Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
For years, the Party conference season was synonymous with the seaside. With the Commons in recess, delegates headed to places like Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton, to shape policy in the midst of seaside rock and ‘kiss me quick’ hats.
All that changed in 2008, with a bold decision that sent an important message about Conservative commitment to urban, modern Britain. The conference came to Brum. Last week, I was delighted when Amanda Milling returned here to announce that we will be hosting three more conferences – in 2022, 2024 and 2026.
It was an announcement that was greeted with real excitement. Birmingham is a hospitality city, with exhibition and conference venues that have made us leaders in “business tourism” in the UK.
Holding the Party Conference brings great benefits, both economic and more symbolic ones.
Firstly, of course, Conference brings income to the host city – estimated to be worth £20 million for each conference. This is great news for the region’s economy and jobs as we attempt to safely restart the economy post lockdown.
Major conference and exhibition venues like the NEC and ICC directly employ many thousands of local people, and the West Midlands’ hospitality sector also supports a region-wide supply chain, from hotels, restaurants, bars, events companies, and marketers. This vital sector was brought to a complete halt by Coronavirus. It is no wonder last week’s announcement was so well received, coming hot on the heels of the Prime Minister’s announcement that exhibitions could reopen from October 1.
Secondly, the return of Conference to Brum gives us an opportunity to underline our region’s relationship with and connection to Government – bringing, since 2010, the whole Government to the region. Much has been said about the need for Government to escape their South East bubble to connect more with communities north of Watford. By relocating to Birmingham for Conference, ministers will see first-hand how their investments, guided by devolved decision-making and local expertise, are helping level-up the economy.
Thirdly it gives us the chance to showcase the City and wider region. While the traditional warm Brummie welcome hasn’t changed, delegates and the media will notice plenty of visible improvements to Birmingham. They highlight the renaissance that has transformed the Second City in recent years and is set to continue.
When delegates arrive in 2022, a better-connected Birmingham will still be buzzing with the afterglow of the summer’s Commonwealth Games. Trams will have once again become a familiar sight, running past the Conference venue, the length of Broad Street and out towards Edgbaston. We will have seen further huge improvements in the City’s transport network – with the complete rebuilding of University Station (winning Government funding last week).
New, first-generation Sprint bus routes, which months before shuttled international spectators between Commonwealth Games venues, will be bringing people to a city centre transformed by the completion of the £700 million Paradise development. By 2022 Birmingham’s bold, bright new future will be firmly here.
Finally, the location of the annual conference reiterates the political importance of the UK’s cities to our party. When David Cameron moved our annual conference from the traditional seaside setting to our great cities it underlined the party’s ambition to win again in urban Britain. After all, until 1997 those cities contributed an important cohort of MPs and Cabinet Ministers to Conservative Government.
However, that drive to win back urban Britain has proved an elusive challenge, despite the election victories of 2010 and 2015. Even when the “red wall” was breached in 2019 Labour bastions in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds proved resistant. Indeed, of these cities, only Leeds has conservative councillors.
For this entire period, the only Conservative MP in any of our great cities was Andrew Mitchell in Sutton Coldfield. But it was in Brum that the break-through came. In 2019, for the first time since 1987, the Party gained a big city seat – Birmingham Northfield. This was a hugely important and symbolic win for the Party, showing we can win in cities again.
More importantly it has given the people of Northfield constituency a dedicated, effective and sincere champion in Gary Sambrook. Gary has already proved tenacious in fighting for his area – and is pushing, for instance, for further regeneration of the former Rover factory site at Longbridge. Much has already been done to reclaim what had been a derelict eyesore for many years – but Northfield’s new MP is determined to create even more jobs and opportunities there.
Birmingham also sets the pace when it comes to Conservative representation on local authorities in urban Britain. Unlike the other big cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, the Conservatives have run the council here in recent memory and retain a strong, influential base of councillors, led by indomitable campaigner Robert Alden.
In the last local elections Labour’s majority across a city of ten parliamentary constituencies comprised just 4483 votes – less than 500 per constituency, a tiny majority. Indeed, when you consider that my own majority averages 135 in each constituency, it shows how closely fought elections are in our area.
There is a real possibility that when delegates arrive in Birmingham for the conference in 2022, they will be visiting a growing city of more than a million people with a Conservative-led Council. If we are serious in our ambition to be a party that reflects a modern and diverse Britain, achieving this outcome must be a reality.