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

6 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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: 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.

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.