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.

Andy Street: A transport revolution is under way in the West Midlands – with the launch of a new bike hire scheme

26 Jan

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

The West Midlands is undergoing a transport revolution. Old railway stations will be reopened. Ground-breaking Very Light Rail networks are being designed. Miles upon miles of Metro tram track are being laid to link up communities. Fleets of electric buses are taking to our streets.

After decades of underinvestment, my regional transport plan is finally starting to deliver a world-class transit system to one of the UK’s most densely-populated places, connecting people with opportunities and providing healthier forms of transport, cutting pollution and easing congestion.

Before the pandemic struck, passenger numbers were rising in the West Midlands on every mode of public transport. The West Midlands was on the move, an example of how a Conservative mayor can make things happen, after decades of Labour inaction left the region lagging behind.

And next month will see the start of the next phase in this transport revolution – and this time, it’s on two wheels.

February will see the launch of the West Midland’s bike hire scheme – an ambitious project designed to appeal to the 30 per cent of people here who don’t cycle but say they would like to give it a go.

Almost every great city has a bike hire scheme, most famously London’s “Boris Bikes”. This is another area where the West Midlands has fallen behind the capital and places like Edinburgh – but we are catching up fast.

Through the unifying power of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), which has been committed to my goal of spending £10 per head of population on cycling per year, our ambitious plan covers not just a single city centre, but all seven boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

Sutton Coldfield, the Royal Town to the north of Brum, is pioneering the scheme with the first 75 bikes, thanks to a partnership with its forward-thinking Town Council.

It’s the ideal place to launch the scheme – a major self-contained community that sits within the city’s borders, which is also the home of Sutton Park, the region’s biggest urban beauty spot.

After Sutton, a further 1,500 bikes will be rolled out across the region in a matter of months, all in time for summer. Lockdown has deprived people of the freedom of getting out and about. I want this scheme ready for them to discover the freedom cycling can bring.

This is a project that is truly “Made in the Midlands”, with the bikes built by Pashley cycles, a firm that was founded in Birmingham in the 1920s and now has a factory in neighbouring Warwickshire. What’s more, 10 per cent of the bikes will be electric, with the charging docks also made in the region.

I hope that local people will take to these bikes, along with the electric e-scooters recently introduced to our cities both of which are an example of real investment in high-quality alternatives to the car. With Coventry’s City of Culture celebrations this year and the Commonwealth Games on the horizon, they will also provide a way for visitors to get around too.

But bikes are only part of the investment we are making, with truly ambitious plans to establish a world-class cycling network across the region.

The planned £270 million regionwide “Starley” network – named after the Victorian family who pioneered cycle manufacturing from Coventry – will be for the whole region, not just the city centres.

The vision is for 500 miles of safe routes across the region, linking our communities with either dedicated bike routes or miles of cycle lanes separated from traffic.

The Starley project would be a game changer for cycling in the West Midlands, building a vast new transit network reminiscent of the canal system created here during the Industrial Revolution.

Thanks to that era of innovation, it’s said that Birmingham has “more canals than Venice”. Well, a completed Starley Network would give the West Midlands a cycle network to rival Berlin. We are working now to attract the investment to make this ambition a reality.

Key to our cycling plan is identifying viable routes, like in Coventry, where the WMCA is investing £5 million in the flagship Binley Cycleway, linking Coventry University to the city’s main Hospital.

More than half of West Midlands residents say safety concerns put them off cycling. Binley is a great example of providing safe, separated lanes for bikes to remove the tensions that sometimes happen when cyclists and motorists compete for the same road space.

We are also looking to link up our cycling network with my wider transport plan. For example, there will be cycle provision alongside the new metro expansion in the Black Country, along Wednesfield Road to the brand-new railway station. It will also be integrated into our Sprint bus schemes.

All of this has been supported by the Government’s commitment to cycling, with the Department for Transport, under Grant Shapps, investing heavily.

Our region has securing £17 million from the Government for cycling schemes, from cycle lanes and pedestrian-friendly areas in Moseley, Birmingham, to routes along Tipton Road, on the boundary of Dudley and Sandwell, connecting residents to a Metro stop on the new Black Country line.

Locally, the WMCA has earmarked £2 million of Whitehall’s Transforming Cities cash to launch our own Better Streets Community Fund, which received 144 applications from residents, resulting in 31 projects that will be delivered by the end of this year.

This local engagement is vital, as building cycle provision is disruptive, and unwanted proposals can be rejected by communities, wasting time and cash.  If cycling is to really succeed, it requires grassroots support in the areas where routes are created.

There is, of course, a serious health issue driving our cycling revolution. We have a significant air quality problem in the West Midlands, particularly in denser cities like Birmingham and Coventry.

This, combined with the very real threat we face from climate change, makes clear the health and environmental benefits of cycling. We are investing in public transport to tackle congestion and pollution.

After years of inertia, a Conservative mayor has provided the push needed to finally get public transport moving in the West Midlands. We can do the same thing for cycling.

Until now we have lagged behind other parts of the UK, but with our new Bike Share scheme and ambitious plans for a region-wide network, I’m confident we can quickly catch up with the leading pack – and then power past them.

Meirion Jenkins: The Conservatives have a real chance to win in Birmingham

21 Jan

Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.

The dreaded date has now been confirmed (again) and the Labour administration in Birmingham will introduce the city centre driving tax (known as CAZ or Clean Air Zone) in June. This is a tax with no mandate (Labour omitted its plans from its manifesto in the run up to the election) and which is likely to be very damaging for the city. If I were on the Left, I would say it is a regressive tax because it will harm those least able to afford it and will increase pollution in some of the city’s poorest areas as traffic is moved to the ring road. Labour says that the Government forced them to introduce this tax, but this is not true. The Government said that the city needed to improve air quality, and, in our last election campaign, we laid out plans to do just this without a tax on hard working motorists. There should be no doubt that a profound anti-car culture sits as the root of Labour’s plans. If elected in 2022, we will reverse this policy and remove the city centre driving tax.

Apart from London (which is a very different environment), nowhere else in the UK taxes motorists in this way, although Bristol and Bath might follow. There have been several referendums (Manchester, Durham) which have rejected such schemes. Labour knows that the people of Birmingham would also have voted against a tax of this nature had they been given an opportunity.

Further evidence of the absurd approach displayed by Labour towards transport can be seen in the Sutton Coldfield ring road cycle lane. Labour spent £75,000 on a cycle lane of about 0.5 mile in Sutton Coldfield, only to be forced to remove it in the face of fierce local opposition before it saw a single cyclist. At the time of writing, we have asked how much it cost to remove the failed scheme and we were told ‘about the same’ as it cost to build. We will submit a question to full council in February to establish the true cost but, for now, it looks like a dreadful waste of £150,000 of taxpayers’ money.

The Labour administration in Birmingham is hopelessly incapable of delivering value for money. In this column, I have written previously about the Commonwealth Games athletes’ village fiasco. The Commonwealth Games accommodation was part of the Perry Barr Regeneration Scheme – which now won’t be able to accommodate any athletes because of delays on the project. This was the only part of the games organisation that sat solely with the city council. Therefore, the project has now become a large property development (speculation?) on the part of the city council. If property prices climb, then it may be fine, but, if property values do not climb, then there is considerable financial risk for the Birmingham taxpayers. Echoing many of our concerns, the external auditors, once again, have imposed a value for money qualification on the city’s statutory accounts because of the Perry Barr scheme. There was also a second value for money qualification because of Labour’s failed handling of the highways contract.

Another example of eye-watering waste has come to light. Our group has recently called in a decision relating to a report about the home to school transport scandal. This involved a serious breakdown in the service provided to transport vulnerable and special needs children to school, many of whom were put at risk because of failings in the way that Labour had administered the scheme. It’s also a service that had been criticised at scrutiny committee for budget over-spends for several years. The report, which was commissioned at a cost of £92,000, only managed to consult with nine external people, i.e. £10,000 per consultation. Users of the service were further frustrated when the Leader said that the ‘Parent & Carer Forum’ were happy with the progress being made, only to be swiftly rebutted by that same group who made it clear that they were anything but happy.

Whatever view one takes on the effectiveness of lockdowns as a strategy, the recent increases in restrictions have provided the Labour administration in Birmingham with an opportunity to extend virtual meetings well into the future. We will soon be at the point where there have been no proper council meetings for over a year. Whilst Teams may work, to an extent, for smaller committee meetings (such as audit committee or scrutiny), it is a hopeless format for full council meetings – which are close to a complete waste of time in terms of what they achieve for the residents of Birmingham. I noticed that the proceedings in Washington recently were conducted in person, albeit with the precaution of wearing masks.

So what are the chances of us winning Birmingham in May 2022 – and will any of these matters influence the way that people vote? Is there the Birmingham equivalent of a ‘red wall’ across the central areas of the city or an issue that will galvanise voters in the way that Boris v Corbyn, or Brexit v Remain, did in the General Election? On the face of it, with the council currently being made up of 101 councillors, of which we have 25, Labour 65, Lib Dems eight (surprised they managed that many) and three others/vacancies, one might think it is a difficult ask. However, as ever in a first past the post system, a relatively small shift in the vote can make a large difference to the seat distribution.

Remember that in 2018 we had a five per cent swing against us nationally, and yet in Birmingham we achieved a six per cent increase in our vote share, adding 18,000 votes, with Labour down 0.5 per cent. We need only 4,483 more people to vote Tory (or 2,242 to change how they vote), albeit in the right place, to give us a seat majority in the chamber. Excluding London, there is no other large urban authority in the country where the Party is this close to winning. In 2018, there were five seats where we lost by only a handful of votes; these included Longbridge 15 votes, Pype Hayes 17 votes, Vesey 105 votes, Kings Norton 127 votes, and Oscott 300 votes. With sufficient campaigning resource, we believe that we can bring the days of this failing Labour administration to a timely end.

Harry Fone: Reserves should be used to limit Council Tax rises. If this isn’t a “rainy day”, what is?

13 Jan

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Less than two weeks into January and councils are already telling residents to expect another year of inflation-busting rate rises. Local authorities will be permitted to raise Council Tax by up to 4.99 per cent and many have already indicated they will do so. A typical band D household could see their bills rise by as much as £106.

However, there is promising news from the home of the concrete cows. Milton Keynes Council (MKC) has taken the welcome step of using its sizable reserves to implement a more bearable rise of 2.5 per cent. The council leader has clearly listened to the concerns of local residents, saying, “the time has come to use those emergency reserves during a crisis rather than cut vital services”.

According to the most recent figures, reserves from all councils totalled £25.5 billion. It seems there is plenty of money for a rainy day and residents of Milton Keynes will be grateful for the lowest rate rise in five years. But could the council have done more?

MKC has been no stranger to wasteful spending in recent times. In January 2020 as part of efforts to tackle climate change, £95,000 of ratepayers’ cash was allocated to adorn underpasses and bus shelters with moss. But this pales into insignificance compared to the cost of refurbishing council offices that went at least £7.8 million over budget. Perhaps MKC should focus on stamping out largesse before plundering its coffers.

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In Hampshire, the Police and Crime Commissioner Michael Lane – who enjoys a taxpayer-funded salary of £86,700 – has called for the policing precept, which makes up part of Council Tax bills, to be increased. Both he and the chief constable of Hampshire Constabulary are recommending a rise by the maximum permissible £15. The injection of cash will be used to fund the “early recruitment of 50 new police officers”.

But like Milton Keynes, could this hike have been averted? The Daily Mail discovered that since 2012 Hampshire Police and Crime Commissioners splurged £51,000 on merchandise such as keyrings and stress balls. Unfortunately as is so often the case the wasteful spending didn’t stop there.

In 2014, Thames Valley Police and Hampshire Constabulary combined their efforts and money to create a new 999 call management system. Like most public sector IT projects it has been plagued with delays and cost overruns. In July last year operators in the emergency control centre had to resort to pen and paper after the “cutting edge” system crashed.

Originally forecast to cost £27 million, the bill to the taxpayer has skyrocketed to at least £39 million. That’s £6 million that each force saw go down the drain. Given it costs around £75,000 to train and hire a police officer for one year, Hampshire Constabulary could have put 80 bobbies on the beat, never mind 50. More rigorous oversight and project management could have avoided punishing rate rises for residents and made streets safer.

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In recent years many councils have drastically cut staff numbers in an effort to balance the books and increase efficiency. News that Leeds City Council intends to axe 914 jobs recently caught my eye and made me wonder how the English “Core Cities” (Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield) match up in terms of the number of council employees to the number of residents. The results are quite varied but there are some noteworthy observations.

Using the latest data, Leeds had 12,868 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff. Birmingham, the biggest of the core cities in terms of population, had 696 fewer FTE employees, despite having a population around 40 per cent greater than Leeds. To put it another way, Leeds has 1 council employee for every 61 residents, compared to Birmingham’s 93. I was surprised to discover that Liverpool came out on top of all the English core cities, with 1 council employee for every 103 residents.

Of course, fewer employees per head doesn’t necessarily mean better results for ratepayers. But between 1997 and 2017 Council Tax increased by 50.5 per cent (in real terms) for Leeds and only 23.6 per cent for Birmingham.

There are undoubtedly more factors other than the number of employees that affect Council Tax bills. But, as staffing costs make up a large chunk of expenditure, local authorities should ensure they have the most efficient workforce possible – culling non-jobs would be a good start – saving their residents potentially millions of pounds in the process.

Andy Street: 15 years on, we can finally heal the scars of MG Rover’s collapse

1 Dec

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

The battle to protect our economy from Coronavirus has brought comparisons with previous downturns, re-examining past recessions and reminding us of the impact felt when major industrial players have collapsed.

The levels of borrowing outlined last week by Rishi Sunak are testament to the unprecedented efforts being made by Government to draw on past experiences and protect jobs as we face a new kind of recession.

Here in the West Midlands, there remain acres upon acres of former industrial land which remind us of previous slumps. With government backing, we are now reclaiming these eyesores to provide new homes and job opportunities.

And as we face this latest challenge, I am hopeful that we will finally heal one of the biggest, and most painful, of these scars. Longbridge, in Birmingham, offers an opportunity to use this economic crisis to erase the results of an infamous economic shockwave.

Completing the regeneration of Longbridge would be a powerful example of Conservative policy actively “levelling up” the economy. For 15 years, local people have waited to see this site fully reclaimed. Let’s show them that after three years under a Conservative mayor, and with a new Conservative MP in place, we are ready to deliver it.

For anyone whose roots are in the West Midlands, car making holds a special place in our hearts. As someone brought up in Northfield, just up the road from the famous Longbridge car plant, I am also very conscious of the past of our car industry. Home of “the Austin”, Longbridge at its 1960s zenith was one of the world’s biggest car factories, employing tens of thousands of people producing ground-breaking vehicles like the Mini.

Then, of course, came the painful decline through the disastrous British Leyland years and beyond. The causes of that decline are still the cause of much debate, but no-one can argue about the individual and collective pain that each job loss brought.

This culminated 15 years ago in the collapse of MG Rover, with the loss of the remaining 6,000 jobs. It remains one of the darkest days in the history of Birmingham and the West Midlands.

Psychologically, the closure dented the confidence of a region with a proud automotive pedigree. Economically, MG Rover’s collapse impacted on the thousands of people who worked for the firm and the massive supply chain that supported it.

Physically, when MG Rover shut its gates for the last time it left behind a vast industrial site that reminded us of the closure.

Since then, much of the site has been redeveloped. Developer St Modwen has shown real ambition and vision, effectively building a new town centre on part of site, which also boasts a fantastic college. Aquapak, a firm at the cutting edge of recycled polymers, recently welcomed Alok Sharma to their premises on the new business park there.

The old MG Rover site is being reshaped by a sustainable mix of businesses and housing redevelopment, including state-of-the-art senior living. Yet every time I pass Longbridge, I look across to the parts that remain empty and think about what it once meant for local jobs.

Now I’m determined to complete the regeneration of Longbridge, reclaiming a site that once represented one of our region’s most established industries, by applying one of our newest.

In the last year I have been joined by fellow Brummie Gary Sambrook, the Conservative MP for the area, in this ambition. He has been working with developer St. Modwen to get MG Rover’s “West Works” site redeveloped, and once again generating opportunity for local people.

Together we are promoting Longbridge’s strong business case to be a critical site for Government support through the Urban Transformation Fund. That’s why I submitted Longbridge to Government as one of our region’s top funding bids and it is why Sambrook passionately pitched it to the Chancellor last week in the Commons debate on the Spending Review.

To put it simply, this derelict site – which has been levelled for years – could provide a quite profound and tangible example of “levelling up” in action, and illustrate the West Midlands ability to bounce back from adversity.

That ability is also reflected in the land reclamation technology being pioneered here, which up until the pandemic hit, was cleaning up derelict eyesores like Longbridge and helping us build new homes at record numbers, through our “brownfield first” policy.

The exciting investment in the National Brownfield Institute at Wolverhampton will cement our position as a national leader in remediation and construction technology.

It is fitting that this example of West Midlands 21st Century innovation can be put to use to “level up” Longbridge, given its links to our industrial heritage.

Of course, there is another reason why the fate of the remaining Longbridge site would resonate so much now. The automotive industry is facing huge challenges. The sector is going through a revolution, illustrated by the Government’s ambitious decision to stop the production of petrol and diesel cars in 2030.

Longbridge stood as a reminder of what happens when we fail to invest in our automotive sector. The promise of £500 million in the Spending Review, to back electric battery technology and production shows the resolve not let this happen again. That’s why the Gigafactory that is so critical to our automotive future must be built in the West Midlands.

Longbridge may, sadly, never produce another car – but the site can produce quality new jobs for local people. With a new Gigafactory, we can recharge the automotive industry 15 years after MG Rover’s collapse.

By backing the regeneration of Longbridge, while investing in the West Midland’s automotive future, the Government can not only accelerate its ambitions to “level up” the economy – it can also drive home a profound message about our ability as a nation to bounce back.

Andy Street: We must do more to save struggling town centres. Tackling business rates is a good place to start.

17 Nov

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

Our traditional town centres and high streets have faced unprecedented challenges in recent times. First, our town centres were impacted by the drive towards out-of-town retail parks. Next, the rise of digital shopping impacted, as doorstep delivery hit footfall.

Then came Coronavirus, and restrictions that have brought town centres to a juddering halt. Now, in what retailers call the “Golden Quarter” – the critical run-up to Christmas – they are coping with another month-long closure.

Through the Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund, the Government is backing town centres, on top of the unprecedented support already shown for business throughout the pandemic. I believe that we must double down on this investment to secure the future of our high streets, but the challenge we face is also reliant on generating fresh ideas and local buy-in. It is not just about money – it is about how we spend it too.

While 2020 has brought unprecedented challenges, I firmly believe in the future of our towns and cities, and evidence suggests that many others do too.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many reconnected with their local high streets. In lockdown, many chose to return to traditional butchers and grocers rather than face supermarket queues. When volunteers mobilised to deliver food to the vulnerable, it was often the local convenience store that provided a base, looking out for their regular customers.

And, when restrictions relaxed, people wanted to reconnect with town centres. Here in the West Midlands, Halesowen Town Centre saw the biggest bounceback in trade of anywhere in the country. Despite all the challenges, towns like this have a future because we are fundamentally a social species. After so long apart, we want to return as soon as possible to culture, to sport, to conferences – social pursuits that are so often in town and city centres.

However, it’s clear that investment is needed. Why? Our high streets matter. They matter because they are the heart of local communities. They matter politically, as they provide a tangible, visible sign of economic success. The Government recognises this, through its Towns Fund investment programme, as it seeks to “level up” the economy and reach out to former “Red Wall”’ areas. But we must think afresh.

Before Covid struck, we drew up our West Midlands blueprint to revitalise local high streets, the ambitions of which are even more pertinent today.

The blueprint aims to encourage a more personal shopping experience – the type you can’t get from a phone screen – while bringing local services into town centres, broadening appeal beyond retail.

We want to encourage more urban living in our town centres, which should also be the natural place for public services. The blueprint also aims to make our town centres greener and cleaner – with more opportunities to cycle and walk – and safe and secure with good lighting, proactive policing and CCTV.

Above all, strong local leadership must drive these ambitions, to build the partnerships and attract the investment needed. A key part of that leadership is pushing for a fairer tax system that levels the playing field between high street and online retailers.

Taxation remains a real issue. If a swift bounceback is evading us next year, then exemptions will be vital – but we must also tackle the long-term problem of business rates. They are simply outdated and, given the financial challenge we now face, the often-suggested online sales tax looks even more attractive.

Investment is also key to repositioning our high streets. In the West Midlands, we are putting millions on the table to back our blueprint.

Schemes vary in size from our £95.5 million investment in the Coventry City Centre South scheme, which will transform the City’s future, to £5 million towards a transformation of Kingshurst, in Solihull, creating a new village centre with shops, medical and community facilities.

Sometimes, it’s about removing eyesores that have blighted places for decades. The demolition of the Cavendish House office block symbolises that the regeneration of Dudley Town Centre is no longer a hope – it’s happening, thanks to regional funding. In West Bromwich, we are pulling down the hideous Bull Street Car Park, reclaiming the site to build new homes in the town centre – bringing much-needed footfall to existing businesses.

We’ve backed opening hotels in Walsall Town Centre and the heart of Coventry, and even helped bring an old rival from my John Lewis days, Marks and Spencer, into Sheldon’s high street in Birmingham.

Targeted investments like these demonstrate a confidence in the future of communities, and we are determined to do more locally. However, I want these investments to be a pilot for securing hundreds of millions from the Government’s Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund. Across the region we have seen enthused communities, businesses and councils come together to work on their bids for this funding.

Perhaps the most ambitious of these is in the Black Country, where an energised Wolverhampton partnership is pitching for £48 million not just in the city centre, but crucially for high streets in Bilston and Wednesfield too. This funding would go alongside our own investment in the City’s future, like the £150 million new railway station and metro link which is nearing completion.

Elsewhere in the Black Country we have more towns in the running for game-changing investment – Brierley Hill, Bloxwich, Dudley, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, Walsall and West Bromwich – each with their own distinct pitch.

A great example is Brierley Hill – a traditional town centre that was badly hit by the opening of the huge Merry Hill shopping centre in 1990. Now we have the chance to reconfigure the town centre to open it up and ensure that shoppers visiting big retailers like Asda can easily access the rest of the high street. The extension of the West Midlands Metro into Brierley Hill will link it to the wider region.

Communities around smaller suburban high streets are grasping the opportunities of the Future High Streets Fun too. Erdington, in Birmingham, has a brilliant scheme designed not only to boost retail but to make the best of their assets, by opening up the historic Churchyard area to provide better, high-quality open space. They also want to turn the boarded-up Victorian baths into a job-creating business hub.

Too often the debate over “levelling up” is reduced to North versus South. Here in the Midlands, where the Red Wall was first breached, we are engaging with the opportunities to bring investment into our communities that will drive tangible, visible improvements.

The Government is putting in money. But as we plot our way out of the pandemic, it must be ready to double down on this investment, while enthusing communities to play a part in revitalising the civic centres they so cherish.

Andy Street: As we enter lockdown, we must protect our precious open spaces

3 Nov

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

As I write, England is once again preparing to enter lockdown. Families will hang their hopes on Christmas, as they say a temporary farewell to each other. Cafes, pubs, restaurants, gyms and businesses of all kinds are preparing to close their doors as the nation tries to bring infection under control and protect the NHS.

The extension of the furlough scheme throughout November and the unprecedented financial support already set out by the Government will provide some relief for businesses, as we balance the need to save lives with the need to protect the economy.

As before, some sectors will carry on throughout lockdown – this time the NHS, supermarkets, manufacturers and public services will be joined by schools, colleges and universities as they keep the nation ticking over.

And of course the construction sites, at the heart of the strategy to Build Back Better, will work on. In this column I want to write about the opportunities that lie ahead as we build the homes of tomorrow – and the potential pitfalls if we get things wrong.

Last week, the consultation ended on potential changes to the planning system – “Planning for the Future – which “proposes reforms to streamline and modernise the planning process, bring a new focus to design and sustainability, improve the system of developer contributions to infrastructure, and ensure more land is available for development”.

Driving this push for reform is the need to build more housing. Demand far outstrips supply for homes. As the Party which made home ownership possible for everyone, it‘s vital that we address this properly, and develop long-term solutions. Clearly the current planning system is far from perfect – indeed, it has got us to where we are today.

In the West Midlands we are ambitious – we have set the target of 215,000 new homes by 2031. When the pandemic struck, we were well on our way to that target, with our rate of housebuilding doubling in 8 years to just under 17,000 last year.

In the last three years, we have shifted the whole basis of housebuilding in the region. Instead of tearing into the Green Belt, we have moved to a ‘Brownfield First’ policy, reclaiming and cleaning up old derelict sites for new development.  The result is that we have protected green fields while regenerating former industrial sites, removing eyesores in often neglected communities.

The policy has been a great success, with the vast majority of new homes built in our recent surge put up on reclaimed land. We’ve only been able to do this thanks to Government support and their backing for our business plan, with a £350m investment in our game-changing Housing Deal which was recently topped up with another £84m. A new science of land reclamation is being pioneered right here, with a £24 million National Brownfield Institute planned for Wolverhampton.

We have achieved this by working together across the region’s seven member boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. After all, by helping one community that is crying out to see a derelict eyesore removed, we are helping another fighting to save its cherished open spaces.

We see this application of local knowledge within our boroughs too – developing on old factory sites in Walsall town centre to protect neighbouring green spaces in Pheasey and Streetly, or building in Dudley town centre to protect fields around Halesowen and Stourbridge.

So, my response to Government’s “Planning for the Future” consultation is simple – let’s build on what we have been doing together so far. However, there are aspects of the proposals which I fear go in the wrong direction.

First, the algorithm and methodology at is core tilts more homes onto Councils with more green space, and away from those with more brownfield sites. This is, of course, to try and address the issue of housing where demand is high.

But, in this case, I believe it is tilting the playing field too far. It would mean, for example, increasing pressure on Councils like Solihull where we already have a Green Belt under intense pressure, whilst easing the need for homes elsewhere where there are more brownfield sites and a pressing need for regeneration.

We must not let developers ‘off the hook’ by allowing them to pile into greenfield sites and turn away from more challenging regeneration sites. And they will pile in – we are seeing it now in Coventry, where a misguided Local Plan has opened up too many green spaces for development. For developers, these sites present a more lucrative and easier option. For the local community, they represent a loss of much-loved green space. Down the road, in neighbouring communities blighted by old derelict industrial sites, they represent a missed opportunity to reverse years of neglect.

So, I have argued that this should be looked at again to reflect the need not to let an algorithm – which is prone to all sorts of unintended consequences – drive planning diktats that imperil the Green Belt.

Second, I believe this timely planning reform is a chance to seize the moment to provide additional protection to critically important Green Belt sites. Across the West Midlands at sites like the Seven Cornfields in Wolverhampton and Tack Farm in Halesowen, residents are battling to save cherished countryside.

The new “Protected” status should represent a strengthening of Green Belt protection for sites.  The Green Belt came into being in the 1950’s and now is the time to look at reinforcing it through this reform.

We should, for example, identify some Green Belt sites where development is simply inconceivable – in our region, the “Meriden Gap” which sits between Solihull and Coventry, and Saltwells Nature Reserve in Dudley leap to mind – and give them more protection. That added protection would ensure no developer would attempt a frivolous planning application designed to test the resolve of councils under pressure to build.

And let’s recognise where some places have contributed some of their Green Belt land already to meet local and national need – like land for HS2 – and see if we can compensate them with more Green Belt protection in their area. I have, in the past, described Birmingham City Council’s plans to build thousands of homes on Green Belt in Sutton Coldfield as a ‘land grab’ – and there is a strong argument that the town has now made a significant contribution to a city which has plenty of brownfield sites.

We aren’t Nimbys in the West Midlands. But it is vital that Whitehall understands that if the cold data supplied by an algorithm offers up cherished green spaces to hungry developers, there will be a backlash from local communities – and from voters.

We want and need more homes and we are working in partnership with Government, councils and developers to deliver them. As we head indoors for a month of lockdown, many of us will miss the open spaces that surround our communities, where we walk our dogs, run for exercise and our children play.

We must Build Back Better, but let’s never forget the critical importance of the Green Belt – indeed, let’s seize the opportunity to do more to defend it.