Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
A year ago, ahead of the last Conservative Party conference, I was asked by regional media how continued austerity was impacting life in the West Midlands. My answer was simple: the cuts had gone far enough. I called for an end to austerity. Twelve months on, after the Chancellor announced that it was time to “turn the page” on austerity, I know I was right to speak out.
Austerity was tough but necessary medicine for an economy left teetering on the edge by the last Labour Government. It is easy to forget the problems left behind for the incoming Coalition – a mess best summed up by the infamous note left by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury which warned glibly “there is no money left”. It was true.
But let us never forget that austerity had to be introduced because of what the last Labour Government did – not what the Coalition Government wanted to do.
This new spending round, announced by Sajid Javid, is clear evidence that the age of austerity is drawing to a close, and that spending on real priorities can now begin. Services such as local government, the NHS, police, and education are all set to receive a significant funding boost. A moderate Conservative Government has to show its belief in quality public services. This spending round has begun to do that.
A decade of difficult and determined work by George Osborne and Philip Hammond has provided the financial headroom to allow Sajid to make these vital investments in our nation’s future. How? The deficit left by Labour of 10 per cent has now been slashed to 1.1 per cet enabling a return to responsible investment. The announcements of funding for further education, buses and homelessness are particularly encouraging for the West Midlands and I will continue lobbying Government to make sure our region gets its fair share.
The Commonwealth Games in 2022 will be an incredible spectacle for the whole region, and it was great to hear the Government reaffirm its commitment to the event. More than £590 million of Government funding will be spent on making sure the games are delivered on time and to the highest standard, helping to put our region in the global spotlight and showcasing what a post-Brexit UK can do.
We are also seeing funding commence to deliver 20,000 extra police officers – announced here in the West Midlands in Edgbaston. This is much needed as crime is a major concern in the West Midlands. I hope from next May we will see a new Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner, Jay Singh-Sohal, elected who will ensure that we restore police numbers in the West Midlands. Jay has already pledged to freeze dozens of police station closures across the West Midlands planned by the current Labour PCC and will bring local energy to the national policy of directing resources to frontline policing.
The increase in funding for the NHS is hugely welcome – with Heartlands hospital in Birmingham a big winner. Now we need to see the Government swing behind the Midland Metropolitan Hospital in Sandwell and get work underway again to finish this vital facility.
The levelling up of school funding will be hugely welcome in Solihull particularly, where residents and educators have long voiced concerns over the unfairness of the current system.
On transport, the additional £200 million for bus services across the country, including investment in ultra-low emission buses, is the right thing to do. Here in the West Midlands, working with operators like National Express, we have seen how investment in new clean buses, low fare zones and targeted fare cuts for certain groups is driving forward an increase in bus use, against a national backdrop where bus usage is falling
We are also closing the higher education skills gap, not just via our great universities and colleges but also through ground-breaking apprenticeships and vocational training schemes that aim to equip the workforce with the skills that they will need in the decades to come.
Additional funding from government – of £400 millon further education funding for 16-19 year olds – will allow us to speed up and re-double our efforts.
So this has been a significant spending round – but it was only the start. There is plenty more still to be done, with a future full spending review and budget to come. There are some key areas which I believe remain to be addressed.
I am lobbying the Government to increasing the Local Housing Allowance to make housing genuinely affordable for those most in need. There is no doubt that issues with housing allowance are one of the key drivers behind homelessness, and I will continue to argue for real change.
The Chancellor’s pledge of £54 million to help tackle rough sleeping shows the Government’s commitment to tackling a problem that is so visible in our big cities. Here in the West Midlands we are leading the way, with our Housing First programme providing a home for more than 75 homeless people. But while we work to get homeless people into accommodation, changes to housing allowance will ensure that fewer people end up on the streets in the first place.
Affordable housing is also vital. In the West Midlands, we saw a 33 per cent increase in affordable housing built in the last year, three times the national average. Our economic success and new job creation is driving this increase. Yet while these figures are positive, this is only the start. We need to treble the number of affordable homes being built each year, and I will be looking to Government for support in achieving that goal.
At the end of the week, we saw the announcement of more funding for town centres – with up to £25 million each for Bloxwich, Dudley, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton. Winning our share of this will help us transform our high streets so they can meet the intense challenges they face.
However, I will continue to argue that business rates need a wholescale fundamental reform to back our town centres with fair taxation – not an outdated tax system designed before online shopping existed.
Finally, spending rounds like this must not just be about spending money but generating it – by driving the economy through technology and innovation. Sajid recently described the UK’s automotive industry as a ‘star’ of economic performance. As this vital sector bets its future on electric and autonomous vehicles, Government spending must back it. The UK needs a state-of-the-art ‘gigafactory’ – big enough to manufacture the next generation batteries that will power those vehicles – and the economic case says it should be built here in the West Midlands alongside our established automotive cluster. This is just one of a number of ambitions laid out in our Regional Industrial Strategy that require backing with real investment.
A year on from calling for austerity to end, I am heartened to see the cuts not just stopped but in some critical areas significantly reversed. While we can now invest in public services, we must also ensure that we stimulate investment, to continue to drive the growth that enables prudent spending.