Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
As the cradle of the industrial revolution, the West Midlands left its mark on the globe. In the 19th and 20th centuries the factories and furnaces of Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country forged much of the modern world, exporting goods from ACME whistles to BSA motorcycles, from Cadbury’s chocolate to Bird’s Custard.
Even the ships that carried produce and people to far-flung new markets were anchored by huge chains wrought in our land-locked furnaces.
Now, as the first UK region to finalise a Local Industrial Strategy, we are once again leading the way.
The West Midlands has always been a hotbed of innovation and invention, driving advances in engineering, manufacturing, transport, marketing, social change and more. It was the workshop of the world.
Industrial decline began in the 1960s and, by the end of the last century, our region bore the scars of decay – empty, abandoned factories that once employed thousands. All of that has now started to change.
The West Midlands is undergoing a renaissance of growth and investment. New start-ups are choosing our region as the place to be. Nowhere else outside of London has seen the level of growth witnessed in the West Midlands. Output here has risen by 27 per cent in the last five years. Our productivity growth was twice the rate of the rest of the UK in 2017-18. The innovation and invention that once made us the workshop of the world is back.
Like other post-industrial regions in the UK, we must carve out a new strategy for the West Midlands in an increasingly global 21st century. With the uncertainty around Brexit, we need to think about how we build a globally-competitive economy.
That’s why the West Midlands agreed to be a trailblazer, creating the UK’s first Regional Industrial Strategy, leading the way for others to follow.
This strategy sets out the priorities we believe will enable local growth to continue, as well as ensuring that the success of our region is felt by all the communities within it. This success must be inclusive and accessible to all.
With this ground-breaking document now agreed within the region, we are awaiting the endorsement of Government so that, together, we can start turning strategy into action. With the uncertainty over Brexit, that endorsement would mean we can begin this important work soon – and share our message of confidence.
The West Midlands Combined Authority worked with our universities and the region’s three Local Enterprise Partnerships, from Greater Birmingham, the Black Country and Coventry and Warwickshire, to ensure the strategy not only provides a united vision, but that it also reflects the differing needs of our constituent members.
This spirit of inclusivity also included a wide-spread consultation, which asked regional networks, business groups and 350 different organisations for their input. They wanted a clearer definition of the West Midlands’ ‘unique selling points’, expanded opportunities for a broader cross-section of business sectors and more focus on the huge supply chains that link the conurbation.
Respondents also wanted our strategy to engage with all the different kinds of places where business flourishes in the region, from the big cities to the towns and more rural areas. By fully understanding the successes – and challenges – in our own backyard, we have created a strategy that will help sell the West Midlands to the rest of the world.
This meant identifying four major national and global strategic opportunities:
The UK centre for mobility: From driverless cars to light rail and aerospace, we have the supply chains and transport pedigree to steer huge investment to our region. We have a renowned automotive sector, ranging from world-famous brands like JLR and BMW to innovative smaller development firms. We also have the foundation industries that make the metals and materials that underpin vehicle manufacture at more than 20 sites. With our own transport system becoming more and more integrated, and the West Midlands pioneering the roll-out of the 5G network, mobility could bring billions of pounds.
Creative commerce: We have a wealth of nationally-important gaming, TV, film, VR and design firms. By connecting our universities and creative businesses we can design, develop and deploy new products and services. Evidence shows that Birmingham and Solihull alone have the potential to add nearly 4,000 new creative enterprises and 30,000 new related jobs, with the opportunity to scale this across the West Midlands as a whole.
Business services: As we move more towards a service-based economy, we expect to see large-scale growth across this sector. Business, financial and professional services already employ 400,000 people across the conurbation – with 125,000 more jobs forecast by 2030. Here in the West Midlands we have the full suite of services available, from huge international financial brands such as HSBC to an ambitious construction sector that is well placed to grow in strength with the building boom.
Data-driven healthcare: With our diverse and growing population, there are huge opportunities here for biomedical research, linking NHS patient records through 5G and enabling real-life testing of innovative new treatments. Our expertise and ability to work with patient data in an inclusive, collaborative way is a major UK and West Midlands strength. We have a growing cluster of both large and small firms and an associated supply chain, raising at least £35 million of investment in the last 12 months. Crucially, this innovation will be anchored in partnership with the NHS, translating directly into better health care for our citizens. Our diverse region has the research facilities and expertise. It has the population of Scotland and the genome of the world. It could be a global laboratory for data-driven translational medicine.
These four areas allow us to champion our specialist sectors in a way that will create growth and investment to benefit the entire regional economy.
Of course, all this industrial ambition requires a strong foundation in improved skills, transport, housing and land delivery. We are already making huge strides in all these areas but more remains to be done.
Our strategy lays out ideas to affect real change, from doubling the number of good-quality apprenticeships by 2030 to delivering £3.4 billion of investment in trams, road and rail over the next decade.
In housing, we will increase the rate of housing delivery with a £350 million housing plan, investing £250 million in land remediation and developing the skills required through the National Brownfield Institute in Wolverhampton. This is a great start – but more will be needed to serve our growing population.
The strategy will also push for post-EU growth funding to be targeted on the West Midlands and devolved to local decision makers. We must make the case for continuing to invest in us as a resilient and successful economy.
The former workshop of the world needs a world-class strategy to continue its remarkable economic renaissance. It needs to be distinctive to compete with likes of Berlin, Boston and Barcelona.
But in creating this new strategy, we have confirmed that this diverse, ambitious and inventive place still has an energetic, innovative outlook that makes it a powerhouse on the world stage, just as it did during the Industrial Revolution.
With this confident new vision, the West Midlands wants to lead the way in showing the Government’s Industrial Strategy can make a real difference.