Andy Street: A transport revolution is under way in the West Midlands – with the launch of a new bike hire scheme

26 Jan

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

The West Midlands is undergoing a transport revolution. Old railway stations will be reopened. Ground-breaking Very Light Rail networks are being designed. Miles upon miles of Metro tram track are being laid to link up communities. Fleets of electric buses are taking to our streets.

After decades of underinvestment, my regional transport plan is finally starting to deliver a world-class transit system to one of the UK’s most densely-populated places, connecting people with opportunities and providing healthier forms of transport, cutting pollution and easing congestion.

Before the pandemic struck, passenger numbers were rising in the West Midlands on every mode of public transport. The West Midlands was on the move, an example of how a Conservative mayor can make things happen, after decades of Labour inaction left the region lagging behind.

And next month will see the start of the next phase in this transport revolution – and this time, it’s on two wheels.

February will see the launch of the West Midland’s bike hire scheme – an ambitious project designed to appeal to the 30 per cent of people here who don’t cycle but say they would like to give it a go.

Almost every great city has a bike hire scheme, most famously London’s “Boris Bikes”. This is another area where the West Midlands has fallen behind the capital and places like Edinburgh – but we are catching up fast.

Through the unifying power of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), which has been committed to my goal of spending £10 per head of population on cycling per year, our ambitious plan covers not just a single city centre, but all seven boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

Sutton Coldfield, the Royal Town to the north of Brum, is pioneering the scheme with the first 75 bikes, thanks to a partnership with its forward-thinking Town Council.

It’s the ideal place to launch the scheme – a major self-contained community that sits within the city’s borders, which is also the home of Sutton Park, the region’s biggest urban beauty spot.

After Sutton, a further 1,500 bikes will be rolled out across the region in a matter of months, all in time for summer. Lockdown has deprived people of the freedom of getting out and about. I want this scheme ready for them to discover the freedom cycling can bring.

This is a project that is truly “Made in the Midlands”, with the bikes built by Pashley cycles, a firm that was founded in Birmingham in the 1920s and now has a factory in neighbouring Warwickshire. What’s more, 10 per cent of the bikes will be electric, with the charging docks also made in the region.

I hope that local people will take to these bikes, along with the electric e-scooters recently introduced to our cities both of which are an example of real investment in high-quality alternatives to the car. With Coventry’s City of Culture celebrations this year and the Commonwealth Games on the horizon, they will also provide a way for visitors to get around too.

But bikes are only part of the investment we are making, with truly ambitious plans to establish a world-class cycling network across the region.

The planned £270 million regionwide “Starley” network – named after the Victorian family who pioneered cycle manufacturing from Coventry – will be for the whole region, not just the city centres.

The vision is for 500 miles of safe routes across the region, linking our communities with either dedicated bike routes or miles of cycle lanes separated from traffic.

The Starley project would be a game changer for cycling in the West Midlands, building a vast new transit network reminiscent of the canal system created here during the Industrial Revolution.

Thanks to that era of innovation, it’s said that Birmingham has “more canals than Venice”. Well, a completed Starley Network would give the West Midlands a cycle network to rival Berlin. We are working now to attract the investment to make this ambition a reality.

Key to our cycling plan is identifying viable routes, like in Coventry, where the WMCA is investing £5 million in the flagship Binley Cycleway, linking Coventry University to the city’s main Hospital.

More than half of West Midlands residents say safety concerns put them off cycling. Binley is a great example of providing safe, separated lanes for bikes to remove the tensions that sometimes happen when cyclists and motorists compete for the same road space.

We are also looking to link up our cycling network with my wider transport plan. For example, there will be cycle provision alongside the new metro expansion in the Black Country, along Wednesfield Road to the brand-new railway station. It will also be integrated into our Sprint bus schemes.

All of this has been supported by the Government’s commitment to cycling, with the Department for Transport, under Grant Shapps, investing heavily.

Our region has securing £17 million from the Government for cycling schemes, from cycle lanes and pedestrian-friendly areas in Moseley, Birmingham, to routes along Tipton Road, on the boundary of Dudley and Sandwell, connecting residents to a Metro stop on the new Black Country line.

Locally, the WMCA has earmarked £2 million of Whitehall’s Transforming Cities cash to launch our own Better Streets Community Fund, which received 144 applications from residents, resulting in 31 projects that will be delivered by the end of this year.

This local engagement is vital, as building cycle provision is disruptive, and unwanted proposals can be rejected by communities, wasting time and cash.  If cycling is to really succeed, it requires grassroots support in the areas where routes are created.

There is, of course, a serious health issue driving our cycling revolution. We have a significant air quality problem in the West Midlands, particularly in denser cities like Birmingham and Coventry.

This, combined with the very real threat we face from climate change, makes clear the health and environmental benefits of cycling. We are investing in public transport to tackle congestion and pollution.

After years of inertia, a Conservative mayor has provided the push needed to finally get public transport moving in the West Midlands. We can do the same thing for cycling.

Until now we have lagged behind other parts of the UK, but with our new Bike Share scheme and ambitious plans for a region-wide network, I’m confident we can quickly catch up with the leading pack – and then power past them.

Andy Street: As we enter lockdown, we must protect our precious open spaces

3 Nov

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

As I write, England is once again preparing to enter lockdown. Families will hang their hopes on Christmas, as they say a temporary farewell to each other. Cafes, pubs, restaurants, gyms and businesses of all kinds are preparing to close their doors as the nation tries to bring infection under control and protect the NHS.

The extension of the furlough scheme throughout November and the unprecedented financial support already set out by the Government will provide some relief for businesses, as we balance the need to save lives with the need to protect the economy.

As before, some sectors will carry on throughout lockdown – this time the NHS, supermarkets, manufacturers and public services will be joined by schools, colleges and universities as they keep the nation ticking over.

And of course the construction sites, at the heart of the strategy to Build Back Better, will work on. In this column I want to write about the opportunities that lie ahead as we build the homes of tomorrow – and the potential pitfalls if we get things wrong.

Last week, the consultation ended on potential changes to the planning system – “Planning for the Future – which “proposes reforms to streamline and modernise the planning process, bring a new focus to design and sustainability, improve the system of developer contributions to infrastructure, and ensure more land is available for development”.

Driving this push for reform is the need to build more housing. Demand far outstrips supply for homes. As the Party which made home ownership possible for everyone, it‘s vital that we address this properly, and develop long-term solutions. Clearly the current planning system is far from perfect – indeed, it has got us to where we are today.

In the West Midlands we are ambitious – we have set the target of 215,000 new homes by 2031. When the pandemic struck, we were well on our way to that target, with our rate of housebuilding doubling in 8 years to just under 17,000 last year.

In the last three years, we have shifted the whole basis of housebuilding in the region. Instead of tearing into the Green Belt, we have moved to a ‘Brownfield First’ policy, reclaiming and cleaning up old derelict sites for new development.  The result is that we have protected green fields while regenerating former industrial sites, removing eyesores in often neglected communities.

The policy has been a great success, with the vast majority of new homes built in our recent surge put up on reclaimed land. We’ve only been able to do this thanks to Government support and their backing for our business plan, with a £350m investment in our game-changing Housing Deal which was recently topped up with another £84m. A new science of land reclamation is being pioneered right here, with a £24 million National Brownfield Institute planned for Wolverhampton.

We have achieved this by working together across the region’s seven member boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. After all, by helping one community that is crying out to see a derelict eyesore removed, we are helping another fighting to save its cherished open spaces.

We see this application of local knowledge within our boroughs too – developing on old factory sites in Walsall town centre to protect neighbouring green spaces in Pheasey and Streetly, or building in Dudley town centre to protect fields around Halesowen and Stourbridge.

So, my response to Government’s “Planning for the Future” consultation is simple – let’s build on what we have been doing together so far. However, there are aspects of the proposals which I fear go in the wrong direction.

First, the algorithm and methodology at is core tilts more homes onto Councils with more green space, and away from those with more brownfield sites. This is, of course, to try and address the issue of housing where demand is high.

But, in this case, I believe it is tilting the playing field too far. It would mean, for example, increasing pressure on Councils like Solihull where we already have a Green Belt under intense pressure, whilst easing the need for homes elsewhere where there are more brownfield sites and a pressing need for regeneration.

We must not let developers ‘off the hook’ by allowing them to pile into greenfield sites and turn away from more challenging regeneration sites. And they will pile in – we are seeing it now in Coventry, where a misguided Local Plan has opened up too many green spaces for development. For developers, these sites present a more lucrative and easier option. For the local community, they represent a loss of much-loved green space. Down the road, in neighbouring communities blighted by old derelict industrial sites, they represent a missed opportunity to reverse years of neglect.

So, I have argued that this should be looked at again to reflect the need not to let an algorithm – which is prone to all sorts of unintended consequences – drive planning diktats that imperil the Green Belt.

Second, I believe this timely planning reform is a chance to seize the moment to provide additional protection to critically important Green Belt sites. Across the West Midlands at sites like the Seven Cornfields in Wolverhampton and Tack Farm in Halesowen, residents are battling to save cherished countryside.

The new “Protected” status should represent a strengthening of Green Belt protection for sites.  The Green Belt came into being in the 1950’s and now is the time to look at reinforcing it through this reform.

We should, for example, identify some Green Belt sites where development is simply inconceivable – in our region, the “Meriden Gap” which sits between Solihull and Coventry, and Saltwells Nature Reserve in Dudley leap to mind – and give them more protection. That added protection would ensure no developer would attempt a frivolous planning application designed to test the resolve of councils under pressure to build.

And let’s recognise where some places have contributed some of their Green Belt land already to meet local and national need – like land for HS2 – and see if we can compensate them with more Green Belt protection in their area. I have, in the past, described Birmingham City Council’s plans to build thousands of homes on Green Belt in Sutton Coldfield as a ‘land grab’ – and there is a strong argument that the town has now made a significant contribution to a city which has plenty of brownfield sites.

We aren’t Nimbys in the West Midlands. But it is vital that Whitehall understands that if the cold data supplied by an algorithm offers up cherished green spaces to hungry developers, there will be a backlash from local communities – and from voters.

We want and need more homes and we are working in partnership with Government, councils and developers to deliver them. As we head indoors for a month of lockdown, many of us will miss the open spaces that surround our communities, where we walk our dogs, run for exercise and our children play.

We must Build Back Better, but let’s never forget the critical importance of the Green Belt – indeed, let’s seize the opportunity to do more to defend it.

Andy Street: It’s time to accept that HS2 is a done deal – part of caring for livelihoods as well as lives in our region

20 Oct

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

The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic continues to affect all aspects of life, heading the news agenda, fuelling social media and dominating conversation in households everywhere.

A week ago, the West Midlands – excluding Coventry and Dudley – was placed in Tier 2 of the Government’s new restrictions and we are now working to ensure, if humanly possible, we do not move to Tier 3.

As Mayor of the West Midlands, I voiced my disappointment after we were placed in Tier 2 – and in particular my concerns over the impact on our restaurants, cafes, pubs, and on the conference and events sector that is so important to our local economy.

While hospitality businesses in Tier 3 are formally closed and supported with cash, those in Tier 2 find their businesses severely constrained, without help. I continue to argue for specific support to address this.

The real challenge we face now is balancing medical advice with economic concerns, in ways that will protect not only people’s lives, but their livelihoods too. However, as we debate the tough decisions of today, and our immediate attention is directed at controlling the virus, local leaders must also focus on recovery: indeed, we must own the recovery.

This means not only recognising the unprecedented level of economic support that has already been provided by Government, but also ensuring that we take full advantage of the opportunities provided, as we Build Back Better.

So as we await new developments, I want to look to the future and write about the biggest economic opportunity for the West Midlands – HS2. As the short-term economy comes under immense strain, we need to ensure the UK’s biggest single long-term economic investment is delivering more jobs and much-needed contracts for business now.

It would be an understatement to describe HS2 as a Marmite scheme. The scale and ambition of the project, by its nature, has made it hugely divisive. Yet it is that scale, and the investment it will bring, that will make it a central plank of our region’s economic recovery.

I have been a consistent supporter of HS2. When the crunch moment came in February, I stuck my head above the parapet to urge the Government to give the project the green light in the face of considerable opposition. This was the right thing to do, and I make no apologies for standing up for what I believe was best for my region.

I chose to leave my business career to become Mayor because I wanted to make a real difference to the West Midlands, and that means standing up for what I think is in our interests, even when it means I may get some flak.

The job of being Mayor and the purpose of HS2 share the same overriding principle objective – bringing jobs to this region and improving the livelihoods of its people. That, of course, is now more acutely important than ever.

I have written before on this site about how HS2 is driving investment now, most obviously in Birmingham and Solihull, but it’s not just about where the stations are being built. Before the ticket offices open, HS2 will create jobs and wealth across the conurbation, as it already is – generating 12,000 crucial jobs in the West Midlands, right now. We are now at another crucial stage, as HS2 Ltd begins to award contracts.

As we grapple with the challenges at hand today, we need to be plotting how this huge transport investment can provide a route to economic recovery. That’s why last week I called together a summit for potential local suppliers to HS2.

This summit was generously hosted by McAuliffe – a Wolverhampton contractor already working on HS2. This setting perfectly illustrated our determination to ensure the benefits of HS2 spread far beyond Birmingham City Centre to support the whole region.

The response to this summit illustrated how this industrial heartland is eager to embrace the possibilities of HS2, with 700 firms dialling in to hear about the opportunities on offer for local business. HS2 will generate an estimated 400,000 contracts and I am determined that as many of them as possible are won by Midlands companies.

HS2 is also helping boost skills across the region, providing training opportunities for younger people who have been hit hard by the pandemic. Another innovative programme has enabling homeless people to join the HS2 workforce.

And the opportunities created by HS2 will stretch beyond the construction phase, with high-tech jobs running the digital operation from Birmingham in the future.

Of course, there are other major investments that will drive our recovery, such as the exciting new Health Innovation campus in Birmingham, which will see Bruntwood SciTech invest £210 million in our growing Life Sciences sector. But HS2 remains the biggest single investment in “levelling up” the regions.

Now, more than ever, we need Midlands and British businesses to hoover up every contract and every pound being spent on HS2. It is, quite simply, a monumental economic opportunity.

Whatever side of the debate you were on, HS2 is now happening. The diggers are in the ground here and along the route to the capital. At a time when we need to grasp every economic opportunity and exploit it, I believe it is time to leave behind the hand-wringing. As Mayor, it is my job is ensure this project is of maximum benefit to the West Midlands – and that starts right now with construction jobs.

Andy Street: Our experience in the West Midlands shows how skills drive economic success

7 Oct

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

Covid-19 has hit the West Midlands hard. Livelihoods and life chances have been impacted by a pandemic that stopped our economy in its tracks – but we are determined to do what we can locally to get people back into work. Improving the skills of our people will be vital if we are to fill the new jobs we create.

The Conservatives have always been the party of opportunity – encouraging ambition and social mobility. We must return to that guiding principle and drive a revolution in skills and training to rebuild our economy.

I was encouraged last week when the Prime Minister put skills front and centre of the Government’s agenda, with a commitment to provide free courses for those without A-level or equivalent qualification. This commitment came alongside a package of other measures, including expanding the “digital bootcamp” concept pioneered here.

In the West Midlands, we know how improving skills can help build a strong economy. Before the pandemic struck, our economy was growing faster than any other part of the UK other than London. We had record jobs numbers and were setting records for housebuilding and productivity.

A significant part of this economic success was down to improving skill levels. Much work has been done to turn around a skills gap that, in 2007, branded us the worst qualified UK region. Back then, a fifth of young people here left school with no qualifications at all.

When I became Mayor of the West Midlands, this was an unacceptable situation I was determined to put right. As the work of the Social Mobility Commission has shown, an individual’s skills determine their long-term social mobility. What’s more, poor skill levels can lock families into disadvantage for generations. As someone who grew up here, this issue gnawed at me. I have tried to provide business-like leadership to tackle the problem head-on and deliver real results.

Our seven member boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton have worked together to address the skills issues we faced. While we still face challenges, the improvement has been marked.

By last year, more than 50 per cent of local people were qualified at level three. In the Black Country, where the gap had been the most pronounced, more residents are now educated to degree level or above than ever before. The percentage of people with no qualification continues to reduce.

As we work to create new opportunities and jobs in the wake of the pandemic, the UK must take a similar approach. Because as the economy resets, those new jobs will emerge – and they will often have new requirements in terms of skills.

Our digital bootcamp, now backed by a further £1.5 million of funding, provides twenty-first century skills for thousands of people. Launched in September, the free to all ‘School of Code’ bootcamp is full-time and takes a learner from novice to software developer in just 16 weeks – before helping them find their first role in tech.

In a similar way, we are determined to ensure local people have the skills to benefit from jobs created by major investments like HS2 and the Commonwealth Games. We have set up our “Construction Gateway” which is training people to build the transport infrastructure and homes needed for our region’s future. The Gateway provides recognised qualifications and work experience to join the construction workforce as we Build Back Better.

One of the most notable successes of the West Midlands’ skills resurgence has been apprenticeships. Here, we use unspent apprenticeship levy from big businesses like HSBC, Lloyds Bank and Enterprise Car Hire to fund apprentices at smaller businesses. This unique arrangement means instead of unspent levy disappearing back to London it stays in the West Midlands, growing businesses and helping them ‘skill up’ local people.

Young people are among the hardest hit by the economic effects of Covid-19, which is why we are also launching six youth hubs, working with the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions to link employment and training services to make sure they target young people. In just a few weeks, the first job placements for 16 to 24 year olds under the Kickstart Scheme are likely to begin. Kickstart, and our hubs, can provide direct and tangible help, providing work and teaching skills.

Of course, to deliver these skills, we need a properly equipped higher and further education sector. While our colleges have been backed by guaranteed funding throughout the pandemic, we have also pressed ahead with developments like the Institute of Technology in Dudley and Wolverhampton’s National Brownfield Institute.

Funding of almost £12 million will start to rejuvenate our existing college buildings too – but this represents only the first down payment of the five-year £1.5 billion capital investment announced by Gavin Williamson in March. I will be lobbying to ensure the West Midlands gets its share of this vital funding.

While our colleges work brilliantly together – and have been at their responsive best throughout the pandemic – the West Midlands is also lucky to have a remarkable higher education sector. Behind almost every economic success story lies one of our universities, which lead the way in all kinds of emerging sectors, from electric vehicles to life sciences. They will play their part too.

And, as we invest in the bricks and mortar of training and education, we are also embracing the lessons of lockdown – and the growing importance of online learning. We’ve teamed up with provider Coursera to offer 3,800 online courses, offering top class skills and qualifications to anyone who is unemployed, recently made redundant or furloughed.

The West Midlands Combined Authority has owned the devolved Adult Education Budget, ensuring every pound delivers more qualifications that employers actually want. Now we need to see more of these funds devolved. We have shown what we can do.

These are just some of the ideas that helped turn the West Midlands from the worst qualified area in the UK to the nation’s fastest-growing regional economy. When I was 18, this was a place that talented young adults often felt they needed to leave to realise their potential. Now, well qualified individuals want to move here. We are proof that better skills drive economic success.

Our focus, right now, must be on driving down the infection rate to defeat Covid-19. But as we plot our economic recovery, we must show we are the party of opportunity, and provide people with the skills needed to rebuild our economic fortunes.

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

8 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Izzi Seccombe: Conservative councils are working hard to safely return to normal life

5 Aug

Cllr Izzi Seccombe is the Leader of Warwickshire County Council and the Leader of the Conservative Group of the Local Government Association.

The recent lockdowns in Leicester and much of Northern England are a timely reminder that Cornavirus has not gone away, that for all of us many restrictions still remain in place, and that unfortunately it is unlikely that life will return to normal for some time.

However, since my last article for Conservative Home, at the end of May, the nation as a whole has experienced a significant relaxation in the Covid-related restrictions, including the re-opening of restaurants, pubs, cinemas, hairdressers, hotels, and campsites and various other types of businesses on July 4th.

In the run-up to what became known as ‘Super Saturday’ councils played a crucial role in supporting businesses, venues, and high streets, as well as some of our own civic amenities and services, to prepare for the re-opening and in communicating to residents the changes that were being put in place.

However, in order for our high streets to re-open the businesses that had previously operated there had to still be in existence. The fact that many of them were was in large part due to the decisive action that the Government and councils took during the preceding months.

As Conservative Home readers will be aware, the Government has provided an extensive package of support to workers and businesses throughout the crisis, including the furlough scheme, business rates relief, the Small Business Grants Fund, the Hospitality and Leisure Grants Fund, and the Discretionary Grants Fund.

Local government was the delivery mechanism for much of this support and councils have worked hard to distribute almost £11 billion to more than 800,000 eligible businesses.

For many councils this has involved responding proactively and flexibly to the unprecedented circumstances; for example, by setting up dedicated teams and redeploying staff to process applications as well as using websites, social media, and traditional media to reach businesses that were eligible for funding but for whom they did not have the relevant information.

This provided a lifeline to struggling businesses worried about their future and I am extremely proud of the work that Conservative councils undertook in the months and weeks preceding the easing of the restrictions.

For example, Medway Council has processed and issued more than £35 million in financial support to businesses overall, and more than £1.6 million on top of that to small businesses specifically as part of the Government Discretionary Grants Fund.

To highlight just one example from my own county, Warwick District Council has issued 2,395 payments totalling £31,080,000 to local businesses, representing a 93.8 per cent payment rate.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Midlands, Walsall Council has a 94.6 per cent payment rate and it is joint top with Dudley Council, also Conservative-led, in the ‘league table’ of councils in Birmingham and the Black Country for the number of grants paid.

Of course, whilst keeping businesses afloat so that there was a functioning high street to return to in July was essential it was also critical that people were confident enough to return to their old shopping habits when they were permitted to do so.

Again, we in Conservative local government were grateful for the additional funding that we received from central government to help facilitate this.

For example, the £50 million ‘Reopening High Streets Safely Fund’ was used by councils to introduce a range of practical measures ahead of July 4th, including new signs, street markings and temporary barriers, and by businesses to adapt their services, for example by introducing contactless payment facilities.

Marketing campaigns were also launched in councils across the country to explain the changes to the public and reassure them that their high streets were safe places to visit.

For example, in Harborough the district council sought to reassure shoppers with a number of proactive measures, including deploying council officers in high visibility jackets to provide information and advice, setting up hand sanitiser stations and using street stencilling to indicate where people should queue.

In addition, in collaboration with Leicestershire County Council, road closures were introduced to facilitate social distancing and safe queuing, thus giving people greater confidence to return.

Meanwhile, Warwick District Council has worked with its market operators to put in place a phased return of the popular weekly markets in Warwick and Kenilworth whilst also introducing free parking in all of its off-street cark parks.

However, whilst many suburban shopping centres are seeing increasing numbers of people returning each week, concern has been expressed about city centres and larger shopping areas.

Again, Conservative councils are doing all that they can to ensure that these are safe places which people feel confident visiting.

Over 80,000 jobs in Westminster depend directly on the hospitality industry and the city council has worked with landowners, businesses and residents to develop more than 50 separate street-wide schemes that deliver outdoor dining areas. These include footway widening, providing tables and chairs in former parking spaces, and, in some cases, timed pedestrianisation of streets.

Furthermore, whilst the Business and Planning Bill was going through Parliament, the council introduced its own interim scheme that allowed businesses to trade outdoors. For example, a fast track tables and chairs licensing scheme, which costs businesses just £100, and temporary events notices, allowed businesses to get up-and-running outdoors within a week.

As we enter August, with the advent of the Government’s ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme and many of us enjoying a staycation, it is to be hoped that domestic tourism will give a much-needed boost to the economy and Conservative councils have led the way in highlighting the many great things that there are to do in the UK.

For example, in Medway, the council is actively promoting its own heritage attractions, such as Rochester Castle, The Guildhall Museum, and Historic Dockyard Chatham, all of which have reopened and are welcoming visitors again.

Clearly, the battle against Coronavirus is not yet won, but I know that in the months ahead, Conservative councils will continue to do all that they can to support their communities and get their local economies going again as part of the national recovery effort.

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

14 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Halfon: Johnson delivers for the workers but Starmer could win back their votes

1 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Blue-Collar Boris

I think readers of ConservativeHome will know my columns well enough by now that when I want the Conservative Government to be better, I am not afraid to say it. But it is also important to dance a jig or two, when they get it right.

Yesterday’s speech by the Prime Minister was a blue-collar speech in tooth and claw. When he said that he would focus on the people’s priorities, he really meant it.

For communities like mine in Harlow, and no doubt those in and around the blue wall, there will be a sigh of relief that there is no return to austerity, that the NHS is King, that schools and colleges will be better funded and housing and infrastructure will be built across our land.

Above all, we now have an extraordinary and exciting offering to our young people – an opportunity guarantee, comprising a choice between an apprenticeship or a work placement. This is a real policy that could make a difference to winning back younger voters as well.

The reason why this Boris Johnson speech was so important was not just the significant policy content, but because it set the direction of travel for the Conservative administration. After a few rocky weeks seemingly being bogged down in the Coronavirus mire, the Prime Minister is back on the front foot, setting out a Tory Workers’ agenda, that millions of lower income workers not only relate to, but can also get behind.

They have been reminded of why they voted for us again. Of course, saying that we are going to ‘build, build, build’ is easier than the building itself, but now the course/trajectory/path has been set, it is up to the rest of the Government to start constructing our New Jerusalem.

Starmer unstuffed

Patrick O’Flynn was one of the early media forefathers (and proponents) of blue-collar conservatism, way back in the days when Notting Hill was regarded as the preferred venue of the Tory éminence grise – a little unlike Dudley, where Johnson was yesterday. So, he is someone worth reading up on or listening to.

However, his recent article for The Spectator entitled, ‘Starmer is stuffed, filled me with absolute horror, because his line of argument, if accepted, would instill a large dollop of complacency in every Conservative.

In O’Flynn’s view, Starmer’s history and background, his inability to develop blue-collar policy, the cultural wars and the Tories’ reputation for economic competency, means everything will be alright on the night.

If we, as Conservatives, believe the above to be true, that way disaster lies; not only will we lose our majority at worst, or have a hung parliament at best, but our historic red wall gains in the North will crumble away.

Let me set out a few reasons why:

First, Keir Starmer is radically de-Corbynising the Labour Party – almost by stealth and under the cover of coronavirus. Almost all the way through the Shadow frontbench, from PPS’ to the Shadow Cabinet, moderates are being promoted. If you look at the calibre of Labour MPs – like Shadow Business Minister, Lucy Powell, or Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas Symonds – you know that the Labour leader is being serious when he wants to present an alternative Government. Meanwhile, the NEC and Labour General Secretary are passing into the hands of social democrats, rather than the far left.

Second, whilst Starmer may not have had his Clause IV with the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, it is certainly a Clause 0.4. In one fell swoop, Starmer has shown the British public that he will not tolerate the anti-semitism that has so infected his party over the past few years – and given a pretty sure signal that he wants to enter the doors of 10 Downing Street.

The idea that the public will care about Starmer’s past record as Director of Public Prosecutions is as fanciful as voters being negatively influenced by Johnson going to Eton, or his early and controversial newspaper columns.

Third, never underestimate the power of Labour. Their message of helping the underdog and the poor is enduring, still popular and extremely potent. They are not going to sit back and let the Tories rule for eternity. The psephological evidence shows that public opinion is leaning closer and closer towards Starmer for Prime Minister.

The latest Opinium poll shows that Starmer is preferred to lead the country by 37 per cent of voters, compared with 35 per cent who back Johnson. While the Conservatives remain four points ahead of their opposition on 43 per cent to Labour’s 39 per cent, the gap has closed from over 20 per cent in February and early March, when Jeremy Corbyn was leader. Scaling the Tory wall is far from insurmountable.

Fourth, on policy: Just because Starmer is a ‘metropolitan’ does not mean that his policies will be ‘metropolitan’, too. His Policy Chief is Claire Ainsley, who wrote an important book, The New Working Class: How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes.

If her views, alongside those of a more communitarian nature as proposed by thoughtful Labour thinkers like John Cruddas, MP for Dagenham (with whom Johnson’s former Political Secretary, my colleague Danny Kruger, is collaborating on big society policy development), or Maurice Glasman, then they could actually have an exciting message to the public, winning minds as well as hearts.

If Tories are busy painting flags on planes, or building Royal Yachts, or shooting ourselves in the foot as we are wont to do on a regular basis – whether it be on free school meals or the NHS surcharge – and Labour are focusing on the cost of living, skills and genuinely affordable housing, I think it is pretty clear voters are going to be looking at the Labour offering, once again.

Having said that, if we come up with more of the blue-collar narrative, I set out in the first part of this article, alongside significant tax cuts for the lower paid, then perhaps O’Flynn could be on to something.

I just wish he wouldn’t say it, nor any other right-thinking individual. Conservatives have to take the next few years as if we have a majority of one, and remember that the political left want the Tories gone, and will stop at nothing to kick them out of Downing Street.