Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
When the Prime Minister gave his first speech at the Manchester Science and Industry Museum on July 27, he spoke of the “basic ingredients of success for the UK”.
He spoke about culture, liveability, responsibility in power and accountability – but the subject that resonated most with the experiences of the West Midlands was his belief in the power of connections.
He said: “Inspiration and innovation, cross fertilisation between people, literally and figuratively, cannot take place unless people can bump into each other, compete, collaborate, invent and innovate.”
The West Midlands provides a case study for the UK in how connectivity can transform an area by linking its communities, its geography, its businesses and its people. In the UK’s most diverse region, this commitment to connection is a key part of the new Urban Conservatism we are building here, which is winning support.
In a region spread across the seven boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton, connectedness has been vital in building a sense of unity. Most obviously, huge investment in our transport network is allowing our communities to physically meet.
But as the Prime Minister said, connectedness isn’t just about tramlines and buses, it’s about encouraging the sharing of ideas to drive growth – and it’s as old as the hills.
Successful city states – going back to the Italian Renaissance and beyond – flourish by bringing people together to drive social and economic progress through greater understanding and innovation. The lesson of history is that places that unite different cultures to distil their ideas and harness their ambition are successful, be it 18th century London or 20th century New York.
Here, that ambition means connecting an increasing number of economic hotspots. From the cluster around the NEC known as ‘UK Central’ to the massive Phoenix 10 brownfield reclamation scheme in the Black Country, the resurgent economy in the West Midlands is creating jobs that require connectivity. Investment in public transport is building an arterial network taking people – and their ideas– into these centres of opportunity.
But the real lesson of the West Midlands story is how we are learning to connect people, not places. The Mayor’s Community Weekend, for example, brought tens of thousands of people together over 165 events through a partnership between the West Midlands Combined Authority and the National Lottery Community Fund. A hundred workplaces joined in with the Mayor’s Giving Day, encouraging charity in all forms. My Faith Action Plan brings together different faiths. We are even connecting the generations through my Cricket Cup at Edgbaston on September 8, which will see grandparents and grandchildren take the field together.
In such a diverse place, these soft social initiatives solidify to bind the connections we make, simply by getting involved. The alternative to connectedness is isolation, which breeds intolerance. It’s critical to stand against intolerance of any kind, whether it’s racial, religious or the kind of schools protest against equality teaching we have seen in Birmingham.
We are also making great strides in closing divisions in our communities to improve social mobility. In 2007, 20% of our young people left school with no qualifications, a figure that has been brought down to 11% through retraining in areas like digital and construction, and growth in modern apprenticeships.
That’s being helped by a unique feature in the West Midlands – the Apprenticeship Levy Transfer Scheme, which allows us to spend the unused apprenticeship levy paid by big firms more sensibly. Closing skills gaps like this is another way that we promote connectedness across and within our communities.
Connectivity in a more literal sense can be achieved through technology. I was encouraged by the PM’s commitment in his candidacy to speed up the roll-out of Fibre Broadband across the country. This kind of quick expansion is vital if we are to ensure that no areas are left disconnected from digital opportunities through under-investment.
However, with 5G coming first to our region, we aren’t prepared to wait for connections to spark innovation. Just a few weeks ago a ground-breaking trial here hinted at what can be achieved with 5G, when we linked local ambulances to doctors in A&E in real-time. The same technological connectivity is driving our automotive sector in its ambition to become the UK capital of driverless vehicles.
Sitting as we do at the heart of England, the West Midlands is positioned to benefit from the Prime Minister’s ambition to better connect the nation and rebalance the economy. As the PM said, “We need to literally and spiritually unite Britain, and that means boosting growth and bringing our regions together.”
To me, there is no greater instrument for this ambition than HS2 – the single piece of investment that will unlock millions of pounds of transport and housing infrastructure our region desperately needs.
Sites like the new tram line from East Birmingham to Solihull are indelibly linked to HS2. We have a target to ensure local people are never more than 45 minutes from a HS2 station, and schemes such as reopening closed railway lines and the impressive Sutton Coldfield Gateway have been meticulously planned around this major investment by the Government to sew our country together. Without it we are definitely poorer.
Connections need to be international too. As Michael Heseltine pointed out in this report ‘Empowering English Cities’, which was commissioned by the West Midlands Combined Authority, the underperformance of our major cities on the world stage is a critical problem that must be solved if we are to balance our economy.
However, this does not mean adopting an adversarial position to competing city regions like Rotterdam, Lyon, Frankfurt, Milan, Chicago and Sapporo, it means ensuring that we have the global connections to take in the best ideas and turn them to our own advantage.
This crucible of cultures concept is the very purpose of the civic university, and you will not find a better example than Chamberlain’s University of Birmingham – which is why our universities must, post-Brexit, continue to welcome International students. They literally connect us to the world and the ideas developing beyond our shores.
Travel opportunities are also important in nurturing our global position. Birmingham Airport has its sights set beyond the Brexit horizon with continued growth in passenger numbers. Work is due to start on its T18 project – named because it will create a terminal that can handle 18 million passengers a year, a rise of nearly 40% on the previous record, achieved in 2017.
HS2 makes this project even more important, as the airport will only be 38 minutes away from Euston, much quicker to get to from North London than both Heathrow and Gatwick.
Finally, I consider my own role as Mayor of the West Midlands to be one of connectivity. Overseeing a region where Labour control the majority of local authorities has meant that my job has often been about providing the glue that holds us all together, encouraging teamwork. In the UK’s youngest, most diverse area, this Urban Conservative approach is paying dividends politically as we attempt to make more of our constituent authorities Conservative.
This kind of inclusive Conservative leadership is where the party must be – and we are looking to Prime Minister Johnson, as the former Mayor of Britain’s mega city, to understand this and follow it through in Government. The Prime Minister will know what a Conservative Mayor in an urban region can achieve through physically connecting people – whether it’s through social connections, transport connections or digital connections – and I hope he will be considering how we can replicate this across the country.