Cllr Wendy Thompson is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Wolverhampton City Council.
December’s General Election produced a fantastic set of results for Conservatives in Wolverhampton. Across the city, as a whole, the Conservative Party won the popular vote. We won two of the three constituencies, including a seat which we last won more than 30 years ago in the 1987 election – Wolverhampton North East. We came within 1,200 votes of winning the third constituency, only losing it because of the Brexit Party candidate attracting a considerable number of votes.
But our attention has quickly turned to May’s local elections, and, of course, the vital elections for the Mayor of the West Midlands – and the Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands. On the back of the General Election result, there is scope for the number of Conservative councillors in Wolverhampton to grow. Out of 60 councillors in the city, we currently have 11 so there is a strong Labour presence. But with the help of our two newly-elected MPs, we will be pounding the pavements and knocking on doors to explain to residents our positive agenda for a Conservative-controlled Wolverhampton Council.
Wolverhampton is a city with huge potential. It is ideally located on the motorway network, and the railway station (undergoing a much-needed revamp) has good connectivity to London, Scotland, Birmingham, and beyond. But sadly, decades of a Labour-run council has left the city facing many difficult challenges. Unemployment remains stubbornly high at twice the national average, as does the number of workless households. In one ward, the average male life expectancy is 74 years, compared to 83 years in another ward. That is a huge variation which needs to be addressed.
The city centre continues to struggle to attract shoppers, with big names such as Debenhams, Starbucks, and House of Fraser deciding to shut up shop. It is nothing short of a crisis. And it’s a crisis that sadly the Labour Party in Wolverhampton just doesn’t understand. Conservative councillors have put forward positive proposals such as free city centre parking at weekends, which is something that the Conservative Tees Valley Mayor is pursuing in his region. This idea has, however, been rejected by Labour. Their flagship Westside leisure complex, which has been scaled down from the original plans, has failed to get off the ground after four years, despite a change to the financial scheme which would see the taxpayer bear the brunt of the risk rather than the developer.
Another issue which will feature prominently in our local election campaign will be the greenbelt. Wolverhampton’s boundaries are incredibly tight, with only 11 per cent of the city’s land classified as greenbelt. However, given the growth in population in the region, we are under huge pressure to build more houses. Migration into the West Midlands conurbation is also putting pressure on amenities such as GP surgeries as well as school places. So the need to build more homes is immediate and pressing. The “brownfield first” policy adopted by West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, has been helpful in addressing the housing shortage. There are hundreds of brownfield sites across Wolverhampton that need to be developed on first, before we even think about touching the greenbelt. Street’s investment has helped to unlock a lot of that brownfield land, but there is much more to do.
The West Midlands Mayoral election will also be vitally important, not just for Wolverhampton but for the entire region. Our incumbent first-class Mayor continues to be a strong voice for the West Midlands, and in the short time he has been in office he has brought an incredible amount of investment into Wolverhampton. From building new homes on brownfield sites across the city, to supporting our plans for new railway stations, he is a great champion for Wolverhampton and knows what it can achieve.
It will be a tight race between Andy and the Labour candidate, and we will be fighting for every vote in Wolverhampton. Because at this critical moment in our country’s history, as we leave the EU and strike new trading relationships across the world, the West Midlands cannot afford to lose its loudest voice in Andy Street. He has put our part of the world well and truly on the Government’s radar, and if re-elected he will continue to do so. His ambitions for the West Midlands, the Black Country, and Wolverhampton have no limits.
So the local elections in May will be vitally important for Wolverhampton and the wider West Midlands region. There can be no doubt that we have a lot of work to do between now and then, knocking on doors and speaking to voters about the fantastic achievements of Andy Street, and how we have a plan to unleash the potential of our city. As well as getting Brexit done, the Conservatives have a strong message to push locally, and a record of delivery of which we can be proud.