Andy Street: Birmingham’s clean air zones will come down unfairly hard on local people. The scheme needs an urgent rethink.

1 Jun

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

As West Midlands Mayor, I have made it my mission to drive improvements in the region’s public transport system, from trains and trams to buses and bikes.

The progress we have seen in recent years is helping to connect people to new opportunities, driving economic growth and is playing a major part in tackling the climate challenge – by persuading people to make fewer car journeys, and easing congestion on the roads.

However, while public transport is a core part of my job responsibility, control of those local roads continues to sit with our councils. Today marks the start of one of the most significant changes to the region’s road network, affecting Birmingham city centre.

Birmingham City Council today introduces its “clean air zone” charging scheme, which will charge motorists of “non-compliant” vehicles £8 a day to enter the city centre.

First of all, I think it is important to say that I support the principle behind the clean air zone idea. Birmingham is one of five cities required by the Government to set up a clean air zone, as part of plans to tackle illegal levels of pollution across the country.

There is no doubt that the city centre does suffer serious pollution at peak traffic times and that action needs to be taken. Pollution levels can be unacceptably high, putting people’s health and wellbeing at risk.

In 2019, a study carried out by Kings College London found that primary school children who grow up in Birmingham could lose half a year of their lives due to illegal levels of air pollution. The loss of life expectancy is worse in Birmingham than some other major cities in the UK including Manchester, researchers found.

Nobody wants to live in a congested and polluted city centre – the West Midlands might be the home of the car, but we also need to ensure people have a viable alternative to using it.

However, I do have serious concerns about the scheme in Birmingham. There is no doubt that the council’s charging scheme is a heavy stick which will come down hard – with a big increase in the cost of living for those affected.

The first question we must ask is: is it coming down unfairly hard? I fear it is. Let me outline some of my concerns.

The charges apply to older vehicles, which are more likely to cause pollution. However, there is a strong argument that, as a result, the scheme targets those least able to pay – people most likely to have older vehicles and least able to replace them.

I have real concerns that not enough has been done to mitigate the effects of the scheme on those who can least afford it.

Then there is the fact that it will operate 24 hours per day, seven days per week. There is a strong argument that, again, this is unfair. The fact is that pollution isn’t constant around the clock and hitting night workers with this extra charge when the roads are empty doesn’t appear to be helping the environment.

Then there is the question of timing. The clean air zone will hit a whole swathe of city centre small businesses who have already had an exceptionally tough year and are only just beginning to grasp what the future may hold post-Covid.

The entire spectrum of city centre businesses – from office workers to cleaners, from sandwich shops to taxi drivers, are in the process of getting back on their feet as the economy reopens.

Why not delay the scheme until we are fully out of lockdown and fully returning to work?

Finally, there is the question of what will be done with the income created by the clean air zone. This is a hugely significant step towards creating a cleaner transport system for the city, which has been driven by genuine health concerns. I believe a real chance has been missed to commit every penny of profit made from the scheme to additional transport improvements.

These are just some of the concerns that have been raised, coupled with questions about why more isn’t being done to clean the air in the city centre – such as through “greening” technology along the roadside.

If we want people to use their cars less, we have to provide a suitable alternative. I continue to be a passionate believer that the only way to tackle congestion and gridlock on our roads is to transform public transport.

That’s what my transport plan is all about. In my first term as mayor we increased investment in transport sevenfold, thanks to Government backing. Many of those projects are now well underway, and in the month or so since my re-election we have made more progress on the plan.

On rail, the ugly and unsatisfactory Perry Barr station has now been demolished and will be the next brand-new station in our region, joining the conveyor belt of completely new or replacement stations being built. It will be the station for the Commonwealth Games – underlining how the Games investment will deliver long term benefits to the region.

On our metro tram system, this week we start work in earnest on the latest new line – linking Birmingham city centre with HS2 and providing brilliant public transport through Digbeth, helping to drive the immense investment and regeneration happening in an area known for its creative quarter.

The investment being delivered by HS2 is game changing in economic terms, and we are determined to make the most of it. The construction of the new Curzon Street station, for instance, will provide almost 1,000 new jobs.

Work on the metro across the region continues at pace – just a couple of weeks ago the first new bridge was put in place as part of the massive Black Country metro expansion and the first of our brand-new trams arrived to serve the growing network.

And in the last few weeks we have seen the region’s bike share scheme continue to be rolled out, with Birmingham joining a swathe of other communities like Sutton Coldfield, Coventry, Solihull, Wolverhampton and Walsall – plus of course Stourbridge where the Prime Minister was one of the early users.

But transport is not just about public sector investment. It is also about working with the private sector to improve choice and bring in its huge resources. Later this month bus service provider National Express is going to introduce a raft of significant fare cuts across its services – aligning with the end of lockdown. It will now be substantially cheaper to use the bus than it has been for years.

And not just cheaper, better. National Express continue to invest in its fleet, including its modern platinum buses which are cleaner, greener and more comfortable for passengers. On top of that, the region is seeing the ongoing rollout of emission-free electric and hydrogen buses.

Finally, on rail the all-important Cross-City line will be transformed with new electric trains, increasing capacity and improving the travelling experience for everyone.

The introduction today of a clean air zone in Birmingham has been hotly debated. While I support the principle behind the concept, I also understand the serious misgivings of those who fear they will be unfairly impacted by this attempt to reduce the number of local car journeys.

Ultimately, punitive charges like this can only be a small part of the solution to the transport challenge we face. The key is providing viable, attractive alternatives to the private car that people positively choose as their preference. The carrot, not the stick.

My transport plan is delivering those alternatives, as well as helping to kick start our region’s economy as we come out of the pandemic.

Ben Bradley: My constituents aren’t interested in No 10’s curtains and Cummings’ leaks. Potholes and parking, though…

31 May

Ben Bradley is the MP for Mansfield and Leader of Nottinghamshire County Council.

Recently the Westminster bubble and the media have, predictably, been obsessing over personalities and slanging matches in SW1. While it may make interesting reading for the political obsessives, the things that really impact my constituents’ lives rarely ever make the front pages. This week I’ve formally taken on the new role of leading Nottinghamshire County Council, where I’ve chosen to spend my time on those local issues rather than climbing the ministerial ladder. For some reason, can’t think why, the Whitehall melodrama just doesn’t appeal.

If you’ve ever worked in an MP’s office, or in politics generally, you know that most of what comes across an MP’s desk is the hyper-local. Potholes, crime, a neighbour’s unhelpful parking habits… These are the day to day things that most impact on many lives. Focusing on local challenges, from sorting out the roads to supporting new jobs or training, is the stuff that matters. You don’t make that difference while shouting at the Prime Minister about Palestine or obsessing over his, I’m sure thoroughly interesting, book on Shakespeare.

The key issues that were raised with us on doorsteps in the recent local elections weren’t about No 10’s wallpaper choices; they were about our highways, the town centre and green spaces. Residents wanted to talk about their street and job, not about politicians. In my first weeks in charge at NCC we’ve set about working on those priorities, not binge-watching the Westminster gossip.

I’ve been through hours of discussion and briefings in the last few weeks, along with my colleagues at County Hall, as we seek to decide and set out our plans. We want to be more innovative in how we deliver services. Too often help is distant from people who need it, and too often – all over the country – we only offer support when things have already gone wrong.

To make an impact in people’s lives (and in their wallets through council tax) we can focus on preventative services, which will improve outcomes and cut costs when fewer people need that acute care later one. It might be youth services, family hubs, addiction services, supported accommodation – none of it makes the 10 o’clock news, but it can have a huge impact. It’s what most of us get in to politics for.

The first full meeting of the new Conservative-led NCC took place on Thursday. I’m very grateful to colleagues for confirming my appointment as the leader and pleased to see the motions we put forward were approved unanimously. Day one, we’ve established a cross-party panel to review how we repair and maintain our roads in Nottinghamshire, with a view to doing things better. Anybody, of any party, who was out on the doorstep during the local elections can tell you just how many times potholes and the poor state of roads were mentioned and how important this issue is to people.

The big picture – the macro-economics and the flagship Westminster capital projects – do make a difference, don’t get me wrong. We need job creation, improvements in skills and training and better infrastructure. For residents it’s important because of the individual local impacts; their ability to find better work or to upskill, the better transport links, a town centre that is reviving itself.

I think very often in Westminster we talk on our grandiose national scale and don’t realise that things go right over many people’s heads. Really, part of our job should be to explain why things like our East Midlands Freeport, our Development Corporation, or HS2 are not just words, and not just some fancy national projects, but will directly impact the life chances of local people.

We have huge potential in the East Midlands to change the game for our local economy, through the projects I’ve mentioned and more. With huge growth around a Toton HS2 hub, tied in to our global trading links and business incentives at East Midlands Airport, and a new set of local planning powers at key sites for development, we can join together three cities to create a new economic epicentre with the clout to rival Birmingham in the West.

Sounds dreamy to Westminster geeks like me, probably meaningless to most people going about their day to day lives, until you explain that this means better roads, rail, more jobs (and better ones), housing and new investment for our communities.

It’s the local bit that matters. How does that impact my life? How will that help my friends and my family to do better? How will it make my street safer, or look nicer, or make my commute easier? As we all bang on about select committee inquiries, and whether the decor in Downing Street came from John Lewis, residents roll their eyes, turn off the TV or the radio, close their newspapers and instead focus on the things that matter.

We should do the same (journalists, take note!) and all be focused on delivering on the issues we’ve heard direct from our constituents in recent weeks. Potholes over posturing, service delivery over slanging matches.

Daniel Hannan: Super Thursday’s results weren’t a victory for conservatism, but for our leader: Brexity Jezza

12 May

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

It was, as every pundit rushed to explain, an incumbency vote. The Conservatives held England, Labour held Wales and the SNP held Scotland. In a crisis, people rallied to the regime.

Yes. But let’s spell out, in full depressing detail, precisely what kind of regimes they were rallying to. They were rallying to free stuff. They were voting gratefully for administrations that were ladling out grants, subsidies and interest-free loans. They were cheerfully endorsing the idea of being paid to stay at home.

Indeed, they had little option but to vote for these things. Who was offering an alternative? What politician, in the current mood, wants to be the gloomster reminding everyone that accounts must be settled? Who feels like being a Cassandra, droning on about how the debts of the past 14 months will drag us down for years to come? I mean, look what happened to Cassandra.

The rise of big government is paradoxically bad news for Labour. Boris Johnson has always had a thing about bridges, airports and other grands projets. Even before the pandemic hit, the man who once described himself as a “Brexity Hezza” was starting to unscrew the spending taps. But the lockdowns altered the fiscal terms of trade utterly and irretrievably. Not so much Brexity Hezza now as Brexity Jezza.

Corbynistas are claiming belated vindication. “You see? There was a magic money tree after all! Your guy is spending more than our guy ever promised!” Yes, he is. And that is precisely Labour’s problem. How can Keir Starmer – how can anyone – criticise the government for not spending enough? The usual Labour line, namely that they’d be more open-handed than those heartless Tories, is redundant.

If it can’t attack the Government on fiscal policy, what else can Labour go for? Sleaze? Yeah, right, good luck with that. The country decided early on that it was fond of the PM. Sure, he might be seen as a bit chaotic, but he is doing things that people like. At a time when he is leading the UK through a world-beating vaccination programme, moaning about a redecoration that is not alleged to have cost taxpayers a penny is not just pointless, but self-defeating. Labour has made itself look unutterably small during a crisis. Wallpaper for Boris, curtains for Keir.

Green issues, then? Again, forget it. The PM has embraced the eco-agenda as wholeheartedly as any head of government on the planet. Labour would, as voters correctly perceive, pursue the same agenda, but in a less cost-effective and market-friendly way.

With economics, sleaze and environmentalism off the table, Labour is left only with the culture war. Oddly, this is one of the few issues that unites Corbynites and Starmerites. The trouble is, it doesn’t unite them with anyone else. The two Labour factions squabble furiously on Twitter, but both are leagues away from the patriotic working people who used to be their party’s mainstay.

As Khalid Mahmood, the Birmingham MP, put it after the result: “A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party”. Mahmood was the first British Muslim MP, and is generally happy to take up causes for his co-religionists outside Birmingham. But he has little time for identity politics – at least, not in the deranged form that the British Left seems hell-bent on importing from the United States. In common with most Brits of all ethnic backgrounds, Mahmood a patriot, proud of having had ancestors in the Merchant Navy in both world wars. That his love of country should set him at odds with the Labour leadership is telling.

The culture war is where Labour is weakest. Corbyn was more or less openly anti-British, siding automatically with any nation against his own, regardless of the issue. Starmer at least sees why this is unpopular, and does his best to be photographed from time to time with flags. But, coming late and awkwardly to patriotism, he offers a slightly cringe-making version. The country at large – not just Labour’s old base, but the 80-plus per cent of us who think that, with all its faults, Britain has been a benign force down the years – senses his inauthenticity. As I write, opinion polls suggest an 11-point Conservative lead.

The combination of social liberalism and extreme internationalism that Corbynites and Stamerites share is, outside a few cities with big universities, unpopular. That may change over time, of course. The historian Ed West, rarely a man to look on the bright side, believes that demographic change will eventually align the electorate with Labour’s purse-lipped culture warriors. The population, he glumly notes, “is going to be more diverse, more urban, more single, more university-educated and more impoverished by rental prices” – all trends that help Labour.

Perhaps so. Indeed, as Henry Hill noted on this site yesterday, the one region of England where the Conservatives have started slipping is my old patch, the South East. Local election results saw reverses in Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Oxfordshire and (by extrapolation from the new boundaries) Buckinghamshire. But, to be brutally frank, it makes little difference. Under the first-past-the-post system, the Tories can slide a lot further in the Home Counties without endangering more than three or four MPs. For the next couple of election cycles, at least, the Long Awokening won’t much matter.

No, far more alarming is the way in which fiscal conservatism has simply disappeared, an early casualty of the lockdowns. Even as the country reopens, there is almost no talk of cutting spending back to where it was, let alone of starting to repay our debts. Just as after 1945, a collective threat has made us more collectivist. We crave big government. We feel we have earned a pay rise, and we vote accordingly. The Labour Party may have had it; but so, alas, has the free market.

In the West Midlands, Street is buffeted by a storm. But he sounds like a man who has the wind in his sails.

5 May

“I hear it’s sunny in Lichfield,” Michael Fabricant joked, as a storm of unbridled ferocity broke over a group of campaigners for Andy Street, Tory candidate for West Midlands Mayor.

About a  dozen people were gathered in the car park between the One Man and His Dog pub and the Co-Op supermarket in Turnberry Road, Bloxwich.

They included Eddie Hughes, who captured Walsall North (which includes Bloxwich) for the Conservatives in 2017; Fabricant, who has represented Lichfield since 1992; and Jahid Choudhury, who is within striking distance of winning a council seat in Aston, where he will be standing again next year.

“Boris Johnson should go to Aston,” Choudhury said, “and say thank you to the loyal supporters.”

He related how he and other Bangladeshis in Aston, an inner-city area, decided in 2017 to back Street, even though the conventional wisdom was that this was a Labour stronghold.

“The Bangladeshi community worked for six months night and day and then we won,” Choudhury said: four years ago, Street was elected Mayor by the slender margin of 3,776 votes.

Will Street win again this time? The latest poll, for The Times Red Box, puts him 17 points ahead of Liam Byrne, the Labour candidate.

Street flatly rejects this poll: “We dismissed that. I don’t believe it.”

He pointed out that at the general election in 2019, the Conservatives gained 725,000 votes in the West Midlands and Labour 723,000, a result which suggests that the mayoral contest ought, as it was in 2017, to be on a knife edge.

“It will all come down to turnout,” Street adds. “Some of the polls could engender complacency.”

He issued an appeal to ConHome readers: “We still need all the help we can get.”

But morale among Street’s campaigners is good. They began, as is the modern way, by taking photographs of each other, to be distributed on social media.

Jay Singh-Sobal, the Tory candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner, conducted a short interview with Street, and Hughes gave a short speech.

It then began to rain, hail and blow with astonishing force. The get-out-the-vote letters which the team was about to distribute were about to be reduced to a pulp.

Street ordered a tactical retreat to the cars until the storm blew over, as it soon did. The candidate then led the way into various new roads and closes which all seemed to be named after golf courses: Troon, Sunningdale, Birkdale.

The gardens here were immaculate. He raced from door to door, posting the letters.

When he missed a turning and ConHome apologised for distracting him by putting a lot of questions, he replied: “No, no, I should be able to do two things at once.”

He related how Theresa May, to whom he gives the credit for initiating measures which have led to a 75 per cent fall in rough sleepers, had been there canvassing the other day.

So had Damian Green, Damian Hinds, Greg Clark and Sajid Javid.

Aware that he had just named some leading members of the last Government, Street proceeded to add some members of the present Government who had come to canvass for him: Robert Jenrick, Grant Shapps, Therese Coffey, Robert Buckland, and Johnson himself.

Fabricant provided light relief by staggering up, as if having a heart attack, while saying, “The last thing we need is a by-election.”

Street sounds more confident, more at ease with the world of politics, than he did when interviewed in February 2017 by ConHome, soon after stepping down as Managing Director of John Lewis and entering the mayoral race.

On that occasion he said of his campaign:

“If we can win here it is a knife thrust in the Labour Party’s heart.”

A second Street victory might prove even more painful to Labour, for it would suggest a more enduring change in allegiance by voters.

On the drive back to Walsall Station, we passed through Birchills, where a vast brownfield site is being prepared for development by first having the ground cleaned.

Street pointed out that the site had lain derelict for decades. By spending public money for it to be cleaned up, he had prompted ten times as much private investment in new housing.

He obtained £450 million from the Treasury to regenerate such sites in Birmingham, and thereby avoid building on the Green Belt.

But first he had to submit himself to “examination by Spreadsheet Phil”, Philip Hammond, who had the relevant spreadsheet to hand, and wanted to know what “this bit on page five, line one, actually means.”

Street talks with enormous enthusiasm about regenerating the West Midlands by convening all the interested parties and getting them to work together.

He says that this time, he no longer needs to explain what the Mayor can do: he can point instead to what the Mayor is doing. He sounds like a man with the wind in his sails, and he insisted the election is about what is happening in his region, with nobody mentioning the accusations the press has made against Johnson.

But the West Midlands do still contain a large number of people who scarcely register in opinion polls, except perhaps as “don’t knows”.

On emerging at lunchtime yesterday from Walsall Station, and feeling hungry, I ordered a hamburger from a stall, and while it was being fried, asked the stallholder how he would be voting on Thursday.

“I don’t agree with it, mate,” he replied. “Whoever gets in screws you over.”

But what, as a matter of interest, does he think of Andy Street?

“Never heard of him,” the man replied.

In every part of the country, a large number of people are what one might call principled non-voters. They believe that whoever they might vote for would let them down, so they refuse to support anyone.

Street, however, is at least much better known than he was four years ago, and can run on his track record. He has become a far more formidable candidate than he was when he stood and won in 2017.

Andy Street: Ahead of the local elections, I want to pay tribute to the dedicated team working to win the support of the West Midlands

20 Apr

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

In just over two weeks, the people of the West Midlands will head to socially-distanced polling booths, clutching their own pencils, to have their say in crucial local elections – the results of which will shape how our region recovers from the pandemic.

Of course, in the UK region that has taken the hardest economic hit from Covid-19, the mayoral election is critically important. However, I am very conscious that I am only one of 141 Conservative candidates campaigning in these elections.

I want to dedicate this column to those candidates and the army of dedicated volunteers driving their campaigns – it’s a vast, region-wide team working to win the confidence and support of the people of the West Midlands in a bumper crop of local elections.

First, there is the election for Police and Crime Commissioner, a major job with a big budget of £655 million. This is a hugely important election for our region. The role has significant powers, and we need a new, strong and effective commissioner to tackle the problems of crime and anti-social behaviour in our region. Labour has held this office for 8½ years and its record is poor.

Only this week the British Crime Survey, which is carried out by the Office for National Statistics each year, found West Midlands police to be the lowest-rated force in England and Wales. The survey found 65 per cent of people in the West Midlands force area said they had confidence in the police – lower than in any other part of the country.

There’s no doubt that a significant part of this disengagement with residents has been caused by the Labour policy of shutting police stations. We have seen 44 police stations closed and plans remain in place to shut many more – including Sutton Coldfield, Solihull, Aldridge, Tipton and Wednesfield.

It’s important we have a commissioner who will stop these closures and focus on working effectively with government to get the extra police numbers we need, and we have a fantastic candidate who will do just that.

Jay Singh-Sohal is a local family man, brought up in Handsworth. A serving officer in the British Army Reserves, Jay has a proven record of public service, but just like me four years ago this is his first election campaign. And just like me, he is driven by his passion for our region and determination to make a positive difference to the lives of his fellow citizens. Having Jay as Commissioner is crucial to getting crime down in the West Midlands – and ensuring that resources are fairly allocated to the wider region – not just central Birmingham.

Second, there are crucial council elections across the West Midlands. In Dudley, Solihull and Walsall – the boroughs run by Conservative councils – we have a brilliant story to tell.

In Dudley, we can point to the truly staggering level of investment, from the metro extension to the new Institute of Technology, and from the Very Light Rail Innovation Centre to the new leisure centre and Portersfield town centre redevelopment. The council has also won £10 million for Brierley Hill town centre and is leading a tenacious defence of the Green Belt around the borough.

In Walsall, there is tangible progress, as the borough powers ahead with brownfield development for homes and jobs – perhaps most excitingly at the vast “Phoenix 10” development which is turning one of the most polluted, derelict sites in the country into a new business park to create over 1,000 jobs.

One of the hallmarks of the urban Conservatism we have developed here in the region is to ensure that all communities benefit from incoming investment, and Walsall is working on a whole raft of plans to support regeneration in every town across the borough.

Walsall has also led the way with Housing First, our pioneering scheme which is now accommodating 400 rough sleepers region-wide – seeing a 75 per cent reduction in rough sleeping in two years.

In Solihull, the borough is leading the way on the environment – like its commitment to plant 250,000 trees in 10 years, in a visionary idea described as a new Forest of Arden, and the “wildlife ways” project which has planted thousands of wildflowers and trees across the area.

Solihull town centre, long considered one of the region’s prime retail destinations and an economic dynamo for the region, is being reimagined by a masterplan which will introduce new homes and leisure services, while neighbouring village Kinghurst is set to get a revitalised village centre too.

I have been pleased to work on all of these projects and many more with our councils, underlining how teamwork can deliver on the ground. Perhaps the most tangible evidence of this is our expanding transport network, with new train stations and metro stops at various stages of development. In the next few weeks, these councils will also see the roll-out our bikeshare scheme.

We also have a great team of councillors and campaigners up for election in Coventry, Sandwell, Wolverhampton and by-elections in Birmingham. In each of these boroughs we have a great story to tell about how Conservatives have made a difference.

Coventrians are seeing unprecedented investment in their city – including becoming the first all-electric bus city in the country, city centre investment, a new central station, and support for this year’s City of Culture festivities. Conservative councillors are also making a tenacious defence of the Green Belt in a move that is chiming with concerned residents’ groups across the city.

In Sandwell, we are looking to make a breakthrough into what has been a wholly Labour borough. We can point to how things are changing since we saw Conservatives elected in all but one of Sandwell’s Westminster seats – not least the millions for town centre regeneration in places like Rowley Regis and West Bromwich, plus our own local support for the Metro extension from Wednesbury past Tipton.

In Wolverhampton, again our story is one of making a real change – millions in funding for city and town centre regeneration, a brand-new central railway station and turning the city into the national leader in brownfield regeneration.

Finally, in Birmingham we have great local candidates fighting for their communities and to strengthen the existing strong team on the City Council. It’s easy to forget how rare it is for a major English city to have a large Conservative team of councillors – let alone one that next year can be looking to win control of the council. Within the city’s borders, we have a town council byelection in Sutton Coldfield – again where we have a great story to tell with the town council leading the way on its town centre masterplan to guarantee the Royal Town’s future success.

All of this activity and progress means West Midlands Conservatives are working towards the elections next month with confidence in their candidates and the message they bring.

I have said before that I believe the first breaches in the “Red Wall” were made here in the West Midlands, and I am certain that progress was the result of a unified approach by Conservatives across the conurbation. We fight as one team.

We are also determined to fight a fair and responsible election – that’s why this week I voiced our support for the Jo Cox Foundation’s call for respectful campaigning.

We know that by working together we can achieve much, much more for our communities and that’s what drives all of us to stand as candidates, and what drives the volunteers who give their time, money and effort day in, day out to get the message out there.

They support us as candidates because they believe in what we are trying to do and care about the future of their village, town, city and region. It is humbling to see the voluntary effort that’s going into this campaign across the region by so many people. It is urban Conservatism in action.

It is a privilege to be part of this team and I am hugely proud of the positive and inclusive campaign we are running.

Andy Street: My plan to get the West Midlands back on track and unleash our potential

6 Apr

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

In just over a month’s time, the people of the West Midlands go to the polls facing a critical choice.

Over the last four years, the West Midlands began to reclaim its rightful place as an economically successful region, after decades of stagnation and relative decline. Then Covid struck. Now there is much to do to ensure we don’t throw away those years of progress.

The choice facing voters on May 6 is simple: do we accelerate the progress of the last four years, or do we go back to the old failing approach which let down our region for decades?

Today I launch my plan setting out how I intend to get the West Midlands back on track and unleash our potential. I want to use this column to outline its key aims, which are both ambitious and practical.

The strides made by this region since I was elected Mayor on May 4 2017 are borne out by the facts. More than 97,000 new jobs were created in the region overall in the three years before the pandemic, the most of any region outside London. The level of transport investment this year was seven times higher than the year before I became Mayor.

A record-breaking 48,098 homes were built here from 2017-2020, nearly double the 25,000 target set in 2017. Rough sleeping is down 65 per cent since 2017, with 377 homeless people helped through our Housing First scheme. Over £3 billion of new funding was brought in from Government, with no Mayoral precept added to council tax bills.

On top of that, we won backing for Coventry City of Culture, Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022, the West Midlands 5G testbed, and High Speed 2 to bring investment and jobs.

However, the West Midlands has been hit hard by Coronavirus – and we must act quickly to get back on track. Sectors like retail, hospitality and manufacturing have seen thousands of workers laid off or furloughed.

That’s why my first priority will be to create more than 100,000 new good quality local jobs and training opportunities for local people.

That means securing an electric battery Gigafactory for our region, bringing 4,000 new jobs and protecting thousands more in the automotive industry and supply chain. It means winning every possible contract for local businesses from major regional projects like HS2, the Commonwealth Games and Coventry City of Culture.

I want our region to become the national leader in construction, engineering, life sciences, technology, 5G and other growing industries. And we have already seen announcements to move hundreds of well-paid civil service jobs out of London and into the West Midlands, starting in Wolverhampton and Birmingham – creating local jobs opportunities and boosting the economy.

I have plans to double transport spending. My vision is to build new metro stops across the region, as well as reopening five rail stations in the next three years, while making progress on eighteen other new stations.

Transport will play a key part in my green ambitions too: with plans for a major programme of cycle routes, while the full roll-out of our version of Boris Bikes has already begun.

On the buses, we’ll build on the success of the four-year bus fare freeze, and roll out more hydrogen and electric buses including making Coventry’s fleet all-electric.

On housing, I will build thousands of new homes where they are wanted. That means continuing to drive our successful “brownfield first” approach, with over £400 million of funding to reclaim derelict sites, protecting our Green Belt and green spaces.

Affordable homes are a key component of the plan: I will seek an ambitious Affordable Housing Deal to bring new cash to the region and pioneer our own “Help to Own” scheme to make home owning possible for more people. We will also continue our progress on reducing the numbers of rough sleepers.

On the environment, I will launch a huge programme to retrofit people’s homes with energy efficiency measures to reduce fuel bills and carbon emissions, while investing in nature, from replanting trees to creating a new National Trail for walkers around the Green Belt of the West Midlands. I will work with Government to fund for more initiatives like the Black Country zero carbon hub, to help industry move to green technology.

I will use a business-like approach to tackle the challenges facing the high street. Our town centres have already won over £100 million of Government funding, benefitting places like Brierley Hill, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, West Bromwich, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

City centres like Coventry, town centres like Dudley and village centres like Kingshurst will all benefit from our own major regional investment plan.

I’m backing bids to regenerate iconic local sites like the historic swimming baths in Erdington, the Royalty Cinema in Harborne and Saddlers Quay in Walsall to become community and enterprise hubs, and where distinct areas such as Solihull and Sutton Coldfield have developed their own town centre masterplans, I will use the power of the Mayor’s office to help make their visions become reality.

The heart of my approach as Mayor has been to ensure that every community benefits from the region’s success – localised “levelling up”. That means maximising the benefits of Coventry City of Culture in 2021, the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022 and High Speed 2, with jobs for local people and investment across the region.

It means supporting those who need extra help, for example “designing out” homelessness by addressing its causes. A new Equalities Taskforce will ensure the West Midlands is a great place to live, work and grow up for all our communities. I will work with the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner to make our communities safer and get crime down, particularly on the transport network, while providing opportunities for young people so they don’t get drawn into crime.

These are just some of the ambitious plans I am putting to the people of the West Midlands today, as we face a turning point in our region’s story. On May 6, voters in the West Midlands face a choice that will define the future direction of our region.

My message is simple: I have a credible delivery plan to make all of this happen, and a proven track record over the last four years, beating our targets and other city-regions on investment, skills and housing.

My commitment is to secure £10 billion of new investment into the region, from both the Government and private investors, with a clear approach to the Mayor’s role as a regional champion. That means working with Government to make things happen, rather than criticising and grabbing headlines, and then being ignored.

When I was elected the West Midlands’ first mayor, nobody knew what could be achieved by devolution. I am proud of the progress we made in the first four years, but I’m also acutely aware that, as we rebuild after Covid, there is so much more to be done.

This is the region where I grew up. Its values shaped me as a person – that’s why four years ago I decided to stand to be Mayor. Before the pandemic hit, the renewal of the West Midlands was tangible. Today I unveil my plan for the next three years, and I urge the people of the West Midlands to choose me – to get on with the job, get this region back on track and unleash our potential.

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.

Andy Street: The BBC’s Birmingham plans represent a cultural “levelling up” this country needs

23 Mar

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

This weekend Line of Duty, one of the BBC’s most successful shows, returned to our screens for its highly anticipated fifth series. The hit crime drama is one of a number of major TV productions made in Northern Ireland, making a significant contribution the local economy there.

However, few people know that the first series of this hit show – the one that established it as a fans’ favourite – was made in Birmingham, with filming taking place across the West Midlands.

In fact, Line of Duty was created by West Midlands-born Jed Mercurio, who lived for several years in Birmingham where he worked as a doctor in local hospitals.

I don’t know why production of the show moved away from Birmingham, but its move was certainly emblematic of a shortfall in investment by the BBC here, resulting not only in an economic imbalance but also in a lack of representation of West Midlands life on national TV schedules.

Now, all this is changing – with a landmark announcement this week from the BBC and significant plans for independent production studios in Birmingham, following years of lobbying by myself, and huge combined efforts by our talented creative industry. In TV parlance, we are “ready for our close up”.

I believe the announcement by the Beeb represents a kind of cultural “levelling up” – and follows the announcement that the Department for Transport is to move to Brum and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government to Wolverhampton. All of these moves are crucial to the ongoing success of devolution, as they ensure opinion formers and decision makers, whether in the media or the Government, understand and engage with life outside the capital. But this has been a long time in the making.

For decades, Birmingham boasted one of the biggest BBC centres in the country – Pebble Mill – which was home to the Archers, Top Gear, The Clothes Show, Countryfile, Gardeners’ World and the daily magazine show Pebble Mill at One. Its studios were used to film All Creatures Great and Small, Boys from the Blackstuff, Doctors, Dangerfield, Howards’ Way, Juliet Bravo, Dalziel and Pascoe and more.

After the BBC closed the famous studios in 2004, its presence in the region shrank to a shadow of its former self. By 2011, the Corporation had opened its huge base at Salford’s MediaCity, in Greater Manchester – where it employs more than 3,000 people.

This, for me, was another symbol of how our region was being left behind other parts of the country. It wasn’t just about the loss of jobs and investment, critical though that was, it also meant that talent from our region would be forced to move elsewhere.

It also showed a major national institution turning away from us, and not just any institution – the BBC isn’t like any other business. It is one we all pay for through our licence fee and it was clear that West Midlands people were getting a poor return on the money they were contributing to BBC coffers.

Four years ago, the BBC’s annual report revealed the Corporation spent just 1.5 per cent of its programming budget in the Midlands, down from 1.8 per cent the year previously. It meant that while licence fee payers in the wider Midlands region were paying £961 million a year, the broadcaster was spending just £135 million a year here, while pumping money into London and the North. Quite simply, the BBC was investing less in the Midlands than any other part of the country.

And it’s not just about money – it’s about representation. Think about this: how many TV shows can you name that are set in the Midlands? TV schedules are full of gritty northern dramas, London cop shows or programmes that use famous regional landmarks as their backdrops. Happy Valley is set in Yorkshire, Unforgotten, Luther and Marcella in London, Broadchurch in Dorset. The biggest soaps are in the capital, Manchester and the Yorkshire Dales. Doctor Who may travel anywhere in time and space, but the Tardis chose to move its regular base from Wales to Sheffield.

Yes, we have the sublime Peaky Blinders, created by proud Brummie Steven Knight, and Line of Duty subtly hints at an anonymous Midlands setting, but there are very, very few shows where you can see life here on your screens, or hear our accents. As one of the UK’s most densely populated places, this underrepresentation is simply wrong.

Last week, the BBC announced ambitious plans for its biggest transformation in decades, including moving more programme making and investment to the West Midlands, finally delivering the kind of investment that our region has been crying out for.

This followed months of negotiations with Tim Davie, new BBC Director General, and means that over the next six years the corporation will increase activity across the region, with at least one new primetime drama series and one new primetime entertainment series commissioned here.

This will not only bring new jobs and opportunities, it will also give us the chance to tell our own stories, express our creativity, make our voices heard and ensure a fairer representation for the region on the cultural landscape. However, it will also mean that the BBC will benefit hugely from the incredible pool of talent here.

This is an industrious, innovative place. In the last four years our creative sector has really begun to regain momentum. Creative and digital was the fastest growing sector in the West Midlands between 2016 and 2018. There are nearly 1000 creative businesses in the region, contributing £4.7 billion per year to the economy – that’s why I have always championed it as a sector.

Now, this new BBC investment will feed that momentum, creating more jobs and giving us the opportunity to be a leading light in the sector again, just as we were in the heyday of Pebble Mill.

There have been setbacks. There is no doubt that years of BBC under-investment impacted on independent production here, which was cited as one of the possible reasons Channel 4 chose in 2018 to overlook Birmingham’s bid to be its new base outside of London, in favour of Leeds.

I was personally hugely disappointed by the Channel 4 decision, because I thought we were the best choice, but I don’t regret the fact that we tried. In fact, going through the process with Channel 4 helped us to galvanise our creative sector, work out where our strengths lay, and it has laid the foundations for the successes we are now seeing.

Under my leadership, the West Midlands Combined Authority helped set up Create Central to bring together the local screen industry to lead the development of plans to grow the sector. This included £2 million for Create Central to fund a programme of activities to boost the film, TV and games sector in the region, with £500,000 to run bootcamps to teach young people the skills they need to work in the TV production sector.

All this activity means the arrival of more BBC activity coincides with a creative explosion here, centred around Birmingham’s Digbeth. Two major new production facilities are already planned in this creative quarter of the Brum – Mercian Studios, an international film studios and media village, led by Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight, and a new Creative Content Hub for independent TV and content production.

Over the next few weeks, the UK will be gripped by Line of Duty, a TV phenomenon that began here in the West Midlands. Soon, the Peaky Blinders will return to our screens too. The news that the BBC is to finally take full advantage of the immense talent to be found here will mean viewers can look forward to many more West Midlands-made TV classics, while local people will get a fairer share of the nation’s cultural currency.

Chris Loder: Our rail industry is a sleeping giant when it comes to boosting international trade

24 Feb

Chris Loder is the Conservative MP for West Dorset.

As Brexit negotiations have concluded, the Government is working hard to both protect and expand British industry by creating a future of new opportunity through trade negotiations. When developing a new independent trade policy, it is crucial that we prioritise sectors in which we are global leaders and create the best framework possible to help them remain that way in a post-Brexit world.

Recently, I wrote about the importance of rail in the context of our fight back against Covid-19. Today, I am again banging the drum for the rail industry that I know and love; particularly because of its rather unknown status as a major exporter – but we need to change that.

The rail industry always takes up a lot of column inches in the British media. Debates rage about strikes, fares and leaves on the line. These are all issues that the British public experience directly and so it is no wonder that we all hear so much about them.

However, our rail sector is a major industry in its own right compared to the automotive or aerospace sectors; albeit on the verge of a major reform. Crucially, it is also an international success story, exporting £800 million a year in goods and services. The sector employs around 600,000 people (more than the entire workforce of Birmingham) and fuels jobs in the UK’s industrial heartlands; places like Crewe, Derby, Stockport and Doncaster. And it could do so much more for UK plc.

Key to protecting and enhancing the UK’s role as a major rail exporter is to make our market attractive and open for business. Rail should be included in any free trade deal post-Brexit; and I have already met with Graham Stuart, International Trade Minister. These deals should be signed with the purpose of making it as easy as possible for the UK to continue to export.

A recent survey by the Rail Supply Group showed that the UK rail sector’s priority markets are very much aligned with those of the Government – rail suppliers want to access markets like America, Australia and India, all of which are top priorities for agreeing Free Trade Agreements. The industry is also keen on ensuring reciprocal market access; and we should reject protectionism wherever it rears its head. If we are restricted from accessing another market because of protectionist procurement legalisation, as we have been within the EU, the Government needs to ensure these barriers are broken down for the benefit of all; and that is my mission here at the moment for the railway.

The potential of the rail industry in exporting abroad knows no bounds, and it says something about the growth of the industry that the Rail Sector Deal, agreed between industry and Government, has targeted a doubling of UK rail exports by 2025. This is very much achievable, with lots to play for as the global rail market is due to expand significantly over the coming years; with the recently released UNIFE World Rail Market Study predicting annual market growth of between one and 2.3 per cent until 2025, when an annual volume of approximately ER 240bn pa could be expected.

However, now more than ever, we need to show off what we can sell to our new trading partners. Support from Government, recognition of the exporting potential of the sector and schemes like the Department for International Trade’s Tradeshow Access Programme (TAP) are vital in helping fund small businesses in the rail industry to go to trade shows around the world and bring home contracts. As we leave the EU, it is vital that these sorts of schemes are maintained and supported more because Brexit means the UK becomes less prominent internationally. Now is when our presence on the world stage is needed most.

In September 2019 at the Conservative Party Conference, the rail industry leaders present did not appreciate the opportunities that Brexit offered. Senior executives were not at that time wanting to embrace the future. But we have now left the EU. We have countless trade deals in place and I have been making the case throughout Government to make sure rail features in these deals; and the industry would do well to also make the case.

The Railway Industry Association (RIA), the voice of the UK rail supply community, has made a number of key asks about what the industry needs from future trade deals in order to continue to soar. To summarise these in simple terms: rail needs to be included in trade deals; have tariff-free access to other markets wherever possible; and retain a great, highly skilled workforce with people from around the world able to come here if they fit the bill. If we can achieve this and combine it with a renewed drive to “sell, sell, sell” through our negotiations around the world; there is every opportunity for our rail industry to lead the world in our new, global Britain.

Paul Howell and Heather Wheeler: Full HS2 is critical to our election commitment to rebalance the economy

16 Feb

Paul Howell is the MP for Sedgefield and Heather Wheeler is the MP for South Derbyshire.

After our landslide election victory last year, the Prime Minister made a promise to unite the country and level-up our nations and regions. The jobs-first approach and once in a generation levels of public investment in infrastructure announced by the Chancellor in his spending review set our party on course to deliver on these promises, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic.

The Chancellor has invested in supporting businesses and individuals throughout the pandemic – at massive cost to the Exchequer. But now that the vaccine is being rapidly rolled out across the country, we need to start thinking seriously about the economic recovery. We feel strongly that we need to invest in infrastructure and that in particular, investing in new rail lines, upgrades and new train fleets is one of the best ways to do so.

As Members of Parliament representing constituencies in the Midlands and the North East, we are pleased to see reform of the Treasury’s Green Book rules to unlock future public investment for our regions. Too often in the past, a rigid interpretation of the rules has led to spending in London and the South East, with areas such as ours being overlooked. The reforms under consideration have the potential to turn the situation on its head – essential if we are going to achieve our goals of levelling up.

The publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy is also welcome, as is the unequivocal support it provides for High Speed 2 – our flagship national transport project.

When the Government gave HS2 the go-ahead it recognised that it will deliver vital connectivity, cut journey times and boost capacity. We are aware of the current calls to cancel the project outright given the impact of Coronavirus. However, as Andrew Stephenson recently said, to do so would “send a terrible signal out globally about the UK intending to build back better from Covid-19.”

With over half of the Phase 1 budget for the line from London to Birmingham already spent or contracted to, such calls are frankly nonsensical, and would lead to the loss of 13,000 jobs directly employed by HS2 and tens of thousands more in the supply chain.

Construction is well underway across the route, and British businesses are benefiting, such as County Durham based Cleveland Bridge, a world-leading steel engineering company. It produced twenty-four massive steel girders that form part of the first of HS2’s new modular bridges, recently installed over the A446 in Solihull in just 45 minutes.

Instead, we must continue with this once in a generation investment into UK plc. HS2 will serve as a much-needed catalyst for economic change across many of the cities and towns that are now Conservative constituencies. Many of these areas have seen positive change over recent years but such is the scale of the economic challenge that our levelling-up agenda must double down on investments such as these to drive economic growth and opportunity. This is made all the more important in light of the ongoing battle to contain Covid-19 across the UK, but particularly in our Blue Wall areas.

And to counter those who say the impact of home working and changes to commuting, or the future widespread introduction of autonomous vehicles means that we should no longer invest in rail, we say that is wrong. Demand for rail travel rose year on year since privatisation in 1995 – and pre-pandemic was predicted to go on rising – and we see no reason for this to change in the longer term. HS2 is intended to have an operating life of 120 years; it is right that we are thinking long term and investing in high-speed rail, just as virtually every advanced economy in the world is doing.

Try telling people in Japan, Germany, South Korea, China, Turkey and elsewhere that such investment is a waste of money and you will get an incredulous response. With many more countries now developing national and international high-speed rail networks, we have the opportunity in the UK to establish a world leading capability and export new trains, equipment and expertise to the likes of India, Australia, Scandinavia and many more. This opportunity is too often overlooked, but it has huge potential.

Making sure the British public gets the best bang for their buck from our flagship national transport project and that it truly delivers for the whole country will be vital. Anything less would be a missed opportunity. That is why HS2’s Phase 2b, Midlands Engine Rail, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and our plans to reverse Beeching’s cuts must also get the green light from the Integrated Rail Plan, which we are eagerly awaiting. Furthermore, investing in rail, and shifting people away from car and domestic air travel, is critical to achieving the Government’s net zero targets.

The opportunity from this unprecedented public investment is not just about new tracks, wires, bridges and tunnels – important though they are. We represent areas with rich and unrivalled heritage of train building, with two major rolling stock factories (Bombardier Transportation in Derby and Hitachi Rail in Newton Aycliffe) directly employing thousands of our constituents and supporting many thousands more jobs in their British supply chains.

After too many years of decline, when we saw British train building virtually extinguished, train building is back.

We now have two established UK factories employing highly skilled workers who are producing new trains that improve the journeys of British passengers. Were they to secure the order for the new fleet of very high-speed trains it would secure jobs and investment in regions outside HS2’s Phase 1 route, thereby spreading the programme’s benefits more evenly across the country to regions like the East Midlands and the North East. More broadly, it would enhance and protect vital existing investment in rail manufacturing at a time when the pandemic has created uncertainty across the rail sector.

We cannot waste the opportunity that our Government’s high-speed rail investment plans presents. Using it to level-up the economic fortunes of the areas we represent will make good on the Prime Minister’s promise to first time Tory voters at the last election – to unite our country and re-balance our economy. It is time to build back better.