Andy Street: Devolving more spending power can provide the skills we need to drive the recovery

29 Jun

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

The pandemic has been hard on the West Midlands, both in terms of the terrible personal cost to local people and the impact it has had on our economy. Now, as we face the challenges created by Covid, how we equip residents with new skills will be a key element of our recovery.

We are ambitious. I want to generate 100,000 new jobs in just two years here, which would represent the biggest surge in employment growth ever seen in the region. How? By building on growth in sectors like construction and digital, by getting the most out of opportunities like HS2 and the Commonwealth Games, and by seizing the chance to become leaders in emerging fields like the green economy.

To make this happen training will be critical. The region’s young population, its excellent connectivity and strengths in key sectors all provide the ingredients for growth – but to succeed we must have the right skills.

I want to use this column to explain how regional control over adult education is already helping to deliver significant results in skills – and how I believe that success provides a compelling argument for further devolution of spending power.

For many years, the West Midlands suffered from a significant skills gap, with far too many of our residents having no recognisable qualification. Now, things are changing.

Latest figures show that, in 2020, the number of people with NVQ Level 3+ qualifications across the seven boroughs of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) area increased by 120,000 to 1,444,000. At the same time, the number of people with no qualifications reduced by 66,700 to 223,800 in the same period – a remarkable decrease of 23 per cent.

The close working relationship between the WMCA and our many excellent colleges has helped us achieve this – along with the devolution of adult education spending, which has put decision making into local hands.

For two years, the WMCA has had devolved control of the region’s £130 million adult education budget – funding further education providers and working with them to equip local people with the skills actually needed by employers. As a result, tens of thousands of residents are benefiting from valuable qualifications, and businesses are seeing colleges launch courses which will have a real-world impact on the employment market.

Crucially, the West Midlands also boasts a unique collaboration of all colleges across the region, which has helped deliver results. One example of this united approach is Reignite Your Future, a regional skills recovery programme organised by sector-based academies that provides free training courses, creating thousands of opportunities to retrain in direct response to the pandemic.

We know there are jobs in sectors including construction, digital, and health and social care – but local people need the right skills to land these opportunities. Devolved adult education funding means we’re able to help equip residents with the skills needed to do exactly that.

This is not rocket science – it’s a simple question of having the local knowledge to understand where employment demand will be, and then having the spending control to invest in the skills training required.

A great example of this is the huge retro-fitting programme that is going to be needed to make nearly 300,000 homes across the region more energy efficient. This retrofitting would target older homes that have low energy efficiency, which causes households to pay far too much on their energy bills. Work would include insulating walls and double or triple glazing windows.

We are already working with Dudley College on a national pilot scheme to train skilled people to do retrofit jobs, ensuring there is a supply of appropriate people for small businesses setting up in these new arenas.

Also in Dudley, the Institute of Technology will be among the first to start providing T Levels in subjects like digital production, design, surveying and planning from September, all of which are sectors that are expected to provide employment opportunities over the next decade.

Similarly, as our automotive sector continues its switch to electrification, we are beginning to train people to become the mechanics of the future, with the skills needed to keep electric vehicles on the road. The Light Electric and Alternative Fuel (LEAF) Vehicle Training Centre at Walsall College enhances the skills of experienced mechanics and technicians, responding to employers’ needs and helping get local people into good quality jobs.

All of this is being backed up by capital investment to ensure college facilities are equipped to deliver new skills. The creation of the new Institute of Technology in the Black Country has progressed throughout the pandemic, while a bid for £25 million from the Government will help finance a £36 million Higher Education “university park” complex, again at Dudley College. It will provide higher education courses for the health sector and is anticipated to be up and running by Autumn 2024.

Construction is another sector predicted to see significant growth across the region, with recent research suggesting businesses will need to recruit an additional 25,000 new workers by 2025 just to meet demand.

The City of Wolverhampton College recently opened a purpose-built plant training facility, backed by the WMCA, offering high-quality sector-specific training to people of all ages and abilities, from beginner to advanced level.

And the 17.5 million National Brownfield Institute in Wolverhampton will develop land reclamation technology that will provide even more construction opportunities going forward.

Finally, the WMCA is working with colleges and training providers to pioneer ways to deliver digital training, most notably highly-successful Digital Bootcamps that give residents the skillset to deal with the challenge of growing automation. In a great example of localised, targeted delivery, a £5 million Digital Retraining fund was created to train up to 1,900 people over three years. Now there is a clear need for further national agreed funding to be devolved to build on this activity.

In the two years since the WMCA was handed control of the adult education budget, we have seen local decision making and collaborative working make a real difference to the employment prospects of residents.

The figures speak for themselves and are the result of local colleges, employers and business organisations working together to identify what skills will be needed going forward. As we build back better from the pandemic, there is a compelling argument that we should look to expand upon this winning approach.

In my re-election manifesto, I spoke about the need to devolve all 16-18 further education funding to the West Midlands, so that we can ensure that it is aligned with the successful approach we are taking with adult education. I believe it’s now time to consider this next step, to give even more local people the skills they will need to prosper.

Andy Street: The Commonwealth Games will showcase the best of the West Midlands to the world

15 Jun

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

Over the last 18 months, it seems we have been constantly looking forward to better times – to the easing of restrictions, for the roll-out of vaccines, to the reopening of businesses, to see our loved ones. Well, in the West Midlands we have something huge to look forward to next year: the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

As the growing excitement over this summer’s European football championships has shown, nothing lifts the spirits and unites people quite like a major sporting event, and in 2022 our region will host one of the world’s biggest, with a global audience of over one billion. At the Games, more than 6,500 athletes carrying the hopes of 71 countries will compete in 264 events across 18 sports.

Together with the Coventry City of Culture celebrations, which are now underway, the Games will provide a cultural kickstart after the restrictions of the pandemic, boosting the economy and bringing people together to celebrate not only top level sport, but all that is good about our region. This is an incredible opportunity for residents across the West Midlands, and in particular young people, to get involved in a global event, right on their doorstep. Its timing couldn’t be better.

I want to use this column to write about the legacy the Games will leave, not only in terms of new facilities but opportunity.

Key to that will be the “Commonwealth Collective”: 13000 volunteers who will be the public faces of Birmingham 2022 and represent the heart and soul of the event experience for athletes, officials, spectators.

The search to find these volunteers has now begun in earnest. We want to create a dedicated and dynamic group that will reflect the diversity of the West Midlands as well as the modern Commonwealth, putting in an incredible one million hours of volunteer time.

The Games is by far the largest sporting and cultural event ever to be held in the region and the biggest in the UK since the London Olympics. Many remember the ‘Games Makers’ who made London 2012 such a friendly, welcoming experience. The Commonwealth Collective takes that concept and puts an innovative West Midlands spin on it, turning volunteering skills into opportunity.

So, what will the volunteers do? Roles include those all-important ‘meet and greeters’, drivers, first aiders, people to prepare venues, kit carriers, courtside assistants, and everything in between to help the Games run smoothly and create a unique experience right across the region.

The majority of roles don’t need any formal experience or qualifications, because there will be around 250,000 hours of training provided, and volunteers can select preferred areas of interest which include event services, accreditation, transport, sport and media.

While much is made of the physical legacy of large sports events – stadiums, new facilities and transport infrastructure – in the wake of the pandemic we are also determined to ensure that the Games boost skills for everyone involved, young and old. So, while volunteer applicants must be aged 18, a young volunteer programme for 14-17 year olds will begin recruitment in the autumn too. Critically, everyone who volunteers will gain key skills to help with future job prospects.

We are also, of course, using the Games to provide extensive employment opportunities alongside the volunteering roles, with the aim of creating 35,000 jobs.

The Legacy plan set out for the Games earlier this year shows how this will be done. It aims to deliver the first carbon-neutral Commonwealth Games and the largest business and tourism programme of any Games to attract international visitors and investment to the region and the UK.

A major International Business Expo is expected to run alongside the Games, highlighting and promoting commerce in the region and sending out the clear message that Britain is open for business post-pandemic. Our ambition is not only an unparalleled programme of sport but also trade, tourism and investment.

In terms of bricks and mortar, there are the state-of-the-art legacy facilities at the Alexander Stadium and Sandwell Aquatics Centre for community use after the Games. The first phase of the Perry Barr Regeneration Scheme will deliver 1,400 homes, with hundreds more in future phases. Around £350m of procurement spend will benefit businesses across the UK, with the first Commonwealth Jobs and Skills Academy offering a blueprint for reaching disadvantaged groups.

There is also Commonwealth Active Communities, a £4m Sport England fund to harness the power of the Games to support inactive people to become more active and a six-month, UK-wide cultural festival reaching 2.5 million people and prioritising underrepresented communities. Finally, a £6m Commonwealth Games Community Fund from Birmingham City Council will help communities build pride, respect and cohesion by celebrating the Games.

But if the Games is to have a lost-lasting legacy beyond new facilities, it must reach out to  future generations.

So, hundreds of young people will also gain access to new volunteering and employment opportunities, thanks to more than £700,000 from the National Lottery Community Fund. The project will seek to engage with a minimum of 800 disadvantaged young people, working with 20 community-based organisations working close to Games venues in Birmingham, Coventry, Sandwell and Wolverhampton.

The outreach activity will support local young people aged 18 to 30 who are unemployed or at risk of unemployment, and will particularly target those who live in priority wards.

Making sure that the jobs created by the Games go to local people is a key part of my jobs plan to help more than 100,000 residents into employment over the next two years, and is also critical to ensuring the Commonwealth Games is a Games for everyone.

This hugely exciting event is now a little over a year away, and across Birmingham and the West Midlands preparations are being stepped up. I know that the Games will deliver a message of hope and recovery after the pandemic and create wonderful memories for local people of a once-in-a-lifetime global event. They will also leave behind brilliant new facilities that will benefit generations to come.

But as we look to grow the economy post-pandemic, I also believe this Games will have another significant legacy – a legacy of opportunity, through the jobs it creates and its engagement with business. And, of course, through the new skills learned by the 13000 volunteers who will help make it happen.

The benefits of Birmingham 2022 will be felt long after the closing ceremony. That’s something we can all really look forward to.

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: 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.