Street’s re-election as West Midlands Mayor would be a triumph for the Conservatives

30 Mar

While there were many triumphs for the Conservatives in the local elections in 2017, there was one victory that stood out as being of particular significance. Andy Street was elected Mayor of the West Midlands. The context was a projected national vote share that showed the Conservatives 11 points ahead. Street’s victory was narrow. In the first round, Street won 216,280 votes – just ahead of the Labour candidate who was on 210,259. So it went to a second round. Street won by an even tighter margin. He finished with 238,625. His Labour opponent ended up with 234,862.

To paraphrase Dr Johnson, it was not a surprise that the Conservative candidate to be the Mayor of the West Midlands had a small majority. One was surprised that he had a majority at all. The West Midlands Combined Authority consists of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, and Wolverhampton. The only place on that list that Conservatives would normally expect to win was Solihull.

Street’s background must have helped. Street was a businessman which offered reassurance that he had the credentials to keep track of a large budget, manage a big team, and deliver bold and challenging projects. His message played down ideological divisions and put the focus on this technocratic aspect. Nor was Street terribly vulnerable to anti-business messages or being denounced as a “fat cat”. The business concerned was the John Lewis Partnership – a type of workers’ coop that shares out its profits among its employees. True, Street, as its Managing Director, was paid £800,000 a year. That is rather a lot. But then he is hardly being greedy to swap it for a £79,000 a year Mayoral salary. What about just demonising him as lacking compassion due to being a Conservative? Street’s long-standing support for the Birmingham Young Volunteer Adventure Camps – a charity that provides adventure holidays to disadvantaged local children – meant that fair-minded people would find this a difficult charge to accept.

Now he has a record to fight on. He has regularly chronicled his progress as a columnist on this site.

Nationally his profile has been relatively low – which I suppose is another way of saying he has avoided being beset by scandal. One difficulty for all candidates is persuading the electors of the region to vote for anyone. Conservatives tend to be especially suspicious of what they suspect of being a Blairite gimmick.

It is always hard to make the case that an extra layer of Government represents good value for money. But if there are functions of the state being carried out anyway, should there not be local democratic accountability? Transport is the Mayor’s main role. Suppose someone in official circles is going to make a decision about a tram line here, or a new road there, of changing the bus routes somewhere else. Is it not better to know who to blame? To be able to throw them out of office if they make a mess of it? I doubt there is much nostalgia for the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive.

If the public sector is going to provide Further Education colleges and assorted training schemes then who should be in charge? It could be managed at local authority level, or nationally (which it largely is at present via a Quango with a budget of £59 billion called the Education and Skills Funding Agency.) But perhaps a regional level might make sense? If so, probably best not some amorphous unaccountable board. Since 2019 responsibility for adult education budget in the West Midlands – some £128 million in the financial year just ending – has been with Street.

Critics may counter that Metro Mayors will have an almost irresistible itch to empire build. That bus stops and evening classes are not enough. So they wish to adopt an “industrial strategy” in the bossy corporatist spirit of Lord Heseltine and Lord George-Brown. Then would seek the budget and powers to subsidise and direct the private sector to conform with their schemes. A valid concern. But we are not having a referendum on ditching the Mayoralty – not this year, at any rate.

Whatever his Heseltinian urges might be, it should be noted that Street has shown restraint when it comes to the Council Tax precept. He has kept it at zero and pledges to continue to do so. If only others would do so. Never knowingly undersold. It should also be noted that a positive contribution can be made even when his power is limited. For instance, on housing and planning, he has worked to identify and release ugly derelict sites to provide new homes.

The Mayor does not have responsibility for policing. Though that might change. At present, there is a separate Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands. It covers the same local authority areas. By the way, to bring home just how remarkable Street’s victory was in 2017, consider the PCC result just a year earlier. The Labour candidate got almost twice as many votes as the Conservative.

Will Street win again? The latest national opinon poll I spotted has an eight point Conservative lead. That’s only slightly below the 11 point national lead for the Conservatives that the psephologists extrapolated from last time. Though as Street won by less than one per cent, even such a modest swing would be enough to defeat him. Yet beneath the headline total there is great variation. I noted yesterday how worse things are going in London relative to the overall situation. That means that other places must be going relatively better – the West Midlands is one such area. Another factor that may help Street is that Birmingham City Council has no elections taking place. That is rather stronger Labour territory than the region as a whole. That factor may mean Labour find it harder to get their supporters to the polls.

You might feel some of these fiddly points about the minutia of gaining an extra percentage vote share here, or losing one there, rather esoteric. But then it looks as though it will be another close contest. My hunch is that Street will survive.

Richard Holden: This spring’s local elections. For levelling-up to work, we need local councils and leaders who back it.

29 Mar

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Constituency Office of Richard Holden MP, Medomsley Rd, Consett

The leaflets are landing on doorsteps. The Risograph is working overtime. Walk routes are being updated. First-time council candidates – a heady combination of apprehensive and excited – are getting to know each other on WhatsApp as they make friends with people in other wards. Experienced candidates impart nuggets of wisdom, ‘war stories’ and experience on our zoom calls. Labour’s keyboard warriors fight on , but there is very little sign of life in the party of Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer on the ground.

These elections are taking place in a way that is like nothing I’ve known in two decades of campaigning – after over a year of gruelling Covid-19 restrictions and under the shadow of a virus whose lingering presence, even as Britain’s phenomenal vaccine programme knocks case numbers and deaths down, is still a real concern for many. It’s not been a normal year, and it’s not going to be a normal election.

As a new MP, I can barely remember a time that I wasn’t having to try and help those struggling with Covid-19 or the impact of measures to control it. The long tail of Coronavirus will continue in various guises. Many months of delayed operations and stifled economic growth need to take place. The impact on the education of children will last for years, especially for the poorest, even with the welcome efforts of the Government at top-up tuition. The Government debt taken on to support the people, jobs and businesses through the pandemic will stay for decades.

It is in that context that Rishi Sunak came up with a big offer to business: unprecedented tax relief to try and drive investment and help to deliver knock-on productivity gains. The Treasury and Department of Trade moves to Teesside and the new freeport are massive economic boons, too, for the North East. These moves are not just about the jobs – though that’s the main part. It’s about showing that we both care and want to do something about the problems faced by our new voters in the ‘Blue Wall’.

It’s clear that both the First Lord of the Treasury and the Second Lord of the Treasury “get it”. Short term, the plan is about recovery from Covid-19: getting jobs back and the economy moving again – which they’ve also got a plan for with Kickstarter and support for apprenticeships double.

And for the longer term, jobs in the next industrial revolution are coming down the track: batteries for our car industry and wind power for our transport and electricity. This big push to drive private enterprise to invest now is crucial, because we all know that only productivity gains can lead to real wage increases and the much talked about ‘levelling up’.

As we escape the shadow of Covid-19 we can see that much has changed but some things have stubbornly remained. In many parts of the North, moving back to the status quo ante – pronto – seems to be the order of the day from Labour. The debate over the coal mine on the West Coast of Cumbria brought this home in recent weeks.

To give you a bit of necessary background, Cumbria is a joint Labour/Lib Dem administration. Labour lost overall control in 2017 and formed a coalition (despite the Conservatives being by far the largest party). Labour retained control with their three tribes of Corbynites, Brownites and few Blairites, in what is a perpetual internal struggle.

To the mine itself. Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, has taken a lot of heat, but it’s clear that what’s really behind the palaver is vacillation among the Labour/LibDems who are running the council. Cumbria County Council has now put forward the proposal only then to decide to re-consider it no fewer than four times. Jenrick has done everything he can to let the council decide, but in the end its vacillation created a national controversy. A dangerous precedent.

Labour weakness and division doesn’t just stop at doing everything possible not to make a decision on bringing 500 really well-paid jobs in Cumbria. Look across the other side of the country and you see it caught up in another culture war with itself in Leeds.

West Yorkshire wants to rival Greater Manchester as the engine room of the North of England. Leeds is back in the premiership, and everyone’s longing for the old rivalry on the pitch and, more generally, some healthy competition across the Pennines.

But Labour politicians locally can’t even agree on whether to expand Leeds Bradford Airport. The Labour-run Council has, eventually, passed a proposal, but the local Labour MPs (more concerned about their own membership than their voters) have gone against it. Hilary Benn and Alex Sobel, amongst others, literally asked the Secretary of State to call in a decision by the local Labour council.

Scratch the surface anywhere in the North and you’ll find Labour in mini-civil wars everywhere. What does this mean for other big projects? The A1(M) upgrade? New train lines? The A66/68/69/74? Are we going to allow vacuous, vacillating, virtue-signalling Labour Councils to kibosh our levelling-up agenda?

Contrast Labour’s approach to Ben Houchen’s in Teesside or Andy Street’s in the West Midlands; pro-enterprise, and willing to work with the Government. Interestingly, Andy Burnham seemed to be too, during his early days of wanting to get stuff done but his rivalry with Sadiq Khan over who will be the next Labour leader has seen him go from pragmatic local leader to disingenuous leadership contender, in lock step with Starmer’s personal poll rating.

What I’m driving at is that for levelling-up to work, we’re going to need to see local authorities and local authority leaders who want it to work.   The sad truth is that many local Labour councils and local bureaucracies don’t want it: they’re scared of it. In County Durham, it would create further upheaval in the system of sinecures that, sadly, local council positions have been for 102 years. They don’t want to risk ‘levelling up’ – they’re happy with a lazy the politics of grievance. After all, it’s served them well for decades.

Meanwhile, when faced with big political calls, the Prime Minister tends to make the right ones. On running for Mayor. On Brexit. On standing for the Conservative leadership in 2019, doing what many said was impossible, and getting Tory MPs to back him. (I remember this ,because when I joined his campaign you could get six to one on him to make the ballot.) On the general election. On the vaccine.

He’s making a big call on the economy now – the big push to level up. This is his big bet on Britain.  To deliver it though we need strong aligned local leadership. Mid-term elections always hammer the party in power, and we’re coming from the 2017 local election high point and a year of Covid. Getting Conservative 2019 voters to come out again is the challenge on which the ability to deliver the agenda now rests. We’ve fifty days to show them it does.

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

9 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Shastri-Hurst: Criminal Justice reform – a modern crusade for a modern conservatism

6 Mar

Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a barrister, surgeon, and former British Army Officer.

As of November last year, the UK’s prison population stood at 78,838. A study by the Ministry of Justice predicted that, by September 2026, that figure would rise to 98,700; an increase of around 25 per cent. Add in those on probation, which in September 2020 accounted for some 222,657 people, and that is approximately 0.6 per cent of the UK’s total current adult population.

It would be an entirely nonsensical position to argue that prisons are not necessary; patently , they are. Sadly, people do some terrible things, and it is right that they are appropriately punished. However, for too long we have become bogged down in the mantra of “you do the crime, you do the time”. There is a cogent argument that one size does not fit all. It is an issue that, as conservatives, we must engage in.

Some years ago, I listened to a panel discussion that took place at a Conservatives Political Action Conference in the United States. One might have anticipated this would be a rallying call of the conservative right; quite the contrary.

It was engaging, informative, and surprisingly liberal-minded. A phrase that stuck with me from the talk was from Pat Nolan, at the time Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform. When describing for whom prison should be, he noted that prisons have expanded to include “offenses that are not morally reprehensible. Some of these offenses are bad simply because the legislature says they are. Prison is for people that we are afraid of, not the ones we are mad at”.

Arguably, Nolan’s standpoint was shaped by his own personal experiences. He had been the Republican Leader in the California State Assembly prior to a conviction for corruption, as part of an FBI sting. Convicted and incarcerated, his prison experience led to a desire to reform the American criminal justice system. One can draw analogies with Jonathan Aitken, in the UK, whose own fall from grace led to a journey of reflection and personal reconstruction.

My interactions with the criminal justice system have been, thankfully, limited. I practise in the field of civil law, not criminal. My hospital work brought me in contact with the aftermaths of violent crimes in terms of trauma, but not the inner workings of the prison system.

And whilst my soldiers gave me the odd grey hair with some of their antics, by and large they steered away from criminality. Notwithstanding that, the need for criminal justice reform has been a policy area that has always interested me. I have never been a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” type of Tory.

The purpose of the Criminal Justice System must be aimed towards rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Clearly, that will not always be possible. I accept some individuals will never be reformed however much the system tries to help but that should not stop us trying where we can.

The current model is failing. There are high rates of recidivism. Within nine years, 75 per cent of prisoners reoffend; of those, 39.3 per cent do so within the first twelve months. It would be hard to argue in the face of those statistics that prisons keep us safe.

An interesting mental exercise is to challenge oneself to identify an institution that expands through failure. I can only come up with one; prisons. Moreover, the greater their failure, the greater their expansion and with it a burgeoning cost to the taxpayer.

Conservatism has, at its heart, a desire to preserve the integrity of society. Criminality undermines that social fabric and the current system is not achieving what it is aimed to do; make us safer. In order to tackle the problem and bring down the rates of reoffending, a three-stranded approach is needed.

First, mentorship programmes. These need to be bespoke, and focused on the individual needs and challenges of prisoners. It takes time to find a good match and even longer to recruit a large enough body of volunteers. Mentor and mentee should be paired six months or more before release, thereby enabling them to develop a relationship and smooth the transition into post-prison life. There is good evidence that such systems are effective; former Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas introduced such a scheme, and first year rates of recidivism dropped from 21 per cent to nine per cent.

Second, address the mental heath crisis in our prisons. A significant proportion of the prison population suffers from mental heath disorders. If you include drug and alcohol abuse within those numbers they go up further. The true scale of the problem is unknown, but there have been rates of up to 28 per cent for self-harm amongst the female prison population, and an estimate of two per cent having acute and serious mental health problems.

There are issues surrounding access to medical appointments. “Did not attend” rates are high amongst prisoner; some estimates put them in the region of 15 per cent. Training staff to be aware of mental issues is also an area where improvements could be made. A more pragmatic approach would be to address the root cause. If you lock someone up who has problems associated with mental health or substance abuse and hope for the best, he or she is not going to be better when released. It merely compounds the issue. Setting up mental health wings or halfway facilities that deal with these issues would be a proactive step that would prepare prisoners to cope better upon their return to society.

The third strand, which is arguably the most important, is the improvement of educational attainment. Those leaving school with qualifications have a greatly reduced tendency towards criminal behaviour. Low rates of literacy are linked with custodial sentences. Those struggling and left behind by the educational attainment gap can readily fall into what feels like an inescapable spiral.

t would be easier to argue that this is another layer to add to teachers’ overflowing in-trays, but that would not be fair. Clearly, one would hope that personal and parental responsibility would come into play, but that cannot always be relied upon. And so we come back to the theme of mentors.

But rather than mentoring those already in the system, it is about mentoring at an earlier stage to avoid at risk individuals becoming ensnared by it. In the West Midlands Combined Authority Area, Andy Street has set up the Mayor’s Mentors Scheme. This has been a huge success. However, it could be expanded, and is a prime example of how Metro Mayors, Local Government, Police and Crime Commissioners can work collaboratively to improve the life chances of the younger generations.

None of this comes easy. There will always be those who take a more punitive approach to the penal system. However, a golden thread that runs through conservatism is the desire to unlock potential and provide individuals with the skills and opportunities to succeed. There can be no better embodiment of that desire than not merely rehabilitating those who have offended, but preventing the need of such rehabilitation in the first place.

The Budget. Sunak’s strong message that operation “level up” is under way.

4 Mar

There were all sorts of striking announcements in Rishi Sunak’s Budget yesterday, from the £5 billion grant scheme to help hospitality businesses in England recover from the pandemic to the less welcome news that the Government will raise the rate of corporation tax to 25 per cent.

The Government will be told it spent too much/ too little; that it shouldn’t have gone for corporations, and so forth. But one thing you cannot accuse it of is forgetting its commitment to “level up” the country, which was a big theme in the Budget.

The Conservatives were elected on this promise – to spread “opportunity across the whole United Kingdom” and move away from being South/ London centric – and Sunak’s speech did not disappoint in this regard.

“If we are serious about wanting to level up, that starts with the institutions of economic power”, he said firmly, before announcing that there will be a new economic campus for the Treasury in Darlington. This means that 750 employees will move from the Capital to that area.

In another interesting development, Sunak announced eight freeport locations in England for East Midlands Airport, Felixstowe and Harwich, Humber, Liverpool City Region, Plymouth, Solent, Thames and Teesside.

While it quickly became obvious (on Twitter, at least) that some people don’t know what a freeport is, let alone have a view on whether they’re a good idea, many councils have been working hard to put in bids for these.

All five council areas in Tees Valley worked together in developing one for Teesside, and it has paid off. Its freeport will be the largest in the UK, spanning 4,5000 acres (2,550 football pitches).

The freeport is expected to increase investment to Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool by over £1.4 billion and create around 18,000 skilled, good quality jobs within five years. The Government will also be hoping it can boost the chances of Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, to get re-elected at the end of this year.

Speaking about his vision for Teesside, Sunak said: “Now, when I look to the future of Teesside I see old industrial sites being used to capture and store carbon. Vaccines being manufactured. Offshore wind turbines creating clean energy for the rest of the country. All located within a Freeport with the Treasury just down the road and the UK Infrastructure Bank only an hour away” (the bank will be in Leeds).

In another part of the Budget, Sunak singled out Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, where the Government is also increasing public investment.

It is putting £225 million into rail stations and the reopening of old railway lines. Government support will also go towards a major housing and commercial development scheme around the upcoming HS2 Solihull Interachange, along with other regeneration efforts.

Responding to these developments, Street said: “The Chancellor has done exactly what we asked for him, and set out clear and wide-ranging support to help West Midlands businesses and the self-employed through the end of the roadmap and into the recovery stage.”

So you can see that, while covering off lots of areas, yesterday’s Budget sent out a strong political message that the Government can hear people outside Westminster (now literally moving departments to other parts of the country).

The Budget may even have an appeal to Generation Rent throughout the UK, as through trying to correct regional disparities, the Government can also help shift demand for housing, which is overly focussed in the South East.

But overall, it was a show that now the Government’s got “Brexit done”, operation “level up” is well and truly under way.

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

9 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andy Street: 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.