have led to calls from some to step back from net zero ambitions and the levelling up mission.

This is wrong. I believe we must step into both of these challenges even more determinedly.

Here in the West Midlands, we are particularly affected by increasing fuel poverty, precisely because too many of our jobs are lowly paid – so we must act now to help those who are struggling. However, the real answer is building a more resilient economy for the future.

Crucially, as Conservatives, I believe we must recognise the huge economic opportunities of the green economy: to create well-paid jobs, improve our nation’s energy security, and bring prices down. This is not about tree-hugging or eco ‘virtue signalling’. It’s about pounds, shillings and pence.

Just as there are multiple causes behind the rising cost of living, we must find multiple ways of bringing it under control. I want to use this column to outline how we can do this by tackling the climate challenge, delivering on levelling up, and learning from the successes of devolution.

First of all, however, people need real help now with the rising cost of living. Regionally, we can help in a number of ways – by working to ensure fares on public transport remain low, for example. I have also never used a council tax precept to pay for the office of Mayor.

These may be small decisions, but they are real contributions we can make at a local level.

Nationally, the Government has introduced cuts to fuel duty, is raising the National Insurance threshold from July, has reduced the Universal Credit taper rate, and increased work allowances for the self-employed. Rebates on energy bills will also help.

However, there needs to be more short term help with energy bills, best delivered via the Warm Homes Fund, which provides a way of targeting support.

While I believe the Government is right to reject the idea of reducing VAT on energy – which would simply reward the biggest users – I do expect that the Chancellor will act again before Autumn to help those who are struggling.

The real solution to cost of living pressures, however, lies in schemes like retrofitting, which will cut household bills. Long term, we must think green.

In the West Midlands, we are leading the way in this innovative field. A consortium led by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has been awarded £7.5m to make hundreds of social housing homes more energy efficient.

The WMCA’s Energy Capital team works to drive forward innovation, retrofitting old homes, improving insulation, and making the most of the progress in solar power generation.

Again, the Government is encouraging this by reducing tax on renewable technology, including zero per cent VAT on solar panels – and it is in the regions that the challenge is being grasped.

For example, we are spending £2.8 million on retrofitting 300 homes across Coventry and Solihull to make them more efficient, in a scheme that will demonstrate what could be achieved on a much bigger scale.

Last week I also visited Project 80, the UK’s first affordable housing development to satisfy the Government’s new Future Homes Standard being built right here in the West Midlands – where eco building methods are driving bills down by 65 per cent.

This local innovation in the green economy can drive national policy, with the regions providing testing grounds for schemes of differing sizes.

We are pioneering Energy Innovation Zones, to stimulate local clean energy innovation and drive productivity, as well as exports and growth. Four of these zones are planned at Tyseley, UK Central in Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire and in the Black Country.

Ensuring a more resilient energy future isn’t just about adopting greener solutions and building warmer homes, it’s also about creating better-paid jobs that improve household incomes. Delivering levelling up will support people worst hit by the cost of living crisis, by driving growth in areas that have been ‘left behind’.

But we have to do it, not just talk about it.

Again, addressing the climate challenge can play its part in levelling up, by providing quality opportunities in green manufacturing, retrofitting, electrification, and the digital economy, all of which are being driven locally.

Only last week I opened a new Electric Vehicle Centre at the City of Wolverhampton College, which will help bring the Green Industrial Revolution to life: establishing a UK centre of excellence for the automotive industry while creating high-tech 21st-century jobs, in collaboration with employers.

As Conservatives, it is those employers we should listen to. I recently chaired an Energy Crisis Roundtable, which saw leading companies and business bodies discuss their most pressing energy concerns.

Energy costs are having a powerful impact on industry, a particular concern here in the West Midlands. Another initiative, called ‘Repowering the Black Country’, is developing four zero carbon industrial hubs so businesses can take advantage of clean growth opportunities. We must build on ideas like this, locally and nationally.

At the roundtable, business leaders also outlined the powers they would like to see transferred from Whitehall to our region to strengthen industrial resilience.

The message is clear: we must be bold in devolving the powers to allow the regions to innovate.

We can shape greener transport networks that are cheaper to run. We can build future-proof homes and retrofit older ones to make them warmer and more cost-efficient. We can develop a skilled, better paid workforce. We can regenerate our areas with future energy needs in mind.

The cost of living crisis is being driven by many factors. Short-term help is vital as families and businesses feel the pinch.

But by pressing ahead with future-proofing schemes, delivering on our levelling up mission, and empowering the regions to innovate, we can help to insulate our nation, long-term, against future cost of living concerns.

Andy Street: Investing in transport is the perfect vehicle to deliver Levelling Up

19 Apr

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

As Mayor of the West Midlands, it’s my job to bring the region’s seven constituent boroughs together and ensure that no areas are left behind when it comes to investment – a kind of internal ‘levelling up’. Transport, which falls under my remit, provides a powerful tool in achieving this aim. It connects communities together, injects investment, and gives residents access to opportunities and jobs.

This month saw the allocation of Government CRSTS funding (City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements), heralding huge investment in local transport networks across the UK. I want to explain how this will continue to drive levelling up in the West Midlands, how it will help us achieve our climate goals, and how it represents a vote of confidence in devolved decision making.

And, as we look ahead to next month’s local elections, I also want to explain how Conservative successes in the West Midlands have been underpinned by the delivery of real, tangible improvement in transport.

Over the next five years, £1.05billion of CRSTS funding will be spent in the West Midlands, a figure which rises to £1.3billion with local top-ups. Our transport strategy has three broad priorities. The plans focus on decarbonisation, with our aim to be a net zero carbon economy by 2041. Then there are two ambitions which chime with the levelling up agenda – reaching poor areas of connectivity and driving inclusive economic growth.

We have learned that speed of delivery is key, and the first four major projects have already been identified. £24 million will be used to seek sites for, plan, and deliver a network of 10 electric vehicle charging stations across the region. £43 million will extend the West Midlands Metro depot at Wednesbury to service the region’s growing tram fleet and network – including the extension to Dudley in 2024. £17 million will be spent on upgrading the Metro power supply on the Wolverhampton to Birmingham line, for the first time since it opened 22 years ago, while £56 million will deliver phase two of our Sprint bus routes.

These will be just the first schemes to proceed from an expansive transport strategy that includes a Very Light Rail System in Coventry, the capping of ticket prices, reopened railway stations, and new gateways in places like Sutton Coldfield. This latest money links in with existing plans which target specific parts of our network, such as buses.

Here in the West Midlands, before COVID struck, the bus was clearly the most popular form of transport. 267 million journeys were made a year compared to 50 million for rail and about 7 million on the region’s Metro tram system. We were one of the few places in Britain where bus use was rising.

Our Bus Service Improvement Plan allows us to access a share of the new £3 billion transformational Government funding, improving services, keeping fares low, and backing pioneering ideas such as our ‘bus on demand’ scheme, which has proven a great success in supporting more rural communities.

Improved public transport will pay a crucial part in our climate change ambitions by persuading people not to use their cars. We are also benefitting from the Government’s Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas fund (ZEBRA) to the tune of £30 million, allowing us to buy 124 hydrogen-fuelled electric buses. Hydrogen buses consume four times less fuel compared to diesel buses and cover 300 miles on a single tank, emitting only water vapour, meaning no carbon dioxide or other harmful gases are being pumped into the air. Birmingham City Council has already invested in 20 of these vehicles, while Coventry is set to become one of only two places in the UK to get an entirely electric bus fleet, which is fitting for a city that has been the epicentre of transport innovation for generations.

But this isn’t just about leveraging public money. The West Midlands Bus Alliance is a partnership between Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), which is part of the West Midlands Combined Authority, bus operating companies, the Safer Travel team, and passenger group Transport Focus. This alliance model brings the best of public and private sectors together, resulting in not only huge private sector investment but collaborative, joined-up thinking that has made the network itself work better for local people. For example, National Express, our leading service provider, has worked hard to cut fares while also investing massively in its fleet – with 350 impressive ‘platinum’ buses now serving the conurbation.

And underscoring all of this development is a commitment to encourage active travel, persuading our residents to take the healthy option whenever possible and get about under their own steam. At least £250 million of the investments planned for the CRSTS cash will go to projects designed to also enable cycling or walking.

Nationally, the CRSTS money is a vote of confidence in devolution and the Mayoral model. The money was only available to ‘city regions’ with a Mayor in place, and its five-year timetable firmly places local decision making at its heart. Locally, it represents the latest in a long line of significant investments by consecutive Conservative governments in the West Midlands transport network, and evidence that we continue to make a compelling case to attract the funds we need – as we have done since I became Mayor.

This is a region that for decades had failed to attract needed investment. That changed under a Conservative Mayor. The year before I took office, we spent £38 million. This year, we are spending £403million. Before we got a penny from CRSTS, transport spending here had increased seven-fold. I believe that the ability to attract that investment, allied with the local determination to deliver visible improvements within our communities, has been a pivotal factor in Conservative successes in the region.

Levelling up aims to create a more balanced economy, ensuring investment and opportunity reaches communities across the nation. In the West Midlands we are proving that transport investment, allied with local decision making, can provide a powerful vehicle to deliver this critical mission.

Andy Street: The Commonwealth Games will leave a Levelling Up legacy for the West Midlands

22 Mar

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

The countdown is almost over. Just 129 days remain until the Commonwealth Games begin in Birmingham. Across the globe, 72 nations will send teams to compete in the UK’s second biggest ever sporting event. More than 5000 athletes are taking part in 283 events across 20 sports. Those talented individuals are finishing their personal preparations, with their sights set on gold.

As the final touches are applied to the venues, with excitement building for the Queen’s Baton Relay’s arrival, we in the West Midlands are working hard to ensure that the region’s businesses are also match fit. We want to take full advantage of the huge opportunities the Games are bringing.

I’m proud to have played my part in securing the Games early in my Mayoralty. The people of the West Midlands are embracing the opportunity of hosting such a massive event. I’m proud that successive Conservative Governments – first with Theresa May and Philip Hammond’s support and now with the Boris Johnson’s – has made it happen.

Our Government-backed strategic approach has been preparing the ground to ensure that, alongside a wonderful sporting spectacle, the Games also delivers an economic legacy that benefits local people in future decades.

Central to this is a £24million Business and Tourism Programme, built around four key objectives – creating a resilient and diverse economy, shaping the region’s reputation and profile , generating jobs, and positioning the West Midlands as an epicentre for Net Zero ambitions. Crucially, built into this strategy are ways to evaluate its progress, from the immediate benefits of engagement with investors to medium-term goals to shift international perceptions of our region.

Ultimately, we want to see not only investment and tourism that drives jobs and growth, but also export opportunities for local businesses, and to attract further major events. While it is early days – the Programme runs until 2023 – there are already encouraging indicators that it is delivering against the targets we set.

We have landed two more major events. During the Games, the first ever Commonwealth eSports Championships will be held at Birmingham’s International Convention Centre, giving out medals to the best in virtual sport. Then, in 2026, our region will host a world conference on Women in Sport. This is apt: the upcoming Games will be the first to offer more medal-winning opportunities for women than men.

Early signs also show that hard work to bring inward investment on the back of the Games is bearing fruit, with the strategy targeting markets in places like Australia, India, Malaysia and Singapore. This goes hand-in-hand with our push to shift perceptions of the West Midlands.

The West Midlands Growth Company, which, along with the Department of International Trade and VisitEngland, has reported an 817% increase in traffic to its inward investment website from India in the last six months. More than 640 media hits have been secured in primary markets of India, Australia, Canada, Malaysia and Singapore, spreading the word about our ambitions.

Regarding trade, DIT figures show 293 unique businesses have been engaged so far. Central to this has been a clever link-up with the Queen’s Baton Relay. As the Baton has journeyed across the Commonwealth towards England, we have delivered a targeted sales mission for each milestone, including one-to-one investor meetings and seminars

There are also the economic benefits that the Games’ exposure brings us, alongside the visitors. Birmingham is truly a global city, with people from over 180 countries. We have tried to shape this summer’s event as the ‘Games for Everyone’. The world is coming to us, with 1.5 billion people estimated to tune in globally, and huge numbers of visitors expected. So, the programme helps our businesses prepare to exploit this spotlight.  Our Getting Ready for the Games scheme supplies an e-Learning course to 7,000 businesses, providing insight and information to ensure the region delivers an outstanding visitor experience and showcases the West Midlands’ best.

Finally, the Global Growth Programme provides free support for companies wishing to enter UK markets via the West Midlands, while selecting 25 local businesses for targeted help in boosting exports. The exposure provided by the Games is proving to be a powerful conduit for trade. All of these economic benefits come in addition to more than a billion pounds of inward investment in preparing for the Games. Procurement has ensured that 70% of contracts have gone to businesses with West Midlands bases.

Training has also been boosted during preparations. For example, bootcamps organised though our Skills Academy to train people in broadcasting for the Games has given them skills for life. It’s my hope that many will look back and say that the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham provided them with a life-changing opportunity. All of this should translate into jobs, starting with 35,000 projected across the city this summer.

Along with the investment we have seen in our transport system, housing, skills and town centres, the Commonwealth Games has provided another powerful tool in ‘levelling up’ the West Midlands, backed by successive Conservative Prime Ministers.

We have anticipated this summer for a very long time, and we are ready for the world’s eyes to fall on us. The indications are that the Games will still be benefitting the people of the West Midlands economically long after the medals have been handed out.

Andy Street: Levelling Up means clamping down on unscrupulous landlords

22 Feb

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

Talk of ‘Levelling Up’ can be dominated by regional investment and infrastructure projects, overlooking the fact that social and community issues lie at the heart of the concept.

In this column I want to talk about a growing national problem which unfortunately has its epicentre right here in the West Midlands: the issue of Exempt Housing.

Exempt supported housing is accommodation for those with few other housing options, such as people on benefits who have additional needs – perhaps due to addictions, criminal histories, mental health issues, learning disabilities, or because they are escaping domestic violence.

About 600,000 people in the UK rely on supported housing at any one time, from care leavers needing somewhere to stay, to people with mental health problems seeking independence.

Landlords get a significant premium in extra housing benefit for each tenant they house – but are supposed to provide support and care in addition to accommodation.

Crucially, by applying for registered provider status, landlords are exempted from local licensing regulations, leaving councils powerless to act over how tenants are treated or the quality of accommodation.

It is this ability for landlords to avoid scrutiny that has led to the sector being described as the ‘Wild West’, and accusations of exploitative provision.

In recent years there has been a worrying growth of poorly managed, unsafe exempt accommodation, delivering inadequate support and safeguarding, particularly for people who experience homelessness and have multiple support needs.

We have seen a rise in unscrupulous agencies exploiting gaps in the national regulatory regime to claim higher Housing Benefit levels while providing minimal or no levels of support.

This is why the issue of exempt housing falls squarely under the remit of ‘levelling up’. We are seeing some of the most vulnerable residents accommodated in some of the poorest housing, without adequate support, trapped in unemployment – and all paid for by central government.

The exponential growth in the numbers of buildings used for this kind of accommodation is also changing the nature of neighbourhoods, much to the dismay of locals. Information published by homeless charity Crisis in October 2021 showed that nationally 153,701 households in Great Britain were housed in exempt accommodation as of May 2021. This represents a 62 per cent increase from 2016 to 2021.

Increasingly, Birmingham is being viewed as the capital of a problem which is also taking root in places like Liverpool, Bristol and Manchester.

Indeed Robert Alden, Conservative candidate in the Erdington by-election, has been a long-standing campaigner on this very issue, as the area in north Birmingham is attracting more and more exempt housing. Recently he backed residents on the Pitts Farm Estate after a family home in a cul-de-sac was turned into exempt accommodation, prompting fears that more would follow.

These fears are understandable. The fact is the number of supported housing rooms in Brum has doubled in the past three years. Some 20,000 people live in exempt accommodation in the city, while hundreds more live in the sector in other parts of the region, from Coventry to Wolverhampton.

Some experts believe the growth in Birmingham is down to the abundance of large, relatively inexpensive properties that can be easily converted into houses in multiple occupation (HMOs).

As a region, we have worked hard to develop policies and structures to improve housing. The West Midlands Combined Authority’s Homelessness Taskforce was created to ensure a unified approach between our seven constituent boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

Last year Birmingham became one of five cities to be handed Government cash to pioneer ways of driving up standards, with the city using its £1.8m grant to launch new Quality Standards, a Charter of Rights to make tenants aware of the service they should expect, and increasing inspections.

Providers and landlords are urged to voluntarily sign up to the new Quality Standards, agreeing that their accommodation can be inspected to help highlight best practice.

However, this laudable scheme has no power to force landlords to get involved, and while it has received support from some providers the conspicuous absence of many more illustrates that more must be done.

Clearly, this issue needs to be tackled. That’s why I was pleased to be able to provide evidence, with the WMCA, to the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee inquiry into the sector.

This is something that I feel passionate about, which is why I have been calling for this inquiry for some time. As national policies are drawn up, I know the West Midlands can provide vital insights into the impact of exempt housing.

The submission highlights what needs to be done to rectify the clear problems affecting the sector, and discourage the elements that are exploiting those who use it. So, what needs to be done?

A proper national accreditation scheme is needed for landlords, supported by additional regulation and a national database of providers’ performance. More local control is vital too. The supported housing funding model must be reviewed, providing resources for local authorities to oversee any new regulations. Finally, enforcement powers will be needed to clean up the dodgy landlords who have turned this sector into the Wild West.

This could be by strengthening the role of the Regulator for Social Housing role and its ability to effectively monitor the sector, especially where providers supply accommodation and support.

Greater enforcement powers could also tackle providers who do not effectively manage Anti-Social Behaviour, including additional Community Safety powers.

Ultimately, getting a firm grip on this issue will ensure better use of hundreds of millions of pounds of public money, at a time when all budgets are under intense pressure. If we don’t address these issues, we can expect the exponential growth of this sector to continue, and more and more communities to experience what is happening here and in other major cities.

That means more vulnerable residents trapped in some of the poorest housing. It means pressures that potentially drive-up homelessness just at the point when, post-pandemic, we are seeing genuine progress in getting people off the streets through schemes such as Housing First.

And it means more neighbourhoods seeing their character change, as landlords buy up family homes to create the HMOs that allow them to reap the benefits of a dysfunctional funding system.

Levelling Up isn’t just about railway lines and city centre regeneration, it’s about supporting communities by tackling the tough issues that have seen them left behind other more prosperous areas. Bringing to heel the unscrupulous landlords that exploit the most vulnerable in those communities is a good place to start.

Does England really need more mayors?

4 Feb

On Wednesday, the Government unveiled its Levelling Up white paper, a 332-page document, which aims to address major economic imbalances across the UK. 

One of the ways the Government intends to achieve greater regional parity is by enhancing local leadership throughout the country. “We will extend, deepen and simplify devolution across England”, reads the report, whose authors want every part of England to be entitled to “London style” powers and a mayor.

This idea is not new to the Conservative Party. As Chancellor, George Osborne famously championed a “cities devolution bill”, and encouraged England’s big cities to follow Greater Manchester, in bidding for devolved powers. Since then, he has urged the Government to go further on localism. “Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it”, he said in an interview last year for ConservativeHome.

Moreover, the Conservative Party is proud of its record on mayors, seeing Andy Street and Ben Houchen, representing the West Midlands and Tees Valley, respectively, as success stories. There are clearly a number of advantages to having a mayor, namely that they know their area – and can fight for it – much better than those in Whitehall, helping locals feeling connected to government.

Perhaps this is why localism has had the nation’s backing in the past. It was a clear pledge in the Conservatives’ manifesto, which read “We remain committed to devolving power to people and places across the UK… building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors”, and people voted for in huge numbers. We are, of course, not the first country to see the benefits of devolved powers (see Germany, with its 16 federal states).

Even so…. Even with all these benefits, and a democratic mandate, I have a feeling that the mood has changed significantly since 2019, and that the public may – instead – be increasingly sceptical about mayors, and the power of devolution.

Why? Well, something very big happened between the time the manifesto was published and now, which is, of course, the Coronavirus crisis. Among many things, it showed many of the practical problems that can come about the more that a government devolves power. “One nation”, we certainly were not.

At times it felt as though the devolved administrations (Scotland and Wales, in particular) were engaged in a competition of “who cares the most” about Coronavirus. Care, as far as leaders were concerned, could be demonstrated by which of them would lock down their own citizens the longest, or create the most inconvenient set of rules, or address people in the most sombre of tones. 

The result was an incredibly divided UK, with contradictory messaging, depending on one’s postcode, about how to fend off the virus. Never mind that parts of the country were also given different “tiers”, so as to determine how careful they should be about Coronavirus.

The contradictory messaging was not just limited to the devolved nations. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, is, to this day, still making announcements about the need for masks on transport, while the Government has scrapped this rule. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, too, famously held a press conference after his “talks” with the Government over Tier 3 restrictions collapsed. Do we really want more of this? A “splintered” Britain in tense negotiations with each other?

Perhaps the Government thinks, with its extension of mayoral powers, that it will get more Houchens and Streets in the future, rather than Burnhams and Khans. But one highly doubts this will be the case, as a result of demographic shifts brought about by the housing crisis. Vast swathes of young people, who are mainly left-leaning, are being priced out of the South East, bringing their politics into new areas. In other words, the Left can look forward to more of a mandate.

One argument for localism is that people, especially the Brexit-backing public, want to “take back control” of their areas, away from bureaucrats in Whitehall (or otherwise). But localism can equally leave people feeling like they have less democratic say. Khan, for example, seems to endlessly introduce anti-car measures (which are hardly going to “level up” workers, should they be delivery drivers), while rarely asking voters for their say.

And, as the public felt about Brussels bureaucrats, some bureaucrats appear to be getting a lot out of the taxpayer, such as Police and Crime Commissioners (paid between £70,000 – £100,000 per year), without much obvious impact. When we have a cost of living crisis, and a pandemic bill to pay, the public may be more in favour of cutting the number of taxpayer-funded roles, rather than going on a mayoral spending spree.

Generally, I tend to think the Government may have already ticked off “levelling up” in many voters’ minds when it decided to move the Treasury to Darlington, and promised huge investment for the North, among other things. Although the Westminster bubble gets terribly excited about white papers, maybe voters are looking for “simple wins”; energy bills coming down, a cut in council tax, or even a pint being a bit more affordable. 

Clearly Levelling Up, as a general strategy, has a huge amount of thought behind it. It shouldn’t be written off, as Lisa Nandy did in the Commons on the day of its release (“is this it?” she asked Gove repeatedly). But the pandemic has changed people’s attitudes about many things. Whether they want multiple face mask rules up and down the country ever again, I’m not convinced.