Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
What sets a place apart as a ‘world city’? As West Midlands Mayor, it’s my job to raise the region’s global profile, to ensure it gate-crashes conversations usually occupied by the likes of New York, Berlin, and London.
If it’s diversity, we have it – the West Midlands is a place where you can discover the world in a day. If it’s growth, the West Midlands has shown the biggest increase in productivity anywhere outside the capital. If innovation is the key, more start-ups are choosing us as their new home than ever before.
One critical factor that sets the likes of London, Paris, Berlin, and the Big Apple apart are their world-class underground and metro public transport systems – the Underground, the Paris Metro, the U-Bahn, and the Subway. Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul are also members of the club. These long-established networks are an intrinsic part of local culture.
In the West Midlands, historical under-investment in regional infrastructure is very slowly improving, but as part of Local Industrial Strategy, and the drive to further increase productivity, we need to see that accelerate.
Before devolution created the West Midlands Combined Authority, our region received just one seventh of the capital spending per head on transport enjoyed by those in London. It is illuminating that, despite being the nation’s second biggest city in terms of population, recent analysis by the Guardian concluded that Birmingham was effectively a small city, as a result of its transport challenges.
Now, with decision-making in local hands and more investment, this situation is improving. These are problems that have been talked about for a quarter of a century, and we have finally been able to unblock them in the last two years. But more investment is needed.
Why? Because while we are seeing an economic renaissance here, growth brings its own challenges in terms of congestion, connectivity, and mobility. Recent data has shown that Birmingham is the UK’s third most congested city.
As the crucible of the Industrial Revolution, we once set the standard in public transport. Until 1953, Birmingham boasted the biggest narrow-gauge tramway in the UK. The Black Country boasted a similarly impressive tram system. With the decline in industry, that system was dismantled. Now, with the region’s ambition and confidence resurgent, we are once again building a metro system that befits an economic powerhouse.
The West Midlands already has a good local train network, and we are even reopening stations that have been closed since the 1960s. Passenger usage is well up on last year, in contrast to London and the North.
Our fast-growing Metro system complements those rail services. The rebirth began in 1999, with the opening of the Midlands Metro Line between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Passenger numbers have been steadily growing, passing the seven million mark for the first time last year.
However, in an enormous region that spans our seven member boroughs of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Solihull, Coventry, Sandwell, Walsall and Dudley, there is still much more for us to do to achieve the kind of transit system we need.
We are currently working on four major extensions to the Metro. In Birmingham, a line is being built from the city centre to Edgbaston, while in the Black Country a £449 million route will join Wednesbury and Brierley Hill. A third extension runs to the new HS2 station at Curzon Street, while a fourth will link to Birmingham Airport.
Over the coming years, our network will triple in size, as a massive £1.3 billion investment programme being spearheaded by the West Midlands Combined Authority and Transport for West Midlands is completed. We are leading the way in building a regional public transport network for the 21st century. This is our Crossrail.
Here are five key lessons we have learned when building our Metro:
For a transport programme of this magnitude to be a success, everyone needs to be onboard. We have worked closely in a cross-party way with constituent councils, local MPs and Government to ensure that we deliver on these schemes.
Show benefits quickly
Infrastructure programmes bring jobs, and it’s vital the population hears about those opportunities quickly. That means advertising the new roles and apprenticeships which will be available during the construction of the Metro. To spread the benefits of a project like this, you must help local businesses bid to be part of the project. These activities help the public see the benefits long before the first trams are on the rails, and ensures local people feel they are invested in the network.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Our Edgbaston extension closed roads including Birmingham’s Broad Street, one of the businesses nightlife destinations in the country. Many party members visiting Birmingham for Conference last year will have seen some of this disruption for themselves. We have spent a lot of time and money supporting the businesses who will be affected by the works, particularly by letting their customers know they are still open for business.
The Government has invested £200 million in reinventing the West Midlands Metro network, but we are determined that we aren’t just reliant on handouts from Westminster and that we use our own resourcefulness to finance these Metro improvements. For the first time, we in the West Midlands will be financing the Brierley Hill Metro extension through prudent borrowing, against future Metro revenues.
Don’t just go for the small extensions you can afford now and which everyone will agree to. Be ambitious, challenge people to think about a world-class network and what money and routes it would take to make it happen. The new extension from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill has been talked about for twenty five years. I am proud that as a Conservative Mayor, with the support of a Conservative Government, we are set to get the diggers in the ground this year.
Through this approach, we’re building a Metro network to be proud of. We look forward to welcoming you to Birmingham for Party Conference again soon, so that you can try it out for yourself. Passenger numbers show that residents are responding to our attempts to properly link up this densely-populated part of the UK, helping them reach the opportunities that our economic policies are bringing.
As one of the UK’s success stories, we expect the West Midlands to rub shoulders with ‘world cities’ like Berlin and New York. Delivering a world-class Metro system will certainly improve our global standing. More importantly, it will make a world of difference to the people who live and work here.