Harry Fone: A uniform pay bargaining system for council employees is flawed

4 Aug

Harry Fone is grassroots campaign manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

On a recent visit with the TaxPayers’ Alliance to Sandwell council in the West Midlands, my colleagues and I were struck by the sheer size and scale of the council headquarters, compared to the surrounding area. It’s not just Sandwell; places like Warrington, Coventry and Newport all spring to mind. Not only does it demonstrate that the public sector may be somewhat out of control, but also the economic problem of crowding out – where the private sector struggles to compete in the recruitment of staff.

This is part of the issue with a national pay bargaining system, creating uniform public sector pay rises. The current system does not account for regional differences in private sector incomes and the cost of living. For example, the West Midlands has one of the lowest consumer price levels in England but the fourth highest pay for senior civil service staff. At a national level this one-size-fits-all policy is costing taxpayers around £20 billion a year in pay disparity between the public and private sectors.

A system of regional pay bargaining would help tackle this. Reforming regional pay would not only save billions on the one hand (almost £9 billion in fact!), but on the other, would bring a tremendous economic boost from a reinvigorated and more competitive private sector. Median gross pay was 14.1 per cent higher for public sector staff compared to those in equivalent private sector positions in 2021. Interestingly, or maybe unsurprisingly, depending on your point of view, Scotland had the highest median gross pay difference of 31 per cent.

It’s not just the gap in pay that’s a concern either. While the public sector saw an annual increase in median public sector pay for the UK of 5.8 per cent in 2021, the private sector suffered a fall of 2.3 per cent. Taking all this into account it’s not hard to see why the public rather than the private sector becomes the dominant employer in a given region.

As our policy analyst, Darwin Friend, makes clear in his analysis of the current pay scheme:

“National public sector pay rates artificially and disproportionately inflate labour costs for other organisations competing in the same market. When these costs are inflated beyond the local cost of living, it has a pass through effect on the private sector by reducing investment and employment in that region.”

This very much tallies with the TPA’s experience in Sandwell and indeed the data backs up our anecdotal observations. Regions such as the North West and West Midlands both have unemployment rates over 4.5 per cent. The latter was the only region of Great Britain to have negative growth per head in 2019. Regional pay bargaining can help narrow this gap by making pay packets relative to the cost of living in each region. So pay rises would be lower in areas where costs are less. The private sector would finally be able to compete on an even footing.

As we’ve consistently shown with our annual Town Hall Rich List, claims that council finances are cut to the bone don’t hold water. Similarly, arguments by town hall PR teams that they have to pay top whack to get the best people are nonsensical. They’re already paying an unnecessary premium and in many cases not getting bang for their buck.

Like we’ve seen with commercial property investment, councils seem to be constantly muscling in on the private sector rather than focussing on their core duties. Local government employees have significant pay and pension benefits over their counterparts in the private sector. We need a fairer pay system that will support regions and encourage more private investment to stimulate economic growth. Then that really will be levelling up.

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Harry Fone: Parish Councils have a duty to keep costs down too

5 Jul

Harry Fone is the grassroots campaign manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

One area of local government that is often not scrutinised enough (despite the best efforts of a select few in Handforth) is that of parish and town councils. The latest government data makes for interesting analysis. There are nearly 8,800 parishes in England that charge a precept tax to local residents. The average charge for a Band D bill in 2022-23 came in at £74.81, a 4.1 per cent increase from the previous year.

Just two parishes cut their precept by 53 pence and £2.64 in Fawley, West Berkshire and Beesby with Salesby, East Lindsey respectively. The highest charge can be found in Falmouth, Cornwall at a jaw-dropping £377.97. Beating second-placed Bodmin by more than £60. More than 50 per cent, 4,611 to be precise, of parish councils charge less than £50 for a Band D precept. But 939 charge over £100 or more.

Obviously, the parish precept isn’t the largest slice of a household’s Council Tax bill but it is another addition that exacerbates the burden on many people’s finances. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to ask that parish and town councils tighten their purse strings and make some much need savings for taxpayers.

And here’s one way they can do it

I’ve previously written about the efforts of East Grinstead town councillor, Charles Amos, to curb members’ allowances. He’s now launched a new campaign to abolish allowances entirely. As he astutely points out, they currently cost local taxpayers over £22,000 every year. But neighbouring parish councils, such as Felbridge, Ardingly, Cuckfield and Twineham, pay no allowances to councillors whatsoever.

I think he’s more than right to raise this issue. Whilst a good argument can be made that parish councils play an important role in local government, one would hope that elected members would be more than willing to help improve their local communities and at the same time ease the burden on the taxpayer. In East Grinstead’s case, councillors only meet every fortnight for 90 minutes. Public duty should come first, perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Lingfield where not one councillor has claimed allowances (which they are entitled to) in the last 8 years.

Charles has already led the way and given up his allowances of £1,187 (he also forwent a similar amount last year), putting cash back in the hands of local taxpayers. He estimates that if all his fellow councillors did the same, residents of East Grinstead would save £1.90 in council tax. Some may scoff and say that’s a tiny amount but try telling that to a family of four who literally keep an eye on every penny they spend. I say good luck to Charles and I urge more councillors (at whatever level of local government) to follow his lead.

People are fed up with excessive town hall remuneration

Since the TaxPayers’ Alliance published the latest edition of our Town Hall Rich List back in April, we’ve been touring the country to find out what local residents make of the six-figure remuneration sums paid to council bosses.

Last week we pitched our stall outside Sandwell Borough Council in the West Midlands. Inviting people to participate in our game of “Play Your Council Cards Right” (based on the legendary Bruce Forsyth game show), it wasn’t long before we amassed a crowd of people. Among them was the council’s very own Director of Public Health (remunerated to the tune of £127,610 in 2020-21 before you ask) who took issue with our campaign and suggested we were unfairly targeting council employees.

But as I tried (somewhat in vain) to explain to said director, the Town Hall Rich List doesn’t make judgements about remuneration. We merely compile the information from every council in the country and leave it up to local residents to decide whether they are getting value for money or not. And guess what? Every member of the public we spoke to was less than pleased, to put it mildly. But it’s not just in Sandwell, as our recent vox pops from Cardiff shows, that people are fed up with Council Tax increases seemingly going hand-in-hand with bumper remuneration for town hall bosses. Local authorities should start listening to their residents.

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Local elections in depth: Sandwell is seeing the fallen bricks from the red wall being crushed into dust

3 Nov

Source: Election Maps.

Case study: Sandwell

Control: Labour.

Numbers: Labour 58, Conservatives 9, Independents 4

Change since last local elections:  Conservatives +9, Labour -9.

All out or thirds: Thirds

Background: Sandwell is a metropolitan borough of the West Midlands. It was formed in 1974 and covers the towns of Oldbury, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, Tipton, Wednesbury, and West Bromwich – as well as several smaller settlements. This area became known as the “black country” with all the coal and soot that was around during the industrial revolution. Sandwell is named after Sandwell Priory which was a medieval monastery, near West Bromwich – which was beset with infighting and mismanagement. A prior called Richard Dudley was accused of being soft on crime – harbouring murderers and thieves. It all went so badly that the place was closed down in 1525 by Cardinal Wolsey – more than a decade before the main Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.

The Council has been dominated by the Labour Party – though was run by the Conservatives for a year in 1978. In recent years Labour has held every single seat. Yet at the last General Election, the Conservatives won three of the four constituencies that include parts of Sandwell. James Morris doubled his majority in Halesowen and Rowley Regis (a constituency that also covers part of Dudley.) Then we had Nicola Richards gaining West Bromwich East for the Conservatives. This was a seat that had been Labour since its creation in 1974 – even during the Thatcher landslides. It had previously been represented by Tom Watson, the Labour Deputy Leader. West Bromwich West was another Conservative gain. This seat had once been held by Betty Boothroyd, the Commons Speaker. Again, it had never been Conservative before. Though Labour did hold Warley with a big majority.

Why did the Conservatives do so well in Sandwell in the General Election? The EU referendum result may give a clue to the mystery. Two thirds of the voters of Sandwell voted for Brexit. A challenge for the Conservatives is that the borough is very multi-racial – Warley has a large Asian population which may explain why the Labour vote has held up there.

Results: Was the fall of the Red Wall in 2019 just a temporary protest about Brexit or something more fundamental? These results from May offer an important piece of evidence that it is the latter. Some wards showed a spectacular breakthrough. In Friar Park Ward a Conservative was elected with 51.6 per cent of the vote – up by 36 per cent. Great Barr with Yew Tree saw a Conservative easily gain the seat after more than doubling the vote share on last time. In Cradley Heath and Old Hill, Labour narrowly hung on, but the Conservative share of the vote tripled. Since the council elections, the Conservatives have gained a by-election from Labour and so are now up to ten – that was in Tividale Ward which Labour had held on to in May.

During the election campaign there was frustration with the Labour-run council over poor services. CCTV was not functioning effectively enough to combat flytipping and other anti-social behaviour. Potholes would deepen and street lights be left broken. Reporting the assorted problems to a complacent bureaucracy seemed to make no difference. The Conservative councillors are already getting stuck in challenging the waste and mismanagement. They are helping to get Neighbourhood Watch schemes established. But the difficulty will be finding new people to come forward to join them. Only a couple of years ago, the Conservative Party organisation across much of the borough was scarcely operational. Further Conservative progress will rely on the Conservative councillors and MPs scouting around for keen recruits willing to stand as candidates. That won’t be easy. But Labour’s task looks even more daunting. Their red wall has fallen. Yet far from putting back the bricks, they are being turned into dust.

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.

Some key contests will show if the “red wall” has been truly demolished

26 Mar

Those who have been carefully studying the earlier instalments of local election analysis, will have noted that Labour will find it easier to make gains on seats last contested in 2017 (when they did very badly) than those where the previous elections were in 2016 (when Labour and the Conservatives were broadly neck and neck.) The county council elections come under the first category. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections, and those for district councils, come under the second. That leaves us with the single tier councils, unitary authorities, and the metropolitan boroughs – these are the councils destined to be the dominant model for local government in the coming years.

Here it is difficult to give a sweeping prediction. First of all, because in some of them only a third of seats are up for elections. Secondly, because while most were last contested in 2016 – and thus will be challenging for Labour to improve upon – some are from 2017, so it would be hard for Labour to do any worse.

Demographic change adds to the uncertainty. Trafford is traditionally regarded as an important battleground between Labour and the Conservatives. Yet there is quite a substantial Labour lead there at present – 36 Labour councillors to 20 for the Conservatives. With only third of councillors up for election, the scope for dramatic change is limited. As the seats were last contested in 2016 there should be scope for Conservative gains. Trafford has become more middle class but not small business owners and the sort of middle class voter inclined to back the Tories. Instead, they are the secretariat middle class – university researchers, public sector administrators, and so forth – a category more likely to have socialist allegiances.

Brighter prospects for the Conservatives may be found in Dudley. Labour and the Conservatives have 36 seats each. Only a third of seats are being contested – and there are a couple of independents. But given this was last contested in 2016 it would be disappointing if the Conservatives did not gain overall control. Walsall Council is already narrowly in Conservative hands – the expectation will be to see the majority increased.

Plymouth may be tricky for the Conservatives due to local splits. The dispute, which has resulted in some councillors elected as Conservatives now sitting as independents, seems to concern speed limits. Labour hold a narrow lead on the Council at present and a third of the seats are up for election. They were last contested in 2016 – which should have given the Conservatives an opportunity. The close of nominations on April 8th may give a sense of the consequences of the infighting in terms of independent candidates standing.

Due to the extraordinary General Elections results in December 2019, we have some local authorities with Conservative MPs but no Conservative councillors. How effective have these new Conservative MPs been at building up a campaigning machine and talent spotting good council candidates? The “red wall” has already been breached. Will it now be demolished? Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:

“The 2017 local elections saw the Labour bastion Northumberland fall. Labour also lost a large number of seats in Durham – mostly to independents. Both those councils have all their councillors up for election again. So the test for Labour will be whether they can recover or whether the trend from the General election is confirmed. 

“Sheffield may be difficult for Labour. In some places, they will be worried about the Green Party and the Lib Dems. But we also have wards in Sheffield, on the north western fringe, with a Conservative MP – Miriam Cates the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge. So could we see the first Conservative councillors in Sheffield for a long time?

“Sandwell has Conservative MPs but no Conservative councillors. Rotherham has no Conservative councillors but part of it is represented by Alexander Stafford the MP for Rother Valley. Doncaster does already have a small number of Conservative councillors. Will they have more given that there is now Nick Fletcher as the Conservative MP for Don Valley?”

“The greatest interest will be in Black Country and South Yorkshire. These are places that would have be ignored in previous local elections due to being so monolithically Labour.”

Milton Keynes will be worth looking out for, as it is pretty evenly divided between the Conservatives, Labour, and the Lib Dems. Elsewhere the Lib Dems start from a generally weak position. They will be making an effort in Wokingham where they have made some quiet progress in the past.

One caveat to all the elections covered this week. I have tried to look at the state of the parties in current opinion polls as a clue to how they might perform, relative to the actual votes cast in the local elections of four and five years ago. But in local elections older people are more likely to vote. The Conservatives already had a big lead among older voters in 2016 and 2017. But there has been some polling suggesting that the Conservatives relative advantage in that group compared to the population generally has increased. That may be part of a continuing trend. Or it may be that the “vaccination bounce” has a greater impact among the old. It might give the Conservatives a bit of an extra edge – especially in places like Cornwall with a significant number of retired people.

Next week I will consider some of high profile contests for directly elected Mayors.

Harry Fone: Holding council meetings online can save millions in travel expenses

11 Feb

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

Across the country, local authorities have had to adapt to the challenges the pandemic has brought. One key area has been the ability to continue to hold regular council meetings using online services like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. In order to make this possible, the government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for public meetings to be held in person.

As a result, many councils have made saving courtesy of reduced travel expenses claimed by members. Powys County Council estimates it can save £40,000 per year by using a mixture of online and in-person meetings. Similarly, West Sussex County Council has stopped shelling out “some £6,000 per month” in expenses.

Based on back of the envelope calculations, and using Powys as a guide, across the UK’s 26 county councils and 120 unitary authorities, savings could be just shy of £6 million per year. And that’s before adding borough and district councils into the mix. The environmental benefits shouldn’t be ignored too. A reduction in car journeys would help authorities meet their ambitious green targets.

It begs the question: should things continue this way after the pandemic is over? After all, many in the private sector are embracing the working from home revolution. Especially given the huge savings afforded to them by reducing the size of expensive city centre offices.

There are undoubtedly concerns around whether holding meetings in this way would be good for democracy. Technology should be aiding councils’ decision-making processes, not hindering them. But potential multi-million pound savings shouldn’t be ignored.

Councils must get their priorities straight

One benefit the internet definitely has brought, is the ability to scrutinise local and national government more easily. The TaxPayers’ Alliance frequently scours the Contracts Finder website – which allows anyone to see tenders by the public sector – as part of our efforts to ensure money is spent wisely.

In most cases, contracts put forward by councils are more than reasonable, such as the provision of grass cutting or bin collections. But this week I found two examples that show a worrying attitude to taxpayers’ cash by public officials.

We’re all fed up of covid and can’t wait to see the back of it. But many will question whether Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council has its priorities in the right place. It plans to spend £10,000 on “suitable experienced lighting companies” to project messages onto buildings that “will encourage the community to think about what they would like to tell themselves in a year’s time once things have changed and some sort of normality is hoped to have resumed.”

Fylde is another council that clearly thinks money grows on trees. It awarded a three year contract worth nearly £65,000 for a mayoral chauffeur. When households are struggling to put food on the table, it is nothing short of outrageous that council bosses think this is an acceptable use of money for what is a largely ceremonial role.

In the scheme of local government spending this is relatively small fry. But wouldn’t it have been far better to put this money into essential frontline services?

Keeping a tight grip on the purse strings

Following a tip off, I sent a freedom of information request to all councils in the UK asking how much money they had overpaid to staff (e.g. in salary, bonuses, expense, pensions etc) and of any excess payments, what amount had been successfully reclaimed. I’m pleased to say that at a majority of authorities only a microscopic sum of money was written off. But there were quite a few that didn’t fare so well.

In total for the financial years 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20, £2.5 million was written off across a total of 57 councils. Much of this was made up by The Highland Council, whose response was particularly concerning. In just three years, it overpaid staff to the tune of £1.1 million but couldn’t say how much had been recovered, stating its “policy is to pursue all overpayments.” It’s worrying that they can’t provide a figure; let’s hope for the taxpayers’ sake, they’ve managed to claw back a decent percentage rather than nothing at all.

There is no doubt that payroll is a complicated area and correcting all errors may be almost impossible. But why is it that some authorities are able to recoup nearly all monies while others lag so far behind? Whatever the answer, councils should remember that they have a tremendous responsibility to taxpayers and must strive to get the best possible value for every penny.

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: 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.