Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Housing is one the biggest challenges of the 21st Century. While Conservative policies continue to build a strong economy and create job opportunities, there is no doubt that, as a nation, we face a huge challenge in simply providing enough housing for our population. Over generations, we have failed to ensure that house building has kept pace our needs. Reversing this will be a key way in which the Conservative party can become attractive to younger voters for whom this is a critical issue.
Here in the West Midlands, by closely working with our constituent Local Authorities, we are leading the way in dealing with this challenge, and are seeing housebuilding rising substantially year on year.
This is being driven by our strong economic growth and sustained improvements in our transport infrastructure. But as we build the housing stock of the future, we are also addressing some of the residual problems of our industrial past, by repurposing contaminated land and reopening transport links.
Happily, the latest figures show that this housing surge is not just confined to our economic hotspots, such as Birmingham and Coventry, but is now being shared with communities where economic growth has been slower. Within the West Midlands, the number of homes started last year went up the most – by 18 per cent – in the Black Country.
This is important as I am determined that the whole region benefits from the resurgence of the West Midlands. The spread of high-quality new housing is a vital proof point for our plan.
The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has committed to delivering 215,000 new homes spread across the region by 2031 – easily the biggest number outside London, which reflects our growing population.
House prices and rents are also rising faster here than the rest of the UK, a double-edged sword that benefits some while impacting on younger people.
Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 10,640 new homes were started in the WMCA area last year – a seven per cent increase on 2017. Across England, the average increase was zero.
Housing completions in the West Midlands increased by 13 per cent to 10,960, compared to the average increase of one per cent in England.
The highest rise in housing completions was in the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) area, where 40 per cent more new homes were finished than in 2017.
Creating more affordable housing remains a challenge. While the number of affordable homes built across the region last year was considerably more than in the previous 12 months, we know we must do better. We have a target to triple the numbers being built, and are working with partners to achieve this ambition.
While the sight of cranes dotting the skylines of city centres may be a sign of economic confidence, people want to see redevelopment and regeneration reach out to their communities, too.
This is not happening by accident. As Mayor my focus is jobs, transport and housing, all of which are intrinsically linked. Transport investment is key, as we map out where new housing developments can support economic growth.
In the Black Country, for example, the £449 million extension of the Metro will spearhead regeneration along its route through Sandwell and into Dudley. In Walsall, we are re-opening railway stations like Willenhall and Darlaston, which have been closed to passengers since the Beeching cuts.
This joined-up approach is providing a network that not only transports people around our region, it encourages development to spread out. A good transport network not only moves people, it moves investment. The Government is playing its part in this, investing £200 million in expanding the West Midlands Metro network.
But perhaps the most resonant example of our housing revolution can be seen in areas where for decades regeneration was simply impossible. Like many of the UK’s regions, the West Midlands is scarred by the remnants of our industrial past. These derelict ‘brownfield’ sites, once the homes of industries that made our region an industrial powerhouse, are often contaminated, polluted and unsuitable for redevelopment.
It is vital that we address these areas, not only to unlock the valuable land that they represent, but to rebuild communities from within, to give them new heart. This has become a central plank of our housing policy.
Again, the Government is playing its part in this new approach. We secured £350 million from the Chancellor in our Housing Deal to transform swathes of redundant and derelict former industrial sites, bringing them back into use for jobs and homes.
It is crucial that more investment is made in this exciting area. Government must not only provide financial incentives to persuade developers to look at brownfield sites first, it must also ensure that planning processes do not put brownfield developers at a disadvantage.
Locally, we must be as efficient as possible, too. In the West Midlands, we are setting up a single framework to distribute over £600 million of regeneration funding quickly, speeding up development.
We are seeing tangible change. For example, in Walsall the 44-acre derelict site of a former copper works has been the subject of stalled regeneration plans for more than two decades. Now known as the ‘Phoenix 10’ site, it sits near Junctions 9 and 10 of the M6 – a visible sign of stagnation. It will now come back to use – great evidence of effective teamwork to make this happen!
I am proud that, as a Conservative mayor and with the backing of a Conservative-lead council and a Conservative Government, this blot on Walsall’s landscape is finally being turned to good use.
The highly-polluted site is now being cleared and cleaned-up to create a modern employment park, bringing more than 1000 jobs. Elsewhere in the region we are seeing sites that have lain dormant for a generation or longer brought back to use.
In Wolverhampton, a £185 million city living development, called Brewers Yard, is planned for a ten-acre brownfield plot near the university. Just a stone’s throw from the city’s new rail and bus interchange, this mix of luxury and affordable homes is a great example of how transport investment and brownfield reclamation is encouraging building in areas that developers once avoided.
Fittingly, the Black Country, synonymous with the heavy industry of the Industrial Revolution, aims to take the lead in building this new science of reclamation. The University of Wolverhampton plans to be the home of a new National Brownfield Institute, which will feature labs and testing facilities as part of its £100 million Springfield Campus development.
There are other real benefits to reclaiming the derelict sites of the past. While transforming urban communities, it helps us protect the cherished greenbelt land around the edges of the conurbation. What’s more, by shifting the emphasis of home building from the suburbs to urban living, we can also potentially help the high street by increasing footfall.
We have a long way to go to meet the housing and regeneration needs of our region. But here in the West Midlands we are unlocking the huge potential of these wasted sites and making “brownfield first” a reality.
By addressing some of the remnants of our industrial past, we are rebuilding communities for the future – and providing new housing that gives hope to young voters.