Andy Street: Investing in transport is the perfect vehicle to deliver Levelling Up

19 Apr

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

As Mayor of the West Midlands, it’s my job to bring the region’s seven constituent boroughs together and ensure that no areas are left behind when it comes to investment – a kind of internal ‘levelling up’. Transport, which falls under my remit, provides a powerful tool in achieving this aim. It connects communities together, injects investment, and gives residents access to opportunities and jobs.

This month saw the allocation of Government CRSTS funding (City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements), heralding huge investment in local transport networks across the UK. I want to explain how this will continue to drive levelling up in the West Midlands, how it will help us achieve our climate goals, and how it represents a vote of confidence in devolved decision making.

And, as we look ahead to next month’s local elections, I also want to explain how Conservative successes in the West Midlands have been underpinned by the delivery of real, tangible improvement in transport.

Over the next five years, £1.05billion of CRSTS funding will be spent in the West Midlands, a figure which rises to £1.3billion with local top-ups. Our transport strategy has three broad priorities. The plans focus on decarbonisation, with our aim to be a net zero carbon economy by 2041. Then there are two ambitions which chime with the levelling up agenda – reaching poor areas of connectivity and driving inclusive economic growth.

We have learned that speed of delivery is key, and the first four major projects have already been identified. £24 million will be used to seek sites for, plan, and deliver a network of 10 electric vehicle charging stations across the region. £43 million will extend the West Midlands Metro depot at Wednesbury to service the region’s growing tram fleet and network – including the extension to Dudley in 2024. £17 million will be spent on upgrading the Metro power supply on the Wolverhampton to Birmingham line, for the first time since it opened 22 years ago, while £56 million will deliver phase two of our Sprint bus routes.

These will be just the first schemes to proceed from an expansive transport strategy that includes a Very Light Rail System in Coventry, the capping of ticket prices, reopened railway stations, and new gateways in places like Sutton Coldfield. This latest money links in with existing plans which target specific parts of our network, such as buses.

Here in the West Midlands, before COVID struck, the bus was clearly the most popular form of transport. 267 million journeys were made a year compared to 50 million for rail and about 7 million on the region’s Metro tram system. We were one of the few places in Britain where bus use was rising.

Our Bus Service Improvement Plan allows us to access a share of the new £3 billion transformational Government funding, improving services, keeping fares low, and backing pioneering ideas such as our ‘bus on demand’ scheme, which has proven a great success in supporting more rural communities.

Improved public transport will pay a crucial part in our climate change ambitions by persuading people not to use their cars. We are also benefitting from the Government’s Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas fund (ZEBRA) to the tune of £30 million, allowing us to buy 124 hydrogen-fuelled electric buses. Hydrogen buses consume four times less fuel compared to diesel buses and cover 300 miles on a single tank, emitting only water vapour, meaning no carbon dioxide or other harmful gases are being pumped into the air. Birmingham City Council has already invested in 20 of these vehicles, while Coventry is set to become one of only two places in the UK to get an entirely electric bus fleet, which is fitting for a city that has been the epicentre of transport innovation for generations.

But this isn’t just about leveraging public money. The West Midlands Bus Alliance is a partnership between Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), which is part of the West Midlands Combined Authority, bus operating companies, the Safer Travel team, and passenger group Transport Focus. This alliance model brings the best of public and private sectors together, resulting in not only huge private sector investment but collaborative, joined-up thinking that has made the network itself work better for local people. For example, National Express, our leading service provider, has worked hard to cut fares while also investing massively in its fleet – with 350 impressive ‘platinum’ buses now serving the conurbation.

And underscoring all of this development is a commitment to encourage active travel, persuading our residents to take the healthy option whenever possible and get about under their own steam. At least £250 million of the investments planned for the CRSTS cash will go to projects designed to also enable cycling or walking.

Nationally, the CRSTS money is a vote of confidence in devolution and the Mayoral model. The money was only available to ‘city regions’ with a Mayor in place, and its five-year timetable firmly places local decision making at its heart. Locally, it represents the latest in a long line of significant investments by consecutive Conservative governments in the West Midlands transport network, and evidence that we continue to make a compelling case to attract the funds we need – as we have done since I became Mayor.

This is a region that for decades had failed to attract needed investment. That changed under a Conservative Mayor. The year before I took office, we spent £38 million. This year, we are spending £403million. Before we got a penny from CRSTS, transport spending here had increased seven-fold. I believe that the ability to attract that investment, allied with the local determination to deliver visible improvements within our communities, has been a pivotal factor in Conservative successes in the region.

Levelling up aims to create a more balanced economy, ensuring investment and opportunity reaches communities across the nation. In the West Midlands we are proving that transport investment, allied with local decision making, can provide a powerful vehicle to deliver this critical mission.

Jenevieve Treadwell: Rural communities also need “levelling up”

21 Aug

Jenevieve Treadwell is a researcher for Onward.

In the coming weeks, with the publication of the Levelling Up white paper, the Government’s agenda to deliver on its biggest domestic policy priority will take shape. It is an ambitious project, but this is necessary in order to tackle complex, ingrained inequality. As there is no one single problem, uniformly applied, there can be no quick fix. A fact illustrated in the Prime Minister’s levelling up speech. From fighting crime to football pitches, illness to infrastructure and high streets to homeownership, levelling up will work to create opportunity throughout the UK.

Yet in the face of such a far-reaching programme, it is important to remember that the devil often lies in the detail. These places, like the problems they face, are not homogeneous. Rural communities, like the rest of the UK, face hurdles to opportunity and success. But the type of obstacles faced differs wildly between places. In particular, levelling up rural communities will be complicated by demography and geography. These factors shape, among other things, the nature of crime, the experience of inequality and determine access to opportunity and facilities.

The demographic composition of rural areas differs from the other areas of the UK. As younger people move away from rural areas, these same places are becoming proportionally older than their urban equivalents, bringing with it higher associated social and medical care costs. Rural communities are also less densely populated than their urban counterparts. In extremes, urban centres, like London, have population densities as high as 5,700 people per square kilometre versus rural areas with population densities as low as 50 people per square kilometre.

Running a centralised service becomes significantly more costly and difficult when it needs to adjust to the low density and high degree of diversity of context and need across these areas. For instance, in rural areas, common crimes include dog attacks, fly-tipping and increasingly, cybercrime. As farms have diversified, farmers have increasingly taken on new technologies and practices, however, despite their keen adoption, knowledge of the risks of these services is limited. This has led to an increase in cybercrime. While the vast swathes of open countryside and back roads make the policing of many of these crimes difficult. As a result, the 20,000 police officers promised by the Prime Minister are unlikely to be of service to rural communities, where preventing crime cannot practicably be a matter of bobbies on the rural beat.

Similarly, large infrastructure projects, while undoubtedly important, will not make a vast difference in the day-to-day lives of rural communities whose local bus service remains unfunded. Rural communities often lack intra- and inter-area connectivity. In 2017-18, out of the 88 local transport authorities, 56 had either reduced or spent nothing on supported bus services. This is not a recent phenomenon and will be well known to some readers.

It is not only physical infrastructure that is lacking. While it is certainly true that in the two years since this Government was formed it has had huge success in the spread of gigabit connectivity – from 6 to almost 60 per cent coverage – it is also true that the spread has not been uniform. Access to a download speed of above 10 Mbps is a right according to Ofcom. However, it is one not enjoyed by 57 per cent of rural communities.

While this is in part a natural reflection of the challenging geography of rural areas it is also a consequence of insufficient funding. Visible in the downgrading of the government’s gigabit target from 100 to 85 per cent coverage.

This lack of connectivity is destructive. People are limited in their access to healthcare services, as well as educational and employment opportunities. Without the required infrastructure to take people to new jobs and training centres or connect them with online learning and working platforms, reskilling and upskilling are going to be challenging. With insufficient opportunity to better their situation, families and individuals are left with little choice but to relocate, leaving behind smaller and older communities. And so the cycle continues.

It is a vicious cycle but not an inevitable one. As the Prime Minister’s speech outlined, there is space in the levelling up agenda for local leadership and place-based solutions. To begin, all that is necessary is the recognition of difference. Happily, many community groups have been leading the way in this. Free, accessible training sessions on cybersecurity are being run by a diverse range of actors, from local charities like Rural Action Derbyshire to local police-led initiatives. While in Warwickshire, in collaboration with police, farmers are using drones to help in the fight against theft and other illegal activities.

Collaboration may also be the answer to connectivity barriers. Community bus services, designed to cater to the specific needs of a community, have helped to fend off isolation experienced by individuals in hard to get to places while managing to avoid the prohibitive costs of wider-reaching services. These community-led initiatives have found solutions to geography that national operators struggled to overcome.

Supporting rural communities to get the most out of the levelling up agenda means empowering and financing those who are already taking responsibility for their areas. The application of a one-size fits all policy developed with an urban setting in mind is inappropriate and will ultimately be unsustainable. Instead, rural communities need and deserve innovative, tailored solutions.

Johnson puts the case for more localism in England. Now he must deliver it.

19 Jul

The unconvincing plan for growth apart, and the aftermath of Coronavirus not withstanding, ConservativeHome identified three main areas of policy weakness in the Queen’s Speech: social care, the delivery of net zero and English localism.

The first two turn out to be connected to the last – as are the whole country’s future prospects for growth and recovery.  Why?  Because, as David Lidington put it recently

“Whether it’s delivering an industrial strategy, or high quality apprenticeships, or integrated transport or a joined-up plan to implement net-zero carbon, we are likely to get better and faster results, and to encourage innovation and experiment…

…if these things are done by the central government of the UK working in genuine partnership with elected devolved, local and regional leaders…

…who in turn are able both to use their convening power to rally business, education, cultural and third sector organisations and through their endorsement give additional democratic legitimacy to the plan”.

Boris Johnson began to correct that weakness in his speech last week, in which he sketched out what may be taken from the postponed devolution white paper and put into the coming levelling-up white paper.

The nub of the Prime Minister’s case was that the mayoral experiment is working for cities and their suburban hinterland, and that the towns and countryside could do with a bit of it.

“Local leaders now need to be given the tools to make things happen for their communities, and to do that we must now take a more flexible approach to devolution in England,” he said.

Which could mean “a directly elected mayor for individual counties”; or devolution “for a specific local purpose like a county or city coming together to improve local services like buses”.

Ideas on a postcard, please, to our recently-departed columnist, Neil O’Brien. Or, as Johnson put it, “come to Neil O Brien or to me with your vision for how you will level up, back business, attract more good jobs and improve your local services”.

Put like that, the Prime Minister’s case sounds lamentably underdeveloped, open to fresh thinking, or simply cautious, depending on how you look at it.  But he, Robert Jenrick and others will have to make the following decisions.

At the outset, whether or not to push for uniformity, or something very close to it.  Both of the main schemes that would ensure it are out: regional government and an English Parliament.

Labour tried to make the North East a start-up zone for regional government, and the project was duly trounced in a referendum – the event which gave politics early sight of James Frayne and Dominic Cummings.

An English Parliament would institutionalise potential conflict between a First Minister for England, who would run the bulk of the country, and a Prime Minister stripped of responsibility for nearly everything other than foreign affairs, defence and security policy.

Which returns us to the options on Johnson’s table.  He could sit back and wait for local leaders to come to him.  And the map of local government in England would continue to look much like the patchwork we see today.

There is a good case for this approach.  “A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome,” as Johnathan Werren wrote on this site.

The downside is that if that, with so many cooks preparing the broth, nothing much might be served up: experience suggests that county, district, town and parish councils don’t easily come to agreement.

Some senior Tory figures in local government, and elsewhere, are keen on unitarisation – some has already happened (as recently in Buckinghamshire); more is happening (as in North Yorkshire), and more may happen still.

But ConservativeHome finds no appetite near the top of government for an attempt to force amalgamation on unwilling Conservative-controlled authorities: the whips have enough trouble with agitated councillors and backbenchers, thank you very much.

Nonetheless, experience suggests that if the Government wants more local mayors, it will have to push for them – and, if local people are given a say in a referendum, they tend to push back.

Remember May 3, 2012: the day on which ten cities voted for or against new mayors.  Only one, Bristol, went for change.  Since then, some authorities, such as Hartlepool, have voted to abolish their elected mayors; others, like North Tyneside, have not.

There are further problems about political legitimacy.  The Tees Valley has a population of about 1.2 million people.  Kent has one of approximately 1.8 million.  It follows that if an elected mayor can work for it might for the other.

Government sources also named other well-populated counties, such as Lancashire and Warwickshire.  But would it be practicable to  bundle ones with smaller populations together under a single mayor?

One of the problems that is wrecking the police commissioner project is the sense that there is no real local ownership of whoever is elected to the post.  Might not enforced, multi-county, amalgamated mayoralities run the same risk?

But if, to use the Prime Minister’s own example, a county or city comes together “to improve local services like buses”, who or what is to take charge, if not a Mayor?

Mention of an actual service is a reminder not to put the cart, structure, before the horse, services.  The first question is what to make more local.  The second is how to do it.

Which takes us to the mayors in place already.  Consider Ben Houchen in Teesside.  He already controls education for people over 18.  Wouldn’t it make sense for this to be joined up to that provided to people over 16 – given the stress he places on skills?

Andy Street made the same case for the West Midlands in a recent column on this site.  Why not go further, and let Houchen, Street and some of the other mayors pilot more local control?

For example, they could retain a slice, say, of airport passenger duty, vehicle excise, and VAT.  Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan recommended the full devolution of the last in The Plan, opening the door to tax competition between local authorities.

Johnson said that counties could “take charge of levelling up local infrastructure like the bypass they desperately want to end congestion and pollution and to unlock new job or new bus routes plied by clean green buses because they get the chance to control the bus routes”.

“Or they can level up the skills of the people in their area because they know what local business needs.”  The Prime Minister was careful to add that “we need accountability”.

But the thrust of his case was there are fewer “irresponsible municipal socialist governments” and that “most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

Johnson has no experience of running a major domestic department.  His sole government experience at Cabinet level was in the Foreign Office.

Nonetheless, he has been mayor of the biggest city in the whole country, serving two terms.  He will need to draw on that experience as he decides which localist options to take.

One thing is certain – though it won’t be what anxious MPs and councillors want to hear.  If the mayoral experiment had needed existing councils’ and sitting councillors’ agreement to happen, it wouldn’t have happened.

So since the Prime Minister wants more localism, and rightly, he must ready himself for a row – to add to the one already raging about housing and planning.  One can’t serve up a muncipal omelette without breaking eggs.

Rachel Wolf: Tests for the delivery of levelling up, and levers with which to deliver it

10 May

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

The Conservatives have won more stunning victories. Why?

First, the approach that drove the 2019 victory continues to deliver.  Second, vaccines and furlough have rewarded sitting governments: they have demonstrated competence, agility, and a willingness to spend.

The next great test won’t come for a while. Boris Johnson is Merrie England: he is the perfect leader for our summer of freedom. The economy will temporarily boom. Furlough won’t be withdrawn until September. Provided it stops raining, everyone should feel good.

But the Government will be acutely conscious that the next six months is also the last window for policies that can deliver by 2024. They will also know that, by Christmas, any lingering effects of what my partner and ConservativeHome columnist James calls ‘furlough morphine’ will have worn off. Some economic scarring is likely.

In other words, ‘levelling up’ now needs to get real. This is clearly the plan in the next few months, starting with the Queen’s Speech tomorrow, and then leading to the Levelling Up paper.

Truth be told, levelling up is a poor slogan. It has never done very well in our focus groups – people find it confusing and then, when it’s explained to them, mildly irritating. They don’t think they’re ‘levelled down’, they think they’re ignored. Equally, they find the idea that in four years they’re suddenly going to become London and the South East bizarre – it’s not what they want, and they don’t think it’s credible.

But the danger of ‘levelling up’ is not that it confuses voters, but that it confuses policy. Too many seem to equate it with transforming regional productivity, affecting every town in provincial England and Wales, within a Parliament. Obviously if that’s what voters wanted, they would be disappointed.

Of course regional productivity and innovation are vital, and longer term work should begin. But there are also shorter-term gains. Here are some important ones, some obvious levers, and ways to measure progress.

The high street test.

People care deeply about where they live. They ‘measure’ decline by their town or city centre. Here’s what you hear time and time again: shops boarded up; graffiti on the cenotaph; drug addicts; no monthly market; no decent playground.

In other words, it’s depressing to be in, feels mildly unsafe, and there’s nothing to do.

  • Levers: Business rates; soft infrastructure (local museums, libraries, playgrounds); events including markets and protecting green spaces; incentives for lower margin, often civic enterprises from soft play to youth clubs to sports. Decent bus services. Core public services in the town centre.

It is crucial that ‘economic investments’ (many of dubious effectiveness) do not trump these. Yes, it becomes easier to sustain this kind of infrastructure when people are wealthier. But it is worth remembering that many of these things existed when people were much, much poorer.

  • Tests: vacancy rates. Footfall. Number of events. And, of course, what people tell you about their town.

The safety test

Under-reporting of crime is a big problem, and there is reason to believe it disproportionately affects the Red Wall. Burglary, shoplifting and vandalism are particular problems.

Fraud, too, is a national problem with unequal consequences. Pensioners in Red Wall seats who may own their own homes but have very modest savings and no private income are particularly exposed to losing their life savings. Meanwhile, specific estates suffer from low police presence, and deprived coastal communities and small towns are the targets of County Lines.

In other words, crime is a particular issue in particular ways in these places.

  • Levers: the extra police will help. We also need to change the way in which Home Office funding is allocated and put more emphasis on localised funds like the Safer Streets Funds (which pays for things people want like CCTV). We need a massive, revived focus on fraud – it is getting insufficient airtime and attention.
  • Tests: the obvious source is surveyed crime, but the government also needs better ways to measure crime than annual face to face interviews,

The Opportunity Test 1: Skills and Jobs. 

Training and apprenticeships are a huge priority for working class people. They want local training opportunities – ideally leading to local jobs. We know there’s huge untapped demand for technical level skills in the labour market, and that many adults want to retrain. It remains one of the great challenges of our system.

  • Levers: the Queen’s Speech will create a proper lifetime learning entitlement. Now it needs more funding and less bureaucracy (which is already blighting other skills entitlements and apprenticeships).

On jobs, big changes will be long-term. As well as incentives for private sector investment, the public sector is an opportunity. People want trained people to stay or return home. A start – and one of the most popular things universities can support – would be incentivising public sector graduates (like teachers, nurses, and doctors) to stay in areas where recruitment is a challenge.

  • Tests: number of adults in retraining. Reduction in skills shortages in ‘technical’ roles. I’d include reduced reliance on foreign skilled labour in specific areas (such as parts of construction, who are presumably going to see investment, and therefore job opportunities through net zero and transport).

The Opportunity Test 2: Schools

Schools perform less well in many Conservative target areas. In the past, I would have said this was a moral imperative, but not an electoral one – school quality wasn’t a big vote winner. But I think there’s now greater desire from parents (and we’ll be publishing a report with the Centre for Policy Studies on this in the near future). They are more aware of how their children are doing, how far behind some of them are, and how differently schools responded to the pandemic.

  • Levers: incentives for teachers to go to underperforming areas. Renewed focus on academies and free schools. Ofsted inspections with a focus on standards. Continuing the drive on behaviour. There should also be new focus on the most gifted through programmes in schools and more academically selective sixth forms.
  • Test: Ofsted ratings (including number of failing schools); percentage getting five good GCSEs in core subjects (called the EBACC).

Finally, an overall measure: retention of people and inward migration – in other words, do people want to stay and move to the towns of England? It is implausible that this will transform in a few years, but you might start to see a little movement towards the end of the Parliament (and post-Covid home working will accelerate this effect if places are nice to live in).

You will no doubt have issue with many (if not all) of these levers and measures. There are some omissions (most obviously health). But my point is that it is possible to generate and measure progress within a few years. The job won’t be done, but people will see the path. That shouldn’t diminish the importance of the longer-term, even harder job of thinking through regional growth and productivity. But if you don’t get these areas right, Johnson and the Conservatives won’t be given permission to carry on.

Andy Street: I haven’t raised a mayoral tax during my term, and commit to not doing so if I’m re-elected

23 Feb

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

As we await next week’s Budget from the Chancellor, here in the West Midlands we’ve just considered our own local financial plans for the next year. Approved by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), it is a budget of more than £900 million – funding infrastructure, regeneration and job training schemes that can support our post-Covid-19 recovery.

After such a difficult twelve months, and with significant challenges ahead, this year’s financial plan for the region stands out in terms of its ambition and breadth, delivering on my core commitments of new jobs, better transport and more homes.

But our plans aren’t just about big spending to kick-start the economy, they’re about public funds working hand-in-hand with private sector investment. This is about delivering investment into projects that are based on solid business cases.

In this column, I want to tell you about how we intend to spend that investment and also explain how, as Mayor, I believe it’s vital that I set a financial example to ask only for money when it is needed – and ensure it is used properly.

So what’s in the region’s budget? For a start, there is £142 million towards skills and training – to support people as they adapt to the new world we face and get high-quality, stable jobs in the industries of the future.

Despite the pandemic, we have already made a good start on the 20-year transport plan that I unveiled 12 months ago, and this budget includes a further £363 million towards delivering our ever-expanding Metro lines, reopened railway stations and better, greener buses.

Then there is ‘brownfield first’, our ground-breaking policy of reclaiming derelict industrial sites for development. Our budget includes £116 million towards maintaining our progress in making ‘brownfield first’ a reality, not a slogan – regenerating communities and easing the pressure on our Green Belt.

Plus, of course, millions have been allocated to other big regional investments we have secured, for a whole raft of projects that are generating jobs and sustaining livelihoods now – projects such as the Commonwealth Games, Coventry City of Culture, the rollout of 5G technology and many more.

All told, since becoming Mayor four years ago, we have brought in £3 billion of new Government funding, a figure rising every day, and topped up with millions more given to our councils, and supported by us as a regional body.

When the pandemic struck, the West Midlands economy was motoring, with record employment, record housebuilding and the strongest growth anywhere outside of London. Government support played a huge part in that success, but I believe that our ability as a region to put together compelling business cases has been crucial to winning that investment. Now, as we plot our recovery post-pandemic, this approach will be more important than ever.

It’s not surprising that I do things differently as Mayor, when you consider that I came to the role from a business background, rather than via the world of politics. My business experiences have certainly informed how I tackle the role, in terms of setting strategy, building a team, ensuring delivery and understanding that the UK’s regions are in a competitive race.

However, in financial terms, my 30 years at John Lewis have meant I build a budget based on business deals, not political decisions. Every penny we have brought into the region has been won through coherent business arguments, project by project, and working hard to make the case with Government.

Throughout my time as Mayor, I have worked with Ministers to secure the funding we need from across Government. I haven’t done this through megaphone diplomacy, or seeking out TV cameras to make demands, but through approaching each project as a business deal – and making sure we land as many as possible. Naturally, this approach also knits well with the business world, leading to big private sector investments which drive our economy forward.

There could have been another way. When it was established in 2017, the office of the Mayor was given considerable powers – powers I have often argued should be extended, for example to decentralise decision-making from London, or to give regions more ability to direct how money is spent locally.

However, there is one significant area where I have not used the powers on offer to me. During my time in office, I have not used the ability available to the Mayor to introduce a precept – an additional Mayoral tax.

In the last four years I have never used this power to tax the people of the West Midlands and, where we have borrowed, it has been to push forward projects – and never at a rate which means citizens end up with a precept.

Our model of retaining local business rates has also helped balance the books, by ensuring we benefit from the fruits of our strong economic growth, paying in part for the work of the WMCA.

I could have got our region into heavy debt to make my transport plan happen, or raised extra taxes to press ahead with Brownfield First. As a person with a business background, and someone who believes good housekeeping, this hasn’t been my way. Areas served by Labour mayors levy a precept. This has not happened here.

As households across the region face the hardships caused by Coronavirus, I’m proud to say that this year we have once again balanced our books and delivered a budget that hasn’t cost local people a penny in extra tax from their Mayor.

It is an approach I want to continue. After four years of no extra tax due to the Mayor’s office, I am planning to do the same again if I am fortunate enough to continue in this job – that’s zero tax again for another three years. I do not intend to introduce a precept.

I consider it a great privilege to be the Mayor of the region where I grew up, the place that made me what I am. I passionately believe that the office of Mayor should exist to the benefit of local people, not to their cost. By continuing to approach this job in a business-like way, I am confident I can continue to bring real money into their region, without taking it out of their pockets.

Andy Street: Our pioneering bus partnership will get the West Midlands economy moving

15 Dec

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

Bob Neill: There is no good reason to apply the same Covid restrictions throughout London

19 Oct

Sir Bob Neill is MP for Bromley and Chiselhurst, and is Chair of the Justice Select Committee.

I do not naturally sit on the libertarian wing of our Party, and neither am I an adherent of the Great Barrington Declaration proposals that some of my colleagues embrace. I am very much a One Nation Tory and, like my Bromley predecessor, Harold Macmillan, not adverse to state intervention in the right circumstances.

And yet, despite those differences, I find myself agreeing with the view of many who fall into these two former camps: the Government’s approach to this pandemic is not only increasingly clumsy and ill thought through, but in itself, potentially dangerous.

I reach that conclusion based not on ideology but instead, like a growing number of my colleagues, through a frustration that what the Government claims it is doing – targeted local interventions based on the evidence, something I wholeheartedly support – and what it is actually doing – taking a broadbrush to lockdown great swathes of the country – are two very different things.

Our response to Covid-19 should be firmly rooted in empiricism. That was a much harder task in March when far less was known about the virus, how it spreads, who is most at risk, and how it is best treated. Seven months on, and thanks to the genuinely inspiring work of those researchers and experts toiling in the field, we find ourselves in a very different position.

Let me be clear: I have the upmost respect for our medical and scientific advisers. They are tasked with providing their honest and truthful assessment to ministers, including on worst case scenarios, and I give short shrift to anyone who criticises them for doing so.

But, just as it is their job to say how they see it from their particular area of expertise, it the job of politicians to mediate between, on the one hand, the feedback they are receiving from SAGE, and on the other, the very real evidence, seen on every high street and in every city centre, of businesses in free fall. That is no easy balance to strike, but we are elected to make tough decisions.

Regrettably, by moving the entirety of London into Tier 2, the Government is widely missing the mark. As the Prime Minister knows well from his time as Mayor, our capital is a vibrant patchwork of different communities – just one of the things that makes it perhaps the greatest city in the world. From the calm of Richmond Park to the hustle and bustle of Brick Lane, and with a population over three times the size of the UK’s next largest metropolitan area, it’s as diverse as it is big.

Why then is it deemed acceptable to assume that what is necessary in one area will be suitable in another? The London Borough of Bromley, a part of which I am proud to represent, is a case in point. Bordering Kent, and twelve times larger in size than the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, with our large parks, ancient woodlands, and even an open farm or two, you’d be forgiven for forgetting you were just a 25 minute train journey from Charing Cross.

Although cases are rising in Bromley, like many suburbs in the south of the city, they remain considerably lower than in other parts of London (at the time of writing, Bromley has roughly 70 cases per 100,000, compared to 144 in Ealing).

When I made that case to the Health Secretary, the significant number of commuters in our capital was given as the reason for the pursual of this blanket strategy. But again, that simply isn’t born out in the evidence. As of this week, even by the Government’s own statistics, tube journeys are only at 33 per cent compared to the same time last year, and bus journeys 59 per cent. Overground train commuting is also reckoned to be down to 10 to 15 per cent of pre-Coronavirus levels.

The Government should be in no doubt: this one-size fits all approach will have real repercussions, not just for businesses, especially those in the hospitality, events and arts sectors, but also for hundreds of thousands of isolated, elderly or vulnerable people (did anyone consider that Bromley is home to more pensioners than any other London borough?). Additional and targeted support must now be provided.

I do not for one second underestimate the seriousness of this virus or the need to protect the NHS, nor am I against strict interventions, but a far more localised and nuanced approach, as Germany and others have shown is possible, should be the way forward. Clobbering businesses in London to make admittedly difficult political decisions elsewhere more palatable is not.

And finally, if we are to continue to take the public with us, we have to be honest about the broader costs and trade-offs involved. Failing to control the pandemic obviously has serious health consequences, but missed hospital appointments and medical tests for other conditions (some themselves life-threatening) does too, as does isolation and separation from family and friends. The same risk to mental and physical health is there with increased unemployment, or the stress of seeing the collapse of a family business built up over many years.

Of course, we want to protect the NHS, but we will not do that in the long run if we wreck the economy and destroy the tax base that funds it. Sad to say, I do not think we are always getting that balance right.

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.