Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
There has been much talk of “levelling up” the economy since the new Government swept into power – a commitment to repay areas that lent their vote to the Conservatives by ensuring investment reaches out across the UK.
How will that levelling up be measured? In investment? In major infrastructure schemes? I know how local people will ultimately measure that investment – in local jobs. Here in the West Midlands we are working to a plan which, by identifying and supporting innovative sectors that can thrive, is producing remarkable results in creating new opportunities for our workforce. In tandem, significant investment in infrastructure and housing is providing economic impetus and a framework to improve skills.
By working to a connected plan, we are delivering measurable results – and record employment figures.
The West Midlands endured a torrid economic time for decades. A sense of neglect was in part caused by a lack of quality employment opportunities for local people.
During my years as MD of John Lewis I witnessed this decline, which was often exacerbated by the inability of the region’s mainly Labour-led councils to work together for a common goal. As a proud Brummie, I couldn’t stand back and see that happen to my home.
That’s why in 2011 I became Chairman of Birmingham and Solihull LEP – to boost our economic performance, encourage a more collaborative approach to driving growth and ultimately create more jobs.
I have always had total confidence in our region’s ability to do better. While we endured steep decline as the UK’s economy changed in the second half of the 20th Century, I knew that we had the people, imagination and ambition to change course in the 21st.
It was that belief in the potential of the West Midlands that drove me to stand to be Mayor. And from the start, I knew that fostering economic growth to unleash that potential meant one thing – jobs.
What’s more, that meant real jobs growth, not just for the Second City but for the whole region, across all our constituent boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.
However, driving growth in employment is also about building the skills to create a productive and innovative workforce.
A skilled workforce is a guarantor of quality jobs, bringing better pay, increased competitiveness and higher productivity.
With so many ambitious projects underway here we have set up construction gateways and training hubs which enable local people to benefit from the renaissance that is transforming their region. That means that local people not only get the jobs that are building our new homes, railways, metro lines and business parks – they become skilled workers too.
Our pioneering Apprenticeship Levy scheme – which allows us to redirect the unspent levy funds of big companies to support apprentices at small firms – is providing a long-term conveyor belt of ambitious, skilled workers.
The millions we are investing in our transport network drives employment too. There is firm academic research that shows that a poorly connected city underperforms in terms of productivity and employment, so addressing the historical reliance on buses is key for all the conurbation.
It’s simple really: a world-class transit system makes it easier for our work force to access opportunity where new jobs are being created, while also opening up previously isolated areas for investment.
A classic example of this is the Metro line currently being built which will finally connect Dudley to the wider region’s transport network for the first time in decades. Elsewhere in the Black Country, plans to reopen long-closed railway stations will give residents a direct line to the jobs being created across the conurbation.
Housing is also key to jobs – and our surge in housebuilding is transforming communities by turning former industrial sites from derelict eyesores into places where families want to live and businesses want to invest.
All of this has been supported by Government investment allowing us to build our transport network, reclaim old brownfield sites and build new homes at twice the rate seen elsewhere.
The resultant jobs are there to be seen, with a dramatic improvement in our employment rate which, after decades of decline, is now less than 1 per cent behind the national rate. That’s because in the three years I have been mayor the West Midlands has seen 97,000 new jobs created. Our employment rate is at a record high.
Importantly, more of these new jobs have been created outside of Birmingham than inside. The West Midlands is made up of many proud and distinct communities, and our current success is down to genuine teamwork between them.
However, we have our own “levelling up” challenge to ensure it’s not just central Birmingham that benefits from the growth we are seeing, and the spread of new jobs across the region shows this can be done.
Now, we need to retain the economic confidence we are building. We are hoping for a boost from the Chancellor in the budget, that will ensure further investment in all the schemes that we can show are delivering jobs.
When I first stood for the role of Mayor, I knew it was ultimately about delivering employment for local people. As we start delivering on our promise to “level up” the UK, we must remember that its success will ultimately be measured not by the amount of rail track we lay or roads we build, but on how many jobs we create.