Andy Street: Coventry could provide a blueprint for the nation’s city centres

8 Sep

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

Five years ago, Coventry was the seventh and final Council to vote to join the West Midlands Combined Authority, embracing the new spirit of cooperation sparked by the devolution of power to the region.

As one of England’s top 10 Cities, Coventry’s inclusion alongside the other six boroughs of Birmingham, Dudley, Solihull, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton was a vital component of a confident and assertive new West Midlands.

Like all of its new partners, Coventry brought to the table not only a proud and distinct character but some of the driving force that helped make the West Midlands the UK’s industrial heartland.

As a consequence, the city made a major contribution to the strong regional economy we had built here before COVID-19 struck, which was second only to London. Now, as our region plots its recovery, new jobs and investment will be key.

Just as I believe an innovative ‘can-do’ attitude made Coventry one of the big winners from working regionally, I believe we have laid much of the groundwork to create the jobs needed for the city to bounce back, after the pandemic. I’d like to use this column to navigate what lies on the road ahead for the ‘motor city’ – and illustrate how Coventry has benefited from taking its place at the West Midlands table.

As the UK cautiously attempts to return to normality, the future of our city centres has become a hot topic. Coventry is on the cusp of a major investment that could provide a blueprint for the nation’s city centres, which will see old and tired tracts of retail-focused land repurposed for a new era.

More than £95m of regional funding has been set aside for the “City Centre South” transformation, with the plans being consulted on over the Summer.

This huge scheme represents a 21st century rethink, moving away from the reliance on big anchor stores and making city centre living a reality, by creating 1,300 new homes – all on reclaimed brownfield sites.

While there will, of course, still be plenty of room for high-quality retail, leisure offerings such as bars, restaurants, a hotel and potentially a cinema will drive footfall from new city-centre dwellers as well as attracting residents from the suburbs.

It is estimated that City Centre South will bring at least a thousand new jobs, with another 620 when construction begins. But this is just one facet of our plans for Coventry, which are transforming the city.

By investing in our ‘brownfield first’ policy, we can boost jobs in the construction sector and provide footfall for the high street. We are providing funding to reclaim more brownfield sites to turn them into homes and ease the pressure on green spaces around the city’s edges.

For example, Coventry’s former National Grid depot, a derelict eyesore since 2010, is set to be transformed into hundreds of homes backed by regional cash.

This kind of regional investment is important, as one of the biggest challenges the City faces is pressure for more homes and development – which is causing much angst for communities facing threats to their Green Belt.

Regional investment of £51million is going into the flagship Friargate office development – right next to Coventry’s central railway station – bringing in good jobs to support the City Centre economy.

And the station itself is being completely upgraded from the 1960s building of the past to create the modern gateway this growing City needs – with £39.4m of regional cash underpinning the £90m+ scheme.

Added capacity at the city centre station will help us deliver a package of new suburban stations in the City, working with the Government to improve transport links and connect Coventry’s communities with new opportunities.

Wider investment in the City’s transport will include a pioneering “Very Light Rail” system. Recently backed by the Government’s Get Britain Building Fund, the prototype of this system is being designed and built-in Coventry, before being tested in Dudley.

In the last few days, local roads have seen the roll-out of the city’s first modern electric buses. These clean, eco-friendly vehicles will use battery power to help Coventrians get about. And it is this technology that offers the biggest opportunity for the future of the UK’s motor city in terms of jobs.

Regional money has contributed £18m towards the National Battery Industrialisation Centre, which is due to open later this year in the City, cementing Coventry’s place at the heart of the technology that will transform the automotive industry.

Crucially, we want this centre to be the pilot that helps bring a “Gigagfactory” to our region to mass-produce electric batteries for the sector.

The West Midlands is already the UK centre of driverless car testing, with both Coventry and Warwick Universities providing valuable local input into the emerging technology. Driverless vehicles are being tested on the streets of the city and the region’s motorways. Cutting-edge testing facilities down the road in Warwickshire are a hotbed of autonomous motoring too.

The Prime Minister has spoken of bringing the Gigafactory here, saying our region is seeing ‘a 21st Century industrial revolution’ in battery and low-carbon technology’. Electrification can provide the power to drive new jobs for Coventry and the region as a whole.

Finally, we are backing Coventry to shine on the national and international stage with City of Culture festivities next year.

There is £35m of regional money going into making this a success. It is focused on projects that will leave a lasting legacy for the City and its residents – above all jobs.

In the last five years, Coventry has embraced the benefits of a collaborative West Midlands, while contributing the drive that has always made it one of the UK’s most industrious places. As we look to create the jobs of the future, that combination of regional support and local innovation will be key.

Neil O’Brien: The next algorithm disaster – coming to a Conservative constituency near you. This time, it’s housing growth.

24 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Algorithms have been in the news, not for good reasons. One lesson from the A-levels row is that principles which seem reasonable can lead to outcomes you don’t expect. Another algorithm’s coming down the tracks: the new formula for how many houses must be built in different places. There are few with higher stakes.

I wrote about the housing White Paper in my last column: it proposes not just to change the methodology for assessing housing need, but also to make a standard methodology compulsory for the first time. In other words, if we don’t like the results of the new algorithm, we’ll have blocked off the emergency exits.

The new algorithm is set out here. It’s not particularly easy to read. For example, one of many factors is set out in bullet point 30:

Adjustment Factor = [( Local affordability factor t = 0 – 4 4) x 0.25) + (Local affordability ratio t = 0 – Local affordability ratio t = 10) x 0.25] +1 Where t = 0 is current yearr and t = -10 is 10 years back.

Clear enough for you?

I thought it might be a while before we saw what the new algorithm would produce in practice. But Lichfields, the planning consultancy, has translated the algorithm into what it would mean for local authorities.

The numbers that the formula spits out can be compared to the number of homes actually being delivered over recent years, or to the numbers in the current (optional) national formula. Whichever way you look at it, it’s controversial.

I’ve long argued we should concentrate more development in inner urban areas, for various reasons I’ll come back to below.  But this algorithm doesn’t do that – at least not outside London.  In the capital, the algorithm would indeed increase numbers substantially.

But in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.

Overall, the algorithm proposes a south-centric model of growth for Britain (with some growth in the midlands).

If we compare the algorithm to recent delivery, the South East has been delivering just over 39,000 homes a year, and will be expected to increase that to just over 61,000, a 57 per cent increase. The East of England would see a 43 per cent increase, the East Midlands a 33 per cent increase, the West Midlands a 25 per cent increase and the South West a 24 per cent increase.

For the North East, North West and Yorkshire, the numbers the algorithm proposes are lower overall than the numbers delivered over recent years. But as with A-levels, the devil’s in the detail.

The really controversial changes are within regions, where the algorithm suggests jacking up numbers for shires, while taking them down in urban areas. Comparing the existing national formula to the proposal, we can see this for most large cities.

The number for Birmingham comes down 15 per cent, while the rest of the West Midlands goes up 52 per cent.

Numbers for Leicester go down 35 per cent. The rest of Leicestershire goes up 105 per cent.

Nottingham goes down 22 per cent, the rest of Nottinghamshire goes up 48 per cent.

Southampton goes down 17 per cent, Portsmouth down 15 per cent and Basingstoke down 23 per cent, but the rest of Hampshire would go up 39 per cent.

Wealthy Bristol would see some growth (5 per cent) but much lower than the rest of Gloucester, Somerset and Wiltshire (47 per cent).

It’s the same story up north. Leeds down 14 per cent, Sheffield down 19 per cent, and Bradford down 29 per cent. But the East Riding up 34 per cent, North Yorkshire up 80 per cent, and North East Lincolnshire up 123 per cent.

In the north west the core cities of Manchester (-37 per cent) and Liverpool (-26 per cent) see huge falls, while the areas around them shoot up. In Greater Manchester, for example, the growth is shifted to the blue suburbs and shires. Outer parts go up: Wigan up 10 per cent, Bury, up 12 per cent, and Rochdale up 97 per cent. And areas to the south and north of the conurbation up much further: Cheshire up 108 per cent, while Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley and the Ribble Valley together go up 149 per cent.

But it isn’t just that the numbers in the new formula are lower than the old formula for urban areas. In many cases the new formula suggests a lower number than their recent rate of delivery. This is true of Sheffield (12 per cent below actual delivery), Leeds (16 per cent), Bradford (23 per cent), the entire North East (28 per cent), Nottingham (30 per cent), Manchester, (31 per cent), Leicester, (32 per cent) and Liverpool (59 per cent). The new formula seems to assume we are going to level down our cities, not level up.

It’s true that there’s another step between the Housing Need Assessment which this algorithm produces and the final housing target, which can be reduced a bit to account for delivery constraints like greenbelt.

But if we go with this algorithm unamended, outside London most Conservative MPs will be seeing large increases in the housing targets for their constituencies, while many Labour MPs see their local targets reduced. Is this what we want?

Leaving aside the politics, I think not. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK has much less dense cities.

Places like Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Hull and Newcastle all had smaller populations in 2017 than 1981, while places like Birmingham and Manchester weren’t much bigger. Our cities have untapped potential, many went through a period of shrinkage and have space, and there are health and environmental reasons to prefer urban growth too.

In dense urban areas, people are more likely to walk or cycle – and in the UK, people in cities walk twice as far as those in villages each year. This reduces public transport costs and improves health.

Denser cities can sustain better public transport and so cut car congestion and time spent travelling. As well as reducing pollution from transport, denser cities reduce energy use and pollution because flats and terraced homes are much more energy efficient.

I’m not sure the draft algorithm is even doing what Ministers wanted it to. The document in which it is set out says that “the Government has heard powerful representations that the current formula underestimates demand for housing in the growing cities in the Northern Powerhouse by being based on historic trends.”

But the algorithm seems to do the exact opposite.

There may be technical reasons why things aren’t working out: there’s lots of ways to measure affordability… differences between residence-based and workplace-based income measures… there were certain caps in the old model, population projections have changed and so on.

However, the bigger issue is this.

There’s no “objective” way of calculating how many homes are “needed” in an area. While there are ways of carving up the numbers that are seen as more or less fair, ultimately a vision is required.

Projections of population growth are circular: the projected population growth for the farmland between Bletchley and Stony Stratford would’ve been pretty low before we built Milton Keynes there.

Likewise the forecast for the derelict Docklands of the early 1980s. While there are real economic constraints, the future need not resemble the past.

Though it took a huge effort, Germany raised East Germans from 40 per cent to just 14 per cent per cent below the national average income since reunification. That’s levelling up.

Do we want to continue to concentrate growth in the South East? Do we want European-style denser cities, or for them to sprawl out a bit more? An algorithm can help deliver a vision: but it’s not the same as one.

Meirion Jenkins: The lack of democratic accountability in Birmingham is worse than ever

18 Aug

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

One good thing that politicians might say about Covid, is that it will provide an excuse for so many failures that have little to do with Covid, or were destined to fail long before the virus appeared. And so it is with the Labour council in Birmingham. With the Birmingham Commonwealth Games now less than two years away, audit committee had classified the athletes’ village as a ‘red risk’. The athletes’ village is the only part of the games that is wholly within the control of Labour and, like most things that Labour’s Birmingham administration handles, it’s another shambles.

The village has now been cancelled. Goodness knows how much this will cost the taxpayers in Birmingham through unrecoverable sunk costs. According to the last business case, which increased the costs by £92 million, £226 million had already been spent by the end of March 2020 on this project. The council chose to fund the village itself with no central government intervention, using a complex finance arrangement and with a view to making a turn on the property development. It was just last December that Labour mysteriously rushed through the purchase of a National Express bus depot, refusing to allow scrutiny or call in of the decision on the grounds that it was urgent, despite paying eight times the budgeted price (£16 million) for the land.

Strangely, this ‘vital’ piece of land was not planned to be needed until the Games and, even then, was only to be used as a depot. It’s now not at all clear whether it will be needed at all. When the Games were taken on at short notice, the Conservative group suggested that the use of student accommodation would represent a lower risk and lower cost option, but the Labour leadership preferred the ‘legacy’ of the athletes’ village. This has now proved to be a disastrous decision and it will probably be student accommodation that meets a large part of the requirement.

The running of the council and lack of democratic accountability is as troubling as ever in Birmingham. Full council and the elected members have now reached the point of being an irrelevance. At the last council meeting (Teams of course), we found ourselves debating a proposal to spend £7,000 on joining a special interest group, whilst the real decisions involving millions of pounds are taken secretly behind closed doors with no scrutiny allowed. Lip service is paid to councillors but we are effectively prevented from doing the job that our residents elected us to do.

We have reached the stage where Labour cabinet members have said in full council “we don’t know what else the officers are hiding from us”. After the meeting when this comment was made and in a separate matter, it emerged that Birmingham had made a decision to pay £1,000 incentives to care homes to take patients regardless of their unknown Covid status. This decision was made as an ‘emergency decision’ and therefore outside of the usual scrutiny process. Senior members of the cabinet are also privately expressing frustration about lack of access to information and lack of consultation on important decisions. Rows break out in audit committee over the Labour administration’s continuing insistence on keeping audit committee in the dark.

I’m also not sure what I find the most remarkable: is it that the Leader of the council is not included in the group of officers that run the council, insofar as the exercise of emergency powers is concerned, or the fact that the Leader is happy to accept this situation? The emergency powers were designed to allow the council to take urgent actions and intended to last just hours or a few days at most. Four months on, we still don’t have the democratically elected leader of the council directly involved in the decisions deriving from the exercise of emergency powers.

I regret that many Labour members (with some notable exceptions) seem content with and motivated only by the status they associate with being a city councillor, but care little for the fact that the role is being diminished to the point of irrelevance. Attempts by me and my colleagues to persuade them to do the right thing and protect the role of the councillor fall on deaf ears. Whilst online meetings can be useful when there is no alternative in a crisis, they are in no way a substitute for proper meetings. Despite this, there is resistance from the Labour administration to re-convening even hybrid meetings, let alone a proper return to full accountability.

Labour Birmingham remains a fully paid up member of the anti-car club. Even when John Lewis decided to close their flagship store in the Bull Ring and we saw press reports about how the city-centre driving tax might have influenced this ( Clean air zone blamed for closure ), Labour stuck dogmatically to their plans to tax hard working motorists for bringing cars into the city. To whatever extent the plan influenced the closure, it is hard to deny that anti-business / anti-car policies will discourage investment. If the city centre is harder and less convenient to access, then this is bound to discourage shoppers and business people from visiting.

Labour seized on the Covid crisis to attempt to introduce a 20mph speed limit as a default throughout Birmingham. Fortunately, they couldn’t do this without the approval of the Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and their request was turned down. I wrote to him to object to Labour’s plans. Ironically, new reports show that one of the areas with worst congestion (and which is densely populated) is Birmingham’s ring road (e.g. Dartmouth Circus ). If Labour are successful in implementing their new tax under the justification of clean air, then they will be moving extra cars and pollution to some of the areas where air pollution is already worst.

Andy Street: The West Midlands is rising to the challenge of building a better future

11 Aug

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

A few weeks ago, in the West Midlands, the Prime Minister sent out a clarion call to construction – with his plan to get Britain building. Against the backdrop of Dudley College’s Advance II campus, the PM announced the fast-tracking of £5 billion of major projects that would help the nation build its way back to health.

The West Midlands was the perfect place to set out this plan – because we are already rising to the challenge of building a better future, pioneering new technologies to create vital jobs and build more homes.

Weeks before, our region had set out its own long-term blueprint for recovery. It requires significant investment from the Government – £3.2 billion over the next three years – covering everything from construction to the automotive sector and investing in skills.

Broadly in line with the £2.7 billion investment we have secured since 2017, our ambitious blueprint reflects our economic success of recent years. For the UK to fully recover, all of its regions must recover too – creating a stronger country with a more robust, balanced economy. Our plan is an example of confident regional leadership setting out what it needs to bounce back.

Last week we saw the Government endorse that ambition. The vital funding we need began to flow, with £66 million from the Government’s Get Britain Building fund, for a package of eight “shovel ready” schemes here.

Crucially, all eight projects will make an immediate difference by helping to create and secure jobs for local people. This money is also an investment in our future, to cement the West Midlands’ place as a global leader in green and clean technology, life sciences, transport of the future, and construction.

The schemes form part of our region’s blueprint for recovery, drawn up by the West Midlands Combined Authority and our constituent members. With this extra money, we can get started on them straight away, creating thousands of jobs and generating further investment.

They also encapsulate what I have been trying to achieve as Mayor of the West Midlands.

First and foremost, before a spade hits the ground, they show how the people of the West Midlands have built a formidable team.

By working together as a region, our member boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton always achieve far better results. Our three Local Enterprise Partnerships authored the latest bids for Government money, backed to the hilt by our seven councils. Where in the past competing local interests may have undermined each other, these latest schemes present a shared vision that will benefit all.

This is key to my role as mayor, bringing different councils, local enterprise partnerships, business groups and the teams behind individual schemes together to fashion a compelling, united pitch.

Second, these projects focus on the creation of high-quality jobs, which are so vital as we plot our economic recovery post Coronavirus.

We know a dynamic life sciences sector can play a key part in the economic future of the West Midlands. An investment of £10 million will provide innovation spaces and research laboratories at the Birmingham Health Innovation Campus. Our region’s role as a test bed for the new 5G network provides another opportunity, and investment will help small and medium sized business to develop ground-breaking 5G apps.

There is also investment to ensure the region reaps long-term job benefits from two major events on the horizon. Coventry City of Culture will get £6 million to support various initiatives to make the most of the opportunities presented by next year’s celebrations – including the building of a new heritage park. And we are ensuring the legacy of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022 extends across the region, with £3.9 million towards constructing improved facilities at the Ricoh Arena, again in Coventry.

Thirdly, these quick-turnaround schemes will significantly push forward my long-term transport plan for the region. Following on from the rebuilding of Coventry and Wolverhampton stations, £15 million will help redevelop University Station in Edgbaston, which is one of the busiest stations in the West Midlands and will be a key gateway for visitors for the Commonwealth Games.

In the Black Country, a new Very Light Rail Innovation Centre will develop modes of transport which are both green, cheaper and quicker to deliver than traditional tram or rail. More investment will see this technology transform public transport in Coventry.

Finally, and perhaps most tangibly, last week’s announcement recognises the West Midland’s achievements in house building and provides the investment needed to lay the foundations for a new era in home construction here.

Before Coronavirus hit, our region was building record numbers of homes, achieving results considerably above the national average. At the root of that success was our “brownfield first” policy.

I make no bones about my belief in the need to always target brownfield sites when it comes to new developments, regenerating derelict areas to ease the pressure on our Green Belt and open spaces. We have shown that this is a viable policy. It removes contaminated eyesores, rejuvenates communities and protects the environment.

The exciting investment in the National Brownfield Institute at Wolverhampton will cement our position as a national leader in remediation and construction technology, ensuring we have the local skilled workforce to build the homes we need.

With efforts now being made to speed up the planning process, the West Midlands stands ready to develop the technology and new skills needed to get Britain building.

As we continue to tackle the Coronavirus pandemic, we face significant challenges on the road to recovery, not least the threat of a fluctuating “R rate” and further lockdowns. Yet construction – an industry used to stringent safety measures and better suited to social distancing – is a sector that can kickstart our economy.

By backing these eight shovel-ready schemes, the Government has begun to deliver the investment we need.

Andy Street: Innovation and investment are turning the Black County blue

14 Jul

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

Today, July 14, is the date on which a pivotal moment in British history occurred – a flash of brilliance in the West Midlands that set us on the road to the world we know today. Yet this date, the day in 1712 that the first steam engine hissed into operation, isn’t widely known across the UK.

It’s only in the Black Country, where that engine was built, that July 14 is marked each year. And today, the people of this proudly independent and unique place will celebrate its role in sparking the Industrial Revolution, in our annual Black Country Day festivities.

I want to use this column to explain how the Black Country continues to quietly influence the national agenda by pioneering new technology, attracting global recognition from UNESCO – and being at the heart of the political change that smashed Labour’s red wall.

People sometimes think I am Mayor of Birmingham – I am not. The Black Country is just as big as the Second City; a cultural and historic union of four of the West Midlands Combined Authority’s seven constituent boroughs in Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

It is set apart from its West Midlands neighbours by a strong and distinctive identity, great traditions and a lyrical dialect that is only confused with ‘Brummie’ by people not from these parts. But while proud of its past, this is an area forging a better future through the innovation and invention that has always burned there.

The Black Country is quite literally ‘Middle England’, sitting at the heart of the nation. And it is also now at the heart of the Government’s agenda as we look to kickstart the economy and reawaken industry.

The Prime Minister chose Dudley as the setting to make the keynote speech in which he revealed his New Deal – focusing on infrastructure and construction to drive the UK’s recovery. Why Dudley? Dudley is a brilliant example of how innovation, ambition and investment in infrastructure are already reawakening the local economy and bringing tangible, visible change.

Appropriately, he chose the site of Dudley College’s Technology Institute to outline his vision, a new facility that will create the local engineers and innovators of the future. Dudley’s town centre is on the cusp of a new future too, as the region’s Metro tram system extends to provide vital connectivity to the rest of the West Midlands, with 17 new stops along the way. In May, Cavendish House, a huge derelict office block that had been a symbol of decay on Dudley’s skyline for years, was torn down.

The energy driving Dudley’s re-emergence is reflected across the Black Country, where innovation and investment are making a real difference in housing and transport.

Most notably, the Black Country is pioneering the reclamation of former brownfield industrial sites to help tackle the housing crisis, while protecting the environment. The Black Country will lead the way on this, through a new £24 million National Brownfield Institute in Wolverhampton, as we invest to regenerate more derelict eyesores.

However, these are more than just blueprints – it’s already happening. In Wolverhampton the first homes have gone on sale at Steelhouse Lane, a former industrial eyesore, while in Walsall sites like the old Caparo engineering works and the Harvestime bakery have got the green light to be used for new housing. In West Bromwich the biggest brownfield site development of all – Friar Park – will see a former sewage works, bigger than 30 football pitches, become a 750-home community.

The Black Country also provides evidence of how investment in transport infrastructure can get local economies moving. This year we have seen diggers in the ground – delivering schemes that have been talked about for years.

On the railways, phase one of the new Wolverhampton city centre station has now opened – proudly decked out in yellow and black to reflect the Old Gold of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Plans are steaming ahead to reopen old railway stations linking Walsall to Wolverhampton, boosting public transport in communities that haven’t had a rail service for decades.

The Black Country’s tradition of invention lives on with technology powering business success. Dudley council has partnered with the Warwick Manufacturing Group, with plans to create a Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre, assembling prototype vehicles and training engineers. In Cradley, Walsall and Smethwick local firms are breaking new ground with modular home construction. Wolverhampton boasts two sites building state-of-the-art aerospace systems.

One brilliant piece of news that may help bring more people to the Black Country was its official recognition as a UNESCO Global Geopark, which was revealed last week. This means Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton join the French wine region of Beaujolais, Vietnam’s Dak Nong, and only seven other UK Geoparks including the Scottish Highlands on this prestigious global list.

This UNESCO honour recognises that behind the industrial and manufacturing might of this remarkable place lies a strong and proud culture, and a people with their own distinct character. Like all Midlanders, they offer quiet confidence and self-effacing humour in place of swagger and bluster – but they value hard work, encourage ambition and inspire ideas.

They are also resilient. In the last few months, as Coronavirus hit, that local character shone through as manufacturers turned over their machinery to make PPE and volunteers rolled up their sleeves to help the vulnerable and isolated. Black Country folk get things done.

As the people who built that first steam engine, they also embrace a clear, decisive vision that powers progress. That’s why, I believe, the Black Country turned blue in the general election, with five Conservative gains making ten MPs across an area previously considered to be a Labour heartland.

The fact is, the local investment I have outlined above is evidence of ‘levelling up’ in action. As we celebrate Black Country Day, this remarkable area and its people are once again showing how investment and innovation can drive real change.

Alan Mak: Britain should champion a new Five Eyes critical minerals reserve system

30 Jun

Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founder of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The on-going trade dispute between the US and China has put the spotlight on so-called “critical minerals”. We in Britain cannot afford to be passive observers. Instead, we should take an active interest in this key strategic and economic issue, and play a leading role in safeguarding access to critical minerals, both for ourselves and our Five Eyes allies. Ensuring our scientists, manufacturers and technology businesses have a secure and reliable supply of critical minerals is vital for Britain’s leadership of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Critical minerals consist of the 17 Rare Earth Elements (REE) recognised by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, with names such as promethium and scandium, plus other economically valuable but relatively rare minerals such as lithium and cobalt (used in batteries), tungsten (used in defence products including missiles), bauxite (the source of aluminium) and graphite (key to battery production).

The REEs have unique magnetic, heat-resistant, and phosphorescent properties that no other elements have, which means they are often non-substitutable. Whilst used only in small quantities, they are key components in a wide range of consumer products from mobile phones, laptops and TVs, and have widespread defence applications in jet engines, satellites, lasers and missiles.

Although they are more abundant than their name implies, REEs and critical minerals are difficult and costly to mine and process. Converting critical minerals embedded in rocks from under the Earth’s crust to separated elements is a complex and costly process which often involves the use of highly concentrated acids and radiation.

China hosts most of the world’s processing capacity and supplied 80 percentemploy of the REEs imported by the US from 2014 to 2017. On average, China has accounted for more than 90 pe cent of the global production and supply of rare earths during the past decade, according to the US Geological Survey.

By contrast, the US has only one rare earth mining facility, and currently ships its mined tonnage to China for processing. Lynas Corporation, based in Australia, is the world’s only significant rare earths producer outside China. Other critical minerals are similarly concentrated in a small number of producer nations. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was responsible for around 90 per cent of the world’s cobalt production in 2018, whilst Guinea dominates bauxite, with around 35 per cent of the world’s reserves.

As globalisation and industrialisation accelerate around the world, critical minerals have become a highly sought-after resource for the high-technology, low-carbon and defence industries. They will play a vital role in Britain’s future plans for economic growth, innovation and green industrialisation, especially as we renew and expand our manufacturing base in the wake of Coronavirus.

Given the national strategic and economic importance of critical minerals, the UK needs to act now and lead efforts to protect our national supply for the future. Neither we nor our Five Eyes allies can remain reliant on one producer for anything, including critical minerals. Here are four steps we should take:

Establish a New Five Eyes critical minerals reserve stockpile

The Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the USA and the UK has been in existence since 1941 and provides the perfect foundation on which we should develop a new critical minerals reserve that would end our collective vulnerability of supply.

The reserve would consist of inter-connected physical national stockpiles of critical minerals, and then extend to become a processing chain that all partners could draw on. The US already maintains stockpiles, and creating others including in Britain would lead to new jobs. The UK is never going to become resource independent, but through international co-operation we can diversify supply and refine, through innovation, the processing of these elements.

Use our international aid budget to secure critical minerals supplies

As the Foreign Office and DFID merge, the UK can align its development goals alongside diplomatic priorities. We should deploy our international aid to unleash the untapped supply of critical minerals in developing countries, effectively funding the start-up of new critical mineral mines and processing plants. This would enhance our supply of these elements and create jobs, transforming communities around the globe through trade, not just aid. China has already implemented a similar strategy in Africa, for example providing Guinea with a $20 billion loan to develop the country’s mining sector.

Create a new National Critical Minerals Council

The Government should establish a new National Council composed of metallurgists, scientists and foreign policy experts to monitor global trends in critical minerals, and advise the Government on rare earths and its strategic stockpile. Given the national security and defence procurement implications, the National Council’s establishment would help to keep this issue at the forefront of future policymaking.

Become the world’s greenest stockpiler by incentivising private sector involvement in critical minerals processing

The Government should provide funding for greater research into how we can improve the processing chain of critical minerals with a focus on how we can tighten environmental controls in this sector internationally.

The UK should establish itself as the world’s “greenest stockpiler” of critical minerals by offering incentives that encourage private sector investment in recycling processes and reward companies that contribute to the UK stockpile. We need more facilities like the University of Birmingham’s Recycling Plant at Tyseley Energy Park, which is pioneering new techniques that are transforming the recycling of critical minerals such as neodymium, which is commonly found in hard disk drives.

The Coronavirus pandemic has taught us the importance of supply chain security, whether for PPE or critical minerals. With our reputation for scientific excellence, global alliances and diplomatic networks, we can help ourselves and our allies strengthen our access to the key minerals that will power our economic growth and innovation potential for decades to come.

This is the first in a three-part series on how to boost our economy after Coronavirus.

Andy Street: Our blueprint setting out the economic ambitions of the West Midlands

30 Jun

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

Last week saw the launch of a blueprint setting out the post-Coronavirus economic ambitions of the West Midlands. As a manufacturing heartland, where draftsmen drew up plans for everything from steam engines to Spitfires, blueprints are in our blood. They illuminate our history. This intentionally ambitious £3.2 billion business case draws a clear trajectory to our region’s future.

As Mayor of the West Midlands, it’s my job to attract as much investment as possible. Rishi Sunak’s bold and decisive actions – notably through the furlough scheme – have provided unprecedented economic support for jobs during lockdown. Now, demands on the public purse are high. All investment must be fully justified, diligently used and – crucially – deliver real results. Every penny counts.

Our region was the UK’s fastest growing outside the capital until Covid-19 struck, and as a hotbed of export, manufacturing, construction and professional services, we play a key role in the UK’s economic success. This new blueprint lays out a powerful business case for how continued investment can spark rapid and sustained recovery, not only for us here but for UK PLC.

Our ambition is deliberate because the stakes are high. Research suggests we could be hit harder than most by the lockdown. When coronavirus struck, the West Midlands was in a strong economic position, with record employment figures and productivity growth well ahead of the national rate. However, our economic mix – dependence on manufacturing and business tourism, as well as a significant contribution from universities – leaves us vulnerable.

By following the blueprint we have drawn up, the Government can demonstrate its commitment to ‘levelling-up’ by backing the people of the West Midlands to deliver.

We need to do everything we can to get back on our feet quickly and return to the levels of success we were enjoying before the outbreak hit. That means driving a rapid economic recovery, safeguarding more than 135,000 jobs while building thousands of new homes. It also means learning the lessons of the financial crash of 2008/09, and listening to business.

Investment is crucial. However, while we need significant investment from the Government – £3.2 billion over the next three years – this is broadly in line with the £2.7 billion investment we have secured since 2017, which supported strong economic success here.

Our business plan is to build on our success and on the investment we have already attracted from Government, while leveraging much more private and public sector investment locally, including from our universities.

The blueprint sets out a business case for investments, while outlining the economic benefits they would deliver. For example, it directly supports our automotive sector by harnessing clean technology and electrification. A major investment package, including £250 million towards a Gigafactory producing state-of-the-art batteries, will unlock 51,700 green jobs.

The building of HS2, next year’s Coventry City of Culture festivities and the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games present opportunities to create jobs for local people. By accelerating major infrastructure investment and supporting the recovery of the tourism and cultural sector we can unlock 33,000 jobs.

Then there is the West Midlands’ growing reputation as a hotbed for health research. By investing in healthcare innovation we can protect 3,200 jobs, while improving the health of our population.

Improving transport, housing and digital infrastructure will play a key part in a rapid recovery, while laying the foundations for future economic strength. We can build better transport and digital links to drive productivity and create thousands of jobs in construction. Schemes include extending rail, metro and bus routes, with cash for enhanced digital connectivity and to accelerate fibre connectivity in deprived areas. Reopening long-closed railway stations will better connect people to employment opportunities, attract investment into once-isolated areas and improve productivity.

The West Midlands has pioneered the regeneration of brownfield sites to tackle the housing crisis, while protecting the environment. We even have our own regional definition of ‘affordable housing’ applied at planning level by the West Midlands Combined Authority. We want to build 35,000 new homes – 15,000 of which will be affordable – with a focus on housing key workers. Plans include using a £200m investment package to regenerate derelict eyesores and £24 million for a new National Brownfield Institute in Wolverhampton, which will be a centre of excellence for land reclamation.

Investment to equip people with the skills needed for the future aims to help get them back into work. This includes helping 38,400 young people obtain apprenticeships and work experience, retraining 20,000 workers for in-demand sectors such as health and social care, logistics and business services, and upskilling 24,000 for jobs for the future.

Finally, we want to back the region’s businesses with support schemes – including helping them navigate their way through the post-lockdown world – creating or safeguarding 43,900 jobs.

This ambitious business case is based on our region’s experiences not only of recovering from the last downturn, but on the successes of the last three years. The blueprint has been developed as a team effort between the region’s local enterprise partnerships, universities, business groups and local authorities.  Crucially, some of our biggest employers have also shared their insights about how the region can play its part in securing a strong national recovery, putting central investment to good use.

For the UK to fully recover, all of its regions must recover too – creating a stronger country with a more robust, balanced economy.