Sanjoy Sen: Scottish nationalists’ new hardline stance on oil has presented the Conservatives with something of an open goal

10 Dec

Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer. He contested Alyn & Deeside in the 2019 general election.

“It’s Scotland’s Oil” was the rallying cry that put the SNP on the political map in the 1970s. And ahead of the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign envisioned healthy offshore revenues feeding an ‘oil fund’ in an independent Scottish economy. Nicola Sturgeon even called on David Cameron to cut taxes to support the sector following a global price slump.

How things change. After 50 years of production, North Sea output is predictably in terminal decline (barely a third of the 1999 peak) with occasional new discoveries out-weighed by ageing fields dropping off their perch. But, more surprisingly, the SNP are no longer interested. Under pressure at COP26, Sturgeon finally relented, declaring her opposition to Cambo (a major development west of the Shetland Islands), casting doubt over the future over the entire sector.

In the ensuing media storm, Shell (a 30 per cent Cambo partner) announced its exit. Whilst environmentalists are naturally delighted, others fret over the consequences of an early end to North Sea oil. Industry and trades unions have warned of the impact on current jobs – and on the ability of businesses and workers to achieve the ‘just transition’ to clean energy opportunities. Even the SNP faithful are aghast, warning that the economic fallout could irreparably damage the independence campaign. A re-think appears unlikely, however, with Sturgeon now locked into a power-sharing agreement with the Scottish Greens.

But whilst the nationalists may have backed themselves into a corner, there’s no need for the Conservatives to do likewise. And there are sound reasons for doing so: key political, economic and environmental considerations all overlap.

What are the political implications?

Contrary to what we often hear, not everyone is fully signed up to the Thunbergian agenda. Experience from Cumbria shows that local support for new nuclear power and even coal mining can be strong as they create employment in areas where alternatives can be limited. Teesside battled in vain to save its steelworks whilst Coventry’s City of Culture celebrations paid tribute to its lost car industry. And Aberdeen remains proud of its status as the oil capital of Europe. Backing traditional industries is very far from the electoral liability that strategists fear.

With offshore oil and gas reserved to Westminster, the North Sea Transition Deal was signed earlier this year to support 40,000 (mostly Scottish) jobs. Sticking to the plan to safeguard production whilst supporting the shift to new opportunities now gives Scottish voters (especially around Aberdeen) a solid reason to get behind the Conservatives. Meanwhile, Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie is already at odds with his SNP partners over further extraction and has stoked controversy amongst voters with his “hard right” depiction of oil supporters. Unionists should not be slow to capitalise: any split in nationalist support impacts the case for indyref2.

Strengthening energy economics

Early cessation of production brings forward offshore decommissioning activities, a headache for the Treasury which is on the hook for some £24 billion in tax relief. And, needless to say, writing big out cheques to big oil is a PR nightmare for a government committed to net zero. Extending production defers taxpayer costs and buys time for the UK decommissioning supply chain to prepare. It could also see certain liabilities converted into assets if technology developments allow pipelines and platforms to be re-purposed for carbon dioxide storagewindfarm support and hydrogen production.

More significantly, with so much of the discussion framed around the environment, energy security has received scant attention. And past decisions are now back to haunt us, especially the unworkable price cap in combination with the closure of offshore gas storage. (If it’s any consolation, things seem even worse in Europe with ever-growing reliance on Russia.) Until we establish viable alternatives, continued North Sea production reduces our import requirements – and limits our exposure to global instability.

Tackling environmental concerns

And find alternatives we must: we will never be self-sufficient in oil and gas again. So if we’re going to extend domestic production, let’s use the time it buys us wisely. Offshore wind power generation is increasing at pace but to harness its fluctuating output, we need to take big steps in energy storage. This could be via hydrogen which is deployable across electricity, heating and transportation sectors.

Or it could be in grid technology, harnessing the ever-growing combined battery capacity of electric vehicles. (EVs clearly have some way to go but recent progress has been swift and now account for 10 per cent of UK new car sales.) Nuclear, both large-scale and small modular, also needs to be accelerated – sadly, none of these opportunities will be coming to Scotland due to the SNP’s continued opposition.

In the meantime, shutting down our own fields doesn’t reduce emissions. Not unless we intend to sit at home in the dark in order to meet our climate commitments. In fact, shipping in refrigerated cargoes of liquefied natural gas from around the world is far more energy-intensive than pipelining our own supplies from the North Sea. And the Transition Deal backs further improvements by the electrification of UK platforms via new offshore windfarms and subsea interconnector cables, an increasingly common feature in the Norwegian sector.

A month ago, the UK government was in the bad books of the Scottish offshore sector, backing two English carbon-capture developments (Merseyside, Humber-Tees) ahead of the much-fancied Aberdeenshire Acorn project. Since then, the nationalists’ new hardline stance on oil has presented the Conservatives with something of an open goal. If we hold our nerve and back the North Sea, it might still help the UK in its present energy crisis whilst also tackling long-term emissions. Who knows, it might even help preserve the Union.

Andy Street: Transport funding provides an unprecedented opportunity to level up the country

30 Nov

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands

Talk of ‘levelling up’ occupies much of the bandwidth of current political discourse, with so much airtime debating what it is, how it can be best achieved and its resonance with voters.

That chatter often overlooks the clear progress that has already been made. As Mayor of the West Midlands, I know that this Government mission is already having an impact here, in terms of inward investment and the movement of Whitehall departments to our region.

However, in recent weeks the focus has understandably fallen on what is one of the biggest potential drivers of levelling up – transport investment. Improving transport injects serious firepower into an area, boosting local economies and creating jobs, while it also provides tangible evidence of improvement, connecting communities to opportunities and opening up places to further investment.

It’s also an area where the rest of the nation has always lagged behind the South East in terms of spending. It was no coincidence that I used a London tube-style map to illustrate the network that we are building here, as it helped capture the level of ambition – and funding – needed to make it a reality.

I want to use this column to explain how recent transport decisions provide unprecedented firepower to deliver levelling up in the West Midlands, as well as a vote of confidence in the region.

My transport vision for the West Midlands is already taking shape, thanks to a seven-fold increase in spending since I took office, with projects such as the new Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro extension, the opening of five new railway stations and the roll out of West Midlands Cycle Hire earlier this year.

Indeed, it was fitting that when I recently joined the Prime Minister and transport secretary Grant Shapps on a train from Wolverhampton to Coventry, the journey took us from one brand-new city station to another. It provided the perfect moving platform for their announcements last week.

However, the £1.05 billion awarded to the West Midlands through the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement (CRSTS) is by far the largest amount we have ever secured, representing an unprecedented investment in our network and, in my view, clear evidence of levelling up in action.

This new funding will not only help us get some planned projects over the finishing line, it will set us well on the road to a real revolution in transport for the West Midlands, delivering the next round of metro extensions, bus and cycle routes, and stations that will help our region grow and prosper. Now residents want to see action.

Only this week we cut the first sod of ground at the site of a new railway station in Willenhall in the Black Country, one of a number set to be reopened that have been shut for decades. We also have plans for key interchanges, such as Dudley Interchange and Sutton Coldfield Town Centre Gateway, which would forge better links between bus, rail and cycling routes.

Any plans to use transport to drive levelling up must prioritise the workhorse of our public transport system – the bus. Before Covid, bus was by far the most used form of transport here, with 267 million journeys a year compared to 50 million for rail and about seven million on the region’s metro tram system.

In fact, we were one of the few places in the country where bus use was rising. In the 12 months up to December 2019, the number of people catching the bus in the West Midlands rocketed by almost eight million.

Now, with the funding we have bid for from the Government’s Bus Service Improvement Plan, we aim to develop 110km of new bus priority routes. This would include bus lanes and junction upgrades to improve the reliability of services and a simplified lower cost fare system across operators.

Encouraging more physically active travel – like walking or cycling – is a key pillar of our thinking going forward, with 16 new safe cycle routes among the schemes on the agenda here.

Along with all this investment, there has also been a Government commitment to a degree of local control over how it is spent, ensuring that the expertise harnessed by regional devolution does not go to waste. This is another often overlooked facet of levelling up, and one which I hope to see grow in importance.

Then we have the Integrated Rail Plan, which confirmed HS2 and much more, representing a huge vote of confidence in the Midlands and a major step towards my 2040 transport plan.

Not only has the Government confirmed that HS2 will connect Birmingham and Solihull to London and Manchester, but it has also confirmed a new high speed line to link the East and West Midlands.

This will halve journey times to Nottingham and provide passengers with much improved capacity and connectivity East to West. It will also place our region at the very heart of this high speed rail network.

The other big prize was the Government’s support in principle for Midlands Rail Hub, which involves expanding Moor Street station in Birmingham linked to the HS2 station at Curzon Street. This could mean up to 24 more trains per hour on the Midlands passenger network, with more services and faster trains connecting places such as Hereford, Worcester, Coventry, Birmingham, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Bristol and Cardiff.

As a result, we now have the very real prospect of significantly extending local lines, creating additional capacity, re-instating the direct link between Coventry and Leicester and perhaps most exciting, the chance of a third cross-city line in Birmingham.

Levelling up is more than just a buzz phrase. It is a critical mission to create a more balanced and robust economy, ensuring investment and opportunity reaches communities across the nation. This investment into transport for the West Midlands gives us an unprecedented opportunity to deliver both my transport vision and levelling up.

Local elections in depth: In Coventry, denying housing association tenants the right to buy hits the Conservatives

20 Oct

Source: Election Maps.

Case study: Coventry

Control: Labour.

Numbers: Labour 39, Conservatives 15.

Change since last local elections:  Conservatives +1, Labour -1.

All out or thirds: Thirds

Background: Coventry City Council has existed in its current form since 1974. During most of that time, it has been run Labour – including from 1979 to 2003 and all the years since 2010. The Conservatives had brief periods in power with victories in 1978 and 2006. There were also a few years before 2010 of no overall control.

For many years, it has proved an important centre of trade and prosperity. Over a thousand years ago, Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets in a Thatcherite protest against high taxation. In the 14th century, with the cloth trade, then in the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th century, enterprising people of this West Midlands city produced clocks and bicycles, in the 20th century motor cars. It was also a beautiful city –  until it was destroyed by the Luftwaffe on November 14th 1940. Then it was rebuilt as an ugly city – under the direction of the planning officer Donald Gibson – who was duly knighted and made President of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Coventry has three Parliamentary Constituencies: Coventry North East, Coventry North West, and Coventry South. At the last General Election Labour won all three. But while Coventry North East had a large Labour majority, the Party just squeaked home in the other two. Coventry North East was held for many years by Geoffrey Robinson quite easily – his Labour successor has a majority of just 208. Proposed boundary changes may make it harder for Labour in the Coventry South constituency next time.

John Butcher was Conservative MP for Coventry South West during the Thatcher/Major era. The seat was abolished in 1997. Dave Nellist was a Labour MP for Coventry South East and was expelled by the Labour Party in 1991 for being a supporter of the Militant Tendency. In 1983 he shared a House of Commons office with his fellow Labour MP Tony Blair – which showed the Party’s Whips retained a sense of humour at a difficult time for them.

Results: The overall gain of a single seat for the Conservatives was clearly modest in the context of some dramatic gains elsewhere at the same time. There is plenty to criticise the Labour administration for – and Cllr Gary Ridley, the Conservative opposition leader – has done so very powerfully – including for this site. The Conservatives have also put forward a positive alternative with a strong local Manifesto.

There has been a pattern for many years of the Conservatives doing better in Parliamentary elections in this City than in local ones, for some reason. But the underlying challenges are probably due to demography.

The expansion of the university sector has proved problematic for the Conservatives. More of the electorate consists of left wing academics and students from Warwick University and Coventry University. Whoberley Ward and Earlsdon Ward have been particularly hard hit.

Coventry North East has a large ethnic minority population – of Muslims and Sikhs. More generally across the City, the Labour Party has also benefited electorally from Celtic immigration. Working class voters whose families came from Ireland, Wales and Scotland have often retained their past political allegiances.

Manufacturing is still significant. London taxis and Jaguar cars are still made there. Technological advances mean that fewer people are employed. But then there are new light industry opportunities. There is the prospect of a ‘Gigafactory’ manufacturing car batteries with 4,000 jobs locally. So that gives some hope that the innovation and wealth creating private sector that is such a tradition of the City has not been lost.

The people of Coventry backed Brexit by a clear margin The Conservatives have made some electoral progress associated with that. Yet it is hard to see a dramatic breakthrough for the Conservatives in this City without some bold reforms to boost home ownership. Council housing was transferred to Whitefriars housing association, over 20 years ago. (It’s now changed its name to Citizen Housing). That change has just meant less transparency and accountability – without the chance of the right to buy.  We need a right to buy, with beefed up discounts, for housing association and council tenants. Also forced sales of empty homes and surplus property (such as empty garages) that could be redeveloped as housing. Also a right to shared ownership for housing association and council tenants including a free ten per cent equity stake for those who agree to take on responsibility for their won minor repairs.

A few feeble voluntary pilot schemes are no use. The Conservatives should give housing association tenants a proper chance of home ownership. That is needed in Coventry more than anywhere else.

Andy Street: How devolving power to metro mayors delivers better transport for local people

7 Sep

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

Devolution isn’t a topic that excites people. The subject of local government structures, combined authorities, city regions, county councils, districts or unitary authorities is of little interest to most.

What people are interested in, however, are things that make a difference to their daily lives. So when it comes to infrastructure, delivering better transport can provide tangible improvements for residents.

First and foremost, transport gives us the ability to get to where we need to be as quickly and easily as possible. But it also connects citizens to opportunities and jobs, opens up new corridors for investment, provides visible improvements to boost civic pride, and can make a real contribution to our green ambitions, too.

Devolution is thus playing a key part in a transport revolution here in the West Midlands and across the UK. I want to use this column to write about how transport investment is getting the economy on the move, and how this reflects the effectiveness of the mayoral model, as well as growing confidence in devolved decision making.

There can be no doubt that the Government recognises the transformative effect of transport investment. The Prime Minister, as a former Mayor of London, understands this better than most, and has been a huge champion of better transport. As Mayor of the West Midlands, I’ve welcomed him regularly to our region to highlight all kinds of transport investment, from huge HS2 projects to bike hire schemes.

Well, this month, the West Midlands is about to reach another significant waypoint on our journey to building a world class transport system, along with seven other mayor-lead Combined Authorities.

Transport is the one aspect of devolution shared by all of the UK’s ‘metro mayors’, and the Government has promoted combined authorities to develop their own visions for local networks. Now they are putting serious cash on the table for City-region Combined Authorities to make a real difference – £4.2 billon shared amongst eight mayors.

First, let’s be clear: this is on top of other funding for the regions, such as the Levelling Up Fund and town centre revival investment. It is also on top of cash already flowing in for specific projects, such as supporting green bus technology – as we are seeing here, with Coventry set to get the first all-electric bus fleet in the country. So this new pot of money is a big step.

Naturally, we will be pitching for our fair share – and maybe a little bit more. But this isn’t just about the West Midlands: it’s about this Government demonstrating its clear support for the mayoral model, with a very substantial new sum of money for eight of us. It is a vivid example of the how devolution can make a massive difference to delivery on critical things to our daily lives.

It is also a vote of confidence in the combined authority model. Here, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) is made up of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. In the past, these communities were often set against each other, competing for investment, despite being economically intertwined.

Inevitably, this led to accusations that the big cities gobbled up the ‘big ticket’ investments. Now, under the unified approach of a combined authority, places like Solihull and our Black Country boroughs are getting their fair share. This approach of ensuring no areas get left behind has been a key pillar of my time as mayor.

Of course, our bid for cash from this latest investment pot is still under wraps. However, it won’t surprise anyone that it aims to progress my transport vision, which was memorably illustrated by a colourful ‘tube map’ linking our seven boroughs. The choice of a tube-style lay-out sent a message about our ambition to create a world class network, backed by the kind of investment enjoyed by the capital.

Is that fanciful? I don’t believe so. By extending our Metro lines, rebuilding major railway stations and reopening others that have been closed for decades, this network is taking shape.

In fact, since I became Mayor, spending on transport has increased seven-fold. The year before I took office, we spent £38 million. Next year, we will be spending £403 million.

The progress is there for all to see. Wolverhampton’s new station is now open, Coventry’s is about to join it and there are many more to follow – including Perry Barr which will serve the Commonwealth Games. Metro extensions in Birmingham and Wolverhampton are set to open this year and our teams are powering ahead with brand new routes through Sandwell into Dudley and in Birmingham linking the whole network with HS2.

We will also be backing our bus and bike users with improvements, too. That means working with bus operator National Express to deliver the cheapest fares in England, as well as a fleet of next generation vehicles. It means pressing forward with our growing cycle hire scheme, which has seen great success since I launched it with the help of the Prime Minster, who knows a bit about bikes. Plus, there will be one or two surprises, as well as money to improve our most congested roads.

As we plot our way out of the pandemic, spending on infrastructure will be vital to stimulate the economy – but it is also essential we use that money strategically, delivering tangible results our citizens expect.

That’s why this new investment to eight mayor-led combined authorities underlines confidence in the local decision making brought by devolution. While people may not get excited about devolution itself, it is now providing improvements that they recognise and welcome.

The Department for Transport clearly recognise the essential point of devolution, resulting in a multi-year settlement for the regions, which once agreed in principle will be governed here locally by the WMCA, and by devolved authorities across the UK. I want to thank Grant Shapps and the DfT for taking this principled approach.

For us, it will mean hundreds of millions of pounds to help transform our infrastructure and build the network that will underpin our economic success for years to come. It will also bring jobs as we develop and build the network which, in itself, will better connect our residents to the opportunities we are creating. And, as the network expands and more stops on my tube map are completed, it will also make our public transport ever more attractive as a viable alternative to the car.

So, if you use a train, tram, bus, bike or car in one of the Mayoral Combined Authorities you can be confident of seeing improvements in the next few years – thanks to devolution in action, and thanks to billions of Government funding being ringfenced to city region Mayors.

Andy Street: Birmingham’s clean air zones will come down unfairly hard on local people. The scheme needs an urgent rethink.

1 Jun

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

As West Midlands Mayor, I have made it my mission to drive improvements in the region’s public transport system, from trains and trams to buses and bikes.

The progress we have seen in recent years is helping to connect people to new opportunities, driving economic growth and is playing a major part in tackling the climate challenge – by persuading people to make fewer car journeys, and easing congestion on the roads.

However, while public transport is a core part of my job responsibility, control of those local roads continues to sit with our councils. Today marks the start of one of the most significant changes to the region’s road network, affecting Birmingham city centre.

Birmingham City Council today introduces its “clean air zone” charging scheme, which will charge motorists of “non-compliant” vehicles £8 a day to enter the city centre.

First of all, I think it is important to say that I support the principle behind the clean air zone idea. Birmingham is one of five cities required by the Government to set up a clean air zone, as part of plans to tackle illegal levels of pollution across the country.

There is no doubt that the city centre does suffer serious pollution at peak traffic times and that action needs to be taken. Pollution levels can be unacceptably high, putting people’s health and wellbeing at risk.

In 2019, a study carried out by Kings College London found that primary school children who grow up in Birmingham could lose half a year of their lives due to illegal levels of air pollution. The loss of life expectancy is worse in Birmingham than some other major cities in the UK including Manchester, researchers found.

Nobody wants to live in a congested and polluted city centre – the West Midlands might be the home of the car, but we also need to ensure people have a viable alternative to using it.

However, I do have serious concerns about the scheme in Birmingham. There is no doubt that the council’s charging scheme is a heavy stick which will come down hard – with a big increase in the cost of living for those affected.

The first question we must ask is: is it coming down unfairly hard? I fear it is. Let me outline some of my concerns.

The charges apply to older vehicles, which are more likely to cause pollution. However, there is a strong argument that, as a result, the scheme targets those least able to pay – people most likely to have older vehicles and least able to replace them.

I have real concerns that not enough has been done to mitigate the effects of the scheme on those who can least afford it.

Then there is the fact that it will operate 24 hours per day, seven days per week. There is a strong argument that, again, this is unfair. The fact is that pollution isn’t constant around the clock and hitting night workers with this extra charge when the roads are empty doesn’t appear to be helping the environment.

Then there is the question of timing. The clean air zone will hit a whole swathe of city centre small businesses who have already had an exceptionally tough year and are only just beginning to grasp what the future may hold post-Covid.

The entire spectrum of city centre businesses – from office workers to cleaners, from sandwich shops to taxi drivers, are in the process of getting back on their feet as the economy reopens.

Why not delay the scheme until we are fully out of lockdown and fully returning to work?

Finally, there is the question of what will be done with the income created by the clean air zone. This is a hugely significant step towards creating a cleaner transport system for the city, which has been driven by genuine health concerns. I believe a real chance has been missed to commit every penny of profit made from the scheme to additional transport improvements.

These are just some of the concerns that have been raised, coupled with questions about why more isn’t being done to clean the air in the city centre – such as through “greening” technology along the roadside.

If we want people to use their cars less, we have to provide a suitable alternative. I continue to be a passionate believer that the only way to tackle congestion and gridlock on our roads is to transform public transport.

That’s what my transport plan is all about. In my first term as mayor we increased investment in transport sevenfold, thanks to Government backing. Many of those projects are now well underway, and in the month or so since my re-election we have made more progress on the plan.

On rail, the ugly and unsatisfactory Perry Barr station has now been demolished and will be the next brand-new station in our region, joining the conveyor belt of completely new or replacement stations being built. It will be the station for the Commonwealth Games – underlining how the Games investment will deliver long term benefits to the region.

On our metro tram system, this week we start work in earnest on the latest new line – linking Birmingham city centre with HS2 and providing brilliant public transport through Digbeth, helping to drive the immense investment and regeneration happening in an area known for its creative quarter.

The investment being delivered by HS2 is game changing in economic terms, and we are determined to make the most of it. The construction of the new Curzon Street station, for instance, will provide almost 1,000 new jobs.

Work on the metro across the region continues at pace – just a couple of weeks ago the first new bridge was put in place as part of the massive Black Country metro expansion and the first of our brand-new trams arrived to serve the growing network.

And in the last few weeks we have seen the region’s bike share scheme continue to be rolled out, with Birmingham joining a swathe of other communities like Sutton Coldfield, Coventry, Solihull, Wolverhampton and Walsall – plus of course Stourbridge where the Prime Minister was one of the early users.

But transport is not just about public sector investment. It is also about working with the private sector to improve choice and bring in its huge resources. Later this month bus service provider National Express is going to introduce a raft of significant fare cuts across its services – aligning with the end of lockdown. It will now be substantially cheaper to use the bus than it has been for years.

And not just cheaper, better. National Express continue to invest in its fleet, including its modern platinum buses which are cleaner, greener and more comfortable for passengers. On top of that, the region is seeing the ongoing rollout of emission-free electric and hydrogen buses.

Finally, on rail the all-important Cross-City line will be transformed with new electric trains, increasing capacity and improving the travelling experience for everyone.

The introduction today of a clean air zone in Birmingham has been hotly debated. While I support the principle behind the concept, I also understand the serious misgivings of those who fear they will be unfairly impacted by this attempt to reduce the number of local car journeys.

Ultimately, punitive charges like this can only be a small part of the solution to the transport challenge we face. The key is providing viable, attractive alternatives to the private car that people positively choose as their preference. The carrot, not the stick.

My transport plan is delivering those alternatives, as well as helping to kick start our region’s economy as we come out of the pandemic.

Andy Street: I’ve got a clear plan for the West Midlands, and I’m ready to go. Here’s what I’ll do in my first 100 days if re-elected.

4 May

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

On Thursday, when the people of the West Midlands go to the polls, they face a critical decision. Do they choose to reignite the progress of the last four years, or return to the stagnant, partisan politics of the last few decades, which saw our region fall into decline?

Before the pandemic struck, the West Midlands was finally shaking off that decline and reclaiming its place as an economic powerhouse. After decades of inertia, a Conservative mayor brought record numbers of new jobs, record house building, increased transport spending sevenfold and created the fastest growing economy anywhere outside of London.

My non-partisan approach – using my business background to bring in more than £3 billion in investment – swept away the local rivalries that had held us back for so long. As we face a tough recovery post-Covid, we cannot afford to return to that. Time is of the essence.

We need to move fast to get people back into work, help the economy recover, and make swift progress on our priorities like transport and housing. I’ve got a clear plan for the region, and I’m ready to go. I want to use this column to set out 12 things I will do in my first 100 days if re-elected.

Over the last four years, my working relationship with Number 10 and the rest of government has been a key factor in delivering investment, with securing the green light for HS2 probably the best example of success. My first task, once re-elected, would be to meet the Prime Minister to discuss how the Government can help deliver our priorities in the West Midlands.

Our region’s economy has been the worst hit by Covid, but is poised for recovery. Generating new jobs quickly will be key to this, so in my first 100 days I will double down on my Jobs Plan to deliver 100,000 new jobs to the region in the next two years. I will also roll out a series of local jobs, training and careers fairs for young people across the West Midlands over this summer.

I will back our pubs, restaurants and hospitality and tourism businesses with a campaign encouraging people to get out and spend after the pandemic – and set up an investment fund to help SMEs grow. I will also use my business experience to connect with potential investors into the battery Gigafactory in Coventry and possible new occupiers for the John Lewis store in Grand Central.

It will be full steam ahead on my transport plans, with detailed planning being done for the new Metro lines. Next Monday – on May 10 – work will start on Perry Barr railway station, with five more stations to follow quickly. I will complete the roll-out of 1500 bikes across every borough in our bike share scheme and begin detailed planning of new cycle routes.

We also need to encourage people back onto public transport as Covid restrictions ease. I will work with National Express to make the most of the major fare cuts and expanded fare capping planned for June 21, when social distancing restrictions should end. My first 100 days will get our region get moving again.

Housing has been another area where we have seen great success, and it has the potential not only to create the homes our region needs but also to unlock thousands of new jobs. London has agreed an Affordable Housing Deal with the Government worth hundreds of millions of pounds – I will push for our region to be the first to get one too, to fund the construction of thousands of new affordable homes to rent and to buy.

I want to see our City and Town centre regeneration plans rapidly progress, and will back our remaining towns fund bids like Bloxwich, Dudley and Walsall.

I will recruit 1,000 volunteers to take part in the Great West Midlands Clean Up campaign ahead of the Commonwealth Games. In my first 100 days will also put the West Midlands at the heart of the climate debate by hosting a conference for mayors and city leaders from across the UK, to agree ways we can work together to affect change.

We have taken significant steps to tackle rough sleeping, but in my first 100 days we will work even harder to eradicate it by “designing out” homelessness. We will launch a new Equalities Taskforce, to address the inequalities highlighted in the Health of the Region report commissioned under my leadership.

Finally, I will stand shoulder to shoulder with the new Police and Crime Commissioner to make things happen to get crime down, such as on public transport and through the joint Violence Reduction Unit.

Setting out all of this in the first 100 days after the election may seem like rhetoric, but I know just how much can be achieved directly after taking office. During the campaign for the first mayoral election in 2017 I set out 10 pledges for my first 100 days, all of which were delivered. In fact, when I think back to four years ago, I hit the ground running – attracting huge investment and cementing key decisions which lay the foundations for our future success.

In the few weeks after taking office in 2017, I met the Prime Minister and Transport Secretary, leading to more than £250 million funding for the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro extension which is now under construction. I set up the West Midlands Homelessness Taskforce which led the work in reducing rough sleeping in the region by 67 per cent, with over 400 homeless people now helped through the Housing First scheme. And I signed up 1,000 people to mentor young people, in a scheme which has helped over 10,000 young people in the last four years.

Now, it is even more important that results are delivered quickly. Our region faces huge challenges. However, I have a proven track record of bringing in billions of pounds in investment and uniting our region to unleash its potential. I have a strong, working relationship with the Government and the connections with business needed to kickstart the economy. I also have a detailed, ambitious but practical plan to deliver the jobs, homes and transport we will need to recover. It is ready to go.

I am ready to get straight to work, to get our region back on track, reignite the progress made over the last four years – and start delivering results within the first 100 days.

Harry Fone: Almost 700,000 council staff are paid over £150,000 a year

8 Apr

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

Despite everything the pandemic has thrown at taxpayers in the last year, they’ve still had to suffer yet another round of inflation-busting council tax rises. Analysis by the TaxPayers’ Alliance has shown that more than a third of local authorities in England are now charging over £2,000 for a Band D property. Over one hundred councils have now crossed the Rubicon, with many more surely planning to follow.

This is the latest development in a long-running tale of tax hikes. In less than 20 years, bills in England have increased on average by 111 per cent in cash terms. This year, out of 147 authorities who could increase council tax by the maximum amount of 4.99 per cent, 89 councils (61 per cent) did so. Consequently, the average bill is £1,898 – more than £300 higher than it was in 2018-19.

In Wales, the double-digit rises we’ve previously seen seem to be on hold, but bills are still climbing. Scottish ratepayers enjoyed a council tax freeze this year. This was only possible, however, thanks to a significant cash injection from the Scottish government. One way or another, the public will be footing the bill. That’s why it’s so important that local authorities do everything possible to keep rises to an absolute minimum.

A common defence from councils is that there is no more waste to find and they are focussing every penny on essential services despite years of central funding cuts. I’d have some sympathy for this argument, were it not for the fact that I continue to see example after example of taxpayers’ cash going down the drain. No sooner do they plead poverty and claim there are no more savings to make, than councils set up an energy company, set up a new pet project, or splash on pay rises.

That’s what we see in this year’s edition of the TPA’s Town Hall Rich List. Our list details all council employees in the UK who receive remuneration in excess of £100,000. The figures show that in 2019-20 at least 2,802 local authority employees did so. That’s an increase of 135 compared to the previous. 693 staff enjoyed pay packets of £150,000 or more – another increase.

Every region of the country – with the exception of the North East – has experienced an increase in the number of council bosses receiving over £100,000. Essex County Council topped the charts for the third year in the row, for the most employees taking home more than six figures.

Now at this point, councils argue that they have to pay these salaries to attract the best people for the job. In principle, I would agree with that. If council bosses are working hard, eradicating wasteful spending, ramping up efficiency, providing good frontline services, and keeping council tax bills under control, then residents have no complaints. But as I’ve seen first-hand, many authorities are simply not up to scratch.

Take Nottingham City Council. It employed nine members of senior staff receiving over £100,000 in total remuneration. What did local taxpayers get for their money? A failed council-owned energy company that suffered losses of nearly £40 million. In 2021-22 residents will endure the highest Band D council tax bill in the whole of the UK, at a staggering £2,226.

And consider the shambles we’ve seen at Liverpool City Council in recent weeks. The Town Hall Rich List revealed 14 staff got more than £100,000, 5 of whom enjoyed more than £150,000. The total cost of these wage packets came in at over £2 million. Liverpudlians pay the highest council tax (Band D) bills in the North West at £2,129, yet their council has let them down terribly. Residents are paying top dollar and not getting bang for their buck.

Wherever we live in the country, we can all think of a council like that. Look at the top 20 list of highest remunerated employees and some familiar names pop out. Nathan Elvery, former chief executive of West Sussex County Council, took home £427,653 which included a loss of office payment of £170,000. He left the job following a report which documented “systemic and prolonged” failures in children’s services. But this was nothing compared to the £395,110 golden goodbye that Coventry’s deputy chief executive, Martin Yardley enjoyed. His total remuneration was over £570,000. During his four years in the top job, Band D council tax bills increased by £312.

Examples like this are exactly why we fought so hard for a cap on exit payments. Despite the short-lived life span of the legislation – which was introduced last year only to be revoked in March – it’s reassuring to hear that the chief secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barclay, is keen to reinstate a cap as soon as possible. Based on what we see in this latest Town Hall Rich List, I urge him to act quickly.

As I’ve written previously, the examples above are just the tip of the iceberg. Undoubtedly many more will be uncovered in the coming weeks and months. The TPA’s inbox is flooded daily with tip-offs from angry residents complaining about their council’s wasteful practices. Residents expect their councillors to be holding town hall bosses to account and putting an end to these wasteful practices. Instead, we’ve seen multiple instances of councillors voting to increase their own allowances during the pandemic.

It’s quite possible that in 2022-23, nearly two-thirds of English councils will be charging over £2,000. This can’t go on. Getting spending under control and reining in overly generous salaries is one of the surest ways to keep bills as low as possible. Otherwise, well-paid bosses should be spending time finding savings elsewhere. Taxpayers expect nothing less.

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: 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: 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.