Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
A few weeks ago, in the West Midlands, the Prime Minister sent out a clarion call to construction – with his plan to get Britain building. Against the backdrop of Dudley College’s Advance II campus, the PM announced the fast-tracking of £5 billion of major projects that would help the nation build its way back to health.
The West Midlands was the perfect place to set out this plan – because we are already rising to the challenge of building a better future, pioneering new technologies to create vital jobs and build more homes.
Weeks before, our region had set out its own long-term blueprint for recovery. It requires significant investment from the Government – £3.2 billion over the next three years – covering everything from construction to the automotive sector and investing in skills.
Broadly in line with the £2.7 billion investment we have secured since 2017, our ambitious blueprint reflects our economic success of recent years. For the UK to fully recover, all of its regions must recover too – creating a stronger country with a more robust, balanced economy. Our plan is an example of confident regional leadership setting out what it needs to bounce back.
Last week we saw the Government endorse that ambition. The vital funding we need began to flow, with £66 million from the Government’s Get Britain Building fund, for a package of eight “shovel ready” schemes here.
Crucially, all eight projects will make an immediate difference by helping to create and secure jobs for local people. This money is also an investment in our future, to cement the West Midlands’ place as a global leader in green and clean technology, life sciences, transport of the future, and construction.
The schemes form part of our region’s blueprint for recovery, drawn up by the West Midlands Combined Authority and our constituent members. With this extra money, we can get started on them straight away, creating thousands of jobs and generating further investment.
They also encapsulate what I have been trying to achieve as Mayor of the West Midlands.
First and foremost, before a spade hits the ground, they show how the people of the West Midlands have built a formidable team.
By working together as a region, our member boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton always achieve far better results. Our three Local Enterprise Partnerships authored the latest bids for Government money, backed to the hilt by our seven councils. Where in the past competing local interests may have undermined each other, these latest schemes present a shared vision that will benefit all.
This is key to my role as mayor, bringing different councils, local enterprise partnerships, business groups and the teams behind individual schemes together to fashion a compelling, united pitch.
Second, these projects focus on the creation of high-quality jobs, which are so vital as we plot our economic recovery post Coronavirus.
We know a dynamic life sciences sector can play a key part in the economic future of the West Midlands. An investment of £10 million will provide innovation spaces and research laboratories at the Birmingham Health Innovation Campus. Our region’s role as a test bed for the new 5G network provides another opportunity, and investment will help small and medium sized business to develop ground-breaking 5G apps.
There is also investment to ensure the region reaps long-term job benefits from two major events on the horizon. Coventry City of Culture will get £6 million to support various initiatives to make the most of the opportunities presented by next year’s celebrations – including the building of a new heritage park. And we are ensuring the legacy of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022 extends across the region, with £3.9 million towards constructing improved facilities at the Ricoh Arena, again in Coventry.
Thirdly, these quick-turnaround schemes will significantly push forward my long-term transport plan for the region. Following on from the rebuilding of Coventry and Wolverhampton stations, £15 million will help redevelop University Station in Edgbaston, which is one of the busiest stations in the West Midlands and will be a key gateway for visitors for the Commonwealth Games.
In the Black Country, a new Very Light Rail Innovation Centre will develop modes of transport which are both green, cheaper and quicker to deliver than traditional tram or rail. More investment will see this technology transform public transport in Coventry.
Finally, and perhaps most tangibly, last week’s announcement recognises the West Midland’s achievements in house building and provides the investment needed to lay the foundations for a new era in home construction here.
Before Coronavirus hit, our region was building record numbers of homes, achieving results considerably above the national average. At the root of that success was our “brownfield first” policy.
I make no bones about my belief in the need to always target brownfield sites when it comes to new developments, regenerating derelict areas to ease the pressure on our Green Belt and open spaces. We have shown that this is a viable policy. It removes contaminated eyesores, rejuvenates communities and protects the environment.
The exciting investment in the National Brownfield Institute at Wolverhampton will cement our position as a national leader in remediation and construction technology, ensuring we have the local skilled workforce to build the homes we need.
With efforts now being made to speed up the planning process, the West Midlands stands ready to develop the technology and new skills needed to get Britain building.
As we continue to tackle the Coronavirus pandemic, we face significant challenges on the road to recovery, not least the threat of a fluctuating “R rate” and further lockdowns. Yet construction – an industry used to stringent safety measures and better suited to social distancing – is a sector that can kickstart our economy.
By backing these eight shovel-ready schemes, the Government has begun to deliver the investment we need.