Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
As I write this, we await the Government’s final decision on HS2. I have made no secret of my support for the high speed rail link from London to Birmingham and beyond – I believe it will be one of the key catalysts in driving the economy, across the UK, post-Brexit.
How? HS2 will free up rail capacity, providing the opportunity to transform suburban transport – without HS2, we risk our regional rail revolution being strangled by lack of capacity.
However, if the line is built, carrying investment into the Midlands and the North, it’s vital that we look upon it not as the solution to the transport challenges facing the UK’s regions but as a jump-start to further ambition.
HS2 and new links between the great centres of the north will provide an arterial flow of investment between our cities, creating extra capacity and promoting the growth of each regional transport network, like neglected organs that are finally receiving the nutrients they need.
Those improved transport links will connect people to opportunity, unlock investment to isolated communities, boost productivity, cut congestion and ultimately drive the economic success of our regions.
To put it simply, while HS2 is the key to unlocking a transport revolution north of Watford, it is only the beginning of what needs to be done.
That’s why last week I launched my transport plan for the West Midlands – an ambitious, 20-year vision of how our constituent boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton will need to be linked in the coming decades.
The plan involves three modes of transport: metro, rail and high-tech vehicles.
In some areas, it is already happening. We have made impressive advances in our tram-style Metro network. Right now, the diggers are on site in Dudley, to bring the metro to the town centre – a stretch of line with 17 new stops. Our city centre tram line past Birmingham Town Hall has now been linked to Centenary Square, with the next phase of construction out to Edgbaston now underway.
However, as the growing population moves away from car usage, I believe the network will need to expand further.
Over the next 20 years, my plan envisions 150 miles of new lines and around 380 new stops. In addition to the trams running on roads and on rail lines, some sections would run underground, using the kind of ‘cut and cover’ tunnelling used in New York and other US cities.
Combining with this would be a reinvigorated rail network. Again, we are already pioneering the reopening of long-closed rail services and reversing the Beeching cuts, with planning applications for stations at Moseley, Stirchley and Kings Heath in South Birmingham, and more in Walsall and Wolverhampton. I want to see 21 new rail stations across the West Midlands by 2040.
This includes reopening a line in the north of Birmingham which has only carried freight since the mid-sixties and building new stations along it. There would be four new stations in Coventry and more across the Black Country.
Finally, in Coventry, new technology such as ‘very light rail’ trams and driverless autonomous pods would be used to connect key sites such as the University of Warwick, Jaguar Land Rover, Ansty and the City Centre.
To illustrate the ambition of my proposals we have produced a Tube-style map, which lays out just how all of these new networks would knit together to provide the connectivity needed for the West Midlands in the second part of the twenty-first century.
Of course, the symbolism of using an Underground-style map to show what is needed in the West Midlands will not be lost on many – this is, after all, the kind of transport investment those in the South are used to.
But if we are serious about levelling up our economy, and repaying the trust of voters in the Midlands and the North, this is the kind of vision and ambition that is needed.
Any in Whitehall who balk at the expense of the transport plans on our map should bear in mind that the cost we have projected – £15 billion over 20 years – is the same as the initial budget for Crossrail, which forms just one part of London’s network.
That would mean around £750 million per year for the next twenty years. These costs would be met not just by additional funding from central Government, but through contributions from housing and commercial developers and borrowing against the future income from ticket sales on the Metro – a funding model that has already delivered our biggest Metro expansion yet, linking Dudley to our wider network.
We have the expertise to make this work and deliver on budget.
What the map doesn’t show are the numerous other schemes on the table to improve cycling, walking and healthier ways of getting around which will also play a part in revolutionising how people move about the conurbation.
It does illustrate how ambition of this level will boost civic pride, shape local identity and unite our communities. The new Metro lines are named after significant local people, from the poet Benjamin Zephaniah to the great statesman, Joseph Chamberlain.
But of all the lines on the map, the most important one is HS2, which represents the first truly significant opportunity to level-up the UK economy, and would release the capacity needed to set our plans in motion.
Levelling up isn’t just about simply pumping money into new areas outside of London, it’s also about recognising why the capital has outperformed everywhere else consistently. The South East’s transport system is one clear reason.
My vision aims to create a similar network here in the West Midlands, and I’m sure the leaders of the North will be thinking along similar lines should the bloodflow of investment and capacity begin through HS2.
My 20-year transport plan is ambitious, but there would be no better example of levelling up in action.