Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
In the few days since he entered Downing Street, British politics has been re-energised by Boris Johnson. From his speech on the steps of Number 10 last Wednesday to his appearances in Parliament and across the country during the following days, the Prime Minister’s words have brought a sense of optimism that engages people.
And that optimism is being built upon an emerging ambitious agenda for our country. Here in the West Midlands we need to seize and shape the energy of the new Government to support our plan to deliver the renewal of our region.
By working together we can unleash the potential of our people to achieve future success. My top ten ambitions for this Government are:
1. Policing: We all know that crime, violence and anti-social behaviour have ruined too many lives here. So, I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge to recruit an additional 20,000 police officers, and was pleased that he chose to come here, to the West Midlands, to reinforce that commitment. Our communities want to feel safe and live crime free – this is the first test of Government. These extra officers will go a long way to making that happen. In May, our region will elect a new Police and Crime Commissioner. We need our first Conservative PCC to ensure the Government’s commitment is backed by a local drive to put more resources onto the frontline.
2. Infrastructure: Here we know that improvements in transport infrastructure help spread access to opportunity, as well as encouraging inward investment into isolated communities. For us, that already means re-opening train stations that have been dormant since Beeching, expanding our Metro network and identifying strategic road investment. That’s all good, but there is now the prospect of a game-changing investment in our public transport infrastructure. The Prime Minister talks of doing for city regions what he did for London – that’s music to our ears!
HS2 plays a central role in this too – not as a competitor for investment but as a driver of it. A recommitment to it, possibly alongside the Leeds to Manchester high speed line is essential to raise our productivity, ignite our regions and keep us competitive on the world stage.
3. Community revival: In tandem with infrastructure, the economic face of our forgotten communities – their town centres and high streets – are also key to revival. The Prime Minister’s £3.6billion pledge to revitalise 100 towns and cities across the UK chimes with the concerted approach we have taken to help high streets across the West Midlands’ seven boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.
However, these ‘forgotten towns’ also suffer from skills gaps. Impressive pilot schemes to better equip people for working life, from apprentice funding to digital retraining, need to now be delivered on a greater scale. We must ensure our young people can’t fall through the gaps in the system, as all the evidence suggests that the opportunities 16 to 17-year olds are offered determine the rest of their lives. The ‘Forgotten Towns’ fund should be for them too.
4. Education: The new Government’s intention to ‘level up’ educational funding across the nation will help give more of our young people opportunities. I know this pledge will be particularly welcome in Solihull, where this issue is acutely felt.
5. Health: the commitment to our NHS is vital, building on that of the previous Government – and that means getting key projects like the new Midland Metropolitan Hospital in Sandwell completed. It also means exploiting technology to prevent disease and as the country’s 5G tested we stand ready to lead that charge.
6. Housing: Meeting the UK’s housing needs provides a massive challenge, and I welcome the Prime Minister’s call for more investment to improve quality of life and drive growth. We are already showing strong growth in house building, and we lead the nation on reclaiming derelict brownfield sites.
However, more must be done to encourage developers to include more affordable housing. Of the 14,500 homes built in the West Midlands last year, only 18 per cent fell into the affordable bracket. Regions like ours need an Affordable Housing Deal to address this – possibly on the GLA model.
Of course, measures to tackle the problem of homelessness go hand-in-hand with this issue. It is now clear that freezing housing benefits since 2016 has contributed to homelessness in the West Midlands. There should an increase in the local housing allowance element of Universal Credit, to stop people falling behind on their payments and being evicted. Losing a private tenancy as a result of getting into arrears is the most common reason to become homeless.
7. Equality: With such a diverse population, inclusivity is one of the central themes of the Urban Conservatism we are creating in the West Midlands. Serving every community is vital – whether geographic or demographic – which is why I welcome the Prime Minister’s clear commitment to championing equalities.
8. Innovation: Securing the industries and jobs of the future is also critical. I have been heartened by the new Prime Minister’s clear belief in the power of technology to create real opportunity and it was great to see him identify battery development as an example. As the age of electric motoring dawns, the automotive sector can transform both our economic and environmental future. So, we must back JLR, the new National Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry and reclaim the title of ‘Motor City’ for the electric era. Key to this is our aim to open a Gigafactory in the West Midlands, to manufacture the batteries needed to power next generation vehicles.
The West Midlands was the first region in the UK to draw up a Local Industrial Strategy, setting out a roadmap for growth over the coming decades. At its heart lies clean growth, a key part of responding to the Climate Change crisis. The Industrial Strategy is perhaps the real legacy of Theresa May’s Government and must be built upon.
9. Brexit: We must honour the decision of the British people on Brexit and back the new Government’s efforts to secure a better deal for our nation and region, as the evidence is clear that a No Deal would be damaging to our manufacturing and exporting region.
10. Devolution: Finally, if we are serious about supercharging our regions and rebalancing the economy, the principles raised in Michael Heseltine’s recent Empowering English Cities report must be addressed. Our regions need a single pot of funding, where we can decide on our own priorities. The West Midlands should also be able to retain some of the taxation raised here to build a more sustainable local economy.
The new Government faces many challenges, but our new Prime Minister has spoken to the issues that matter to us here in the West Midlands. I look forward to us locally playing our part in delivering on them.