Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Five years ago, Coventry was the seventh and final Council to vote to join the West Midlands Combined Authority, embracing the new spirit of cooperation sparked by the devolution of power to the region.
As one of England’s top 10 Cities, Coventry’s inclusion alongside the other six boroughs of Birmingham, Dudley, Solihull, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton was a vital component of a confident and assertive new West Midlands.
Like all of its new partners, Coventry brought to the table not only a proud and distinct character, but some of the driving force that helped make the West Midlands the UK’s industrial heartland.
As a consequence, the city made a major contribution to the strong regional economy we had built here before COVID-19 struck, which was second only to London. Now, as our region plots its recovery, new jobs and investment will be key.
Just as I believe an innovative ‘can-do’ attitude made Coventry one of the big winners from working regionally, I believe we have laid much of the groundwork to create the jobs needed for the city to bounce back, after the pandemic. I’d like to use this column to navigate what lies on the road ahead for the ‘motor city’ – and illustrate how Coventry has benefited from taking its place at the West Midlands table.
As the UK cautiously attempts to return to normality, the future of our city centres has become a hot topic. Coventry is on the cusp of a major investment that could provide a blueprint for the nation’s city centres, which will see old and tired tracts of retail-focused land repurposed for a new era.
More than £95m of regional funding has been set aside for the “City Centre South” transformation, with the plans being consulted on over the Summer.
This huge scheme represents a 21st century rethink, moving away from the reliance on big anchor stores and making city centre living a reality, by creating 1,300 new homes – all on reclaimed brownfield sites.
While there will, of course, still be plenty of room for high-quality retail, leisure offerings such as bars, restaurants, a hotel, and potentially a cinema, will drive footfall from new city-centre dwellers as well as attracting residents from the suburbs.
It is estimated that City Centre South will bring at least a thousand new jobs, with another 620 when construction begins. But this is just one facet of our plans for Coventry, which are transforming the city.
By investing in our ‘brownfield first’ policy, we can boost jobs in the construction sector and provide footfall for the high street. We are providing funding to reclaim more brownfield sites to turn them into homes and ease the pressure on green spaces around the city’s edges.
For example, Coventry’s former National Grid depot, a derelict eyesore since 2010, is set to be transformed into hundreds of homes backed by regional cash.
This kind of regional investment is important, as one of the biggest challenges the City faces is pressure for more homes and development – which is causing much angst for communities facing threats to their Green Belt.
Regional investment of £51million is going into the flagship Friargate office development – right next to Coventry’s central railway station – bringing in good jobs to support the City Centre economy. And the station itself is being completely upgraded from the 1960s building of the past to create the modern gateway this growing City needs – with £39.4m of regional cash underpinning the £90m+ scheme. Added capacity at the city centre station will help us deliver a package of new suburban stations in the City, working with the Government to improve transport links and connect Coventry’s communities with new opportunities.
Wider investment in the City’s transport will include a pioneering “Very Light Rail” system. Recently backed by the Government’s Get Britain Building Fund, the prototype of this system is being designed and built-in Coventry, before being tested in Dudley.
In the last few days, local roads have seen the roll-out of the city’s first modern electric buses. These clean, eco-friendly vehicles will use battery power to help Coventrians get about. And it is this technology that offers the biggest opportunity for the future of the UK’s motor city in terms of jobs.
Regional money has contributed £18m towards the National Battery Industrialisation Centre, which is due to open later this year in the City, cementing Coventry’s place at the heart of the technology that will transform the automotive industry.
Crucially, we want this centre to be the pilot that helps bring a “Gigafactory” to our region to mass-produce electric batteries for the sector.
The West Midlands is already the UK centre of driverless car testing, with both Coventry and Warwick Universities providing valuable local input into the emerging technology. Driverless vehicles are being tested on the streets of the city and the region’s motorways. Cutting-edge testing facilities down the road in Warwickshire are a hotbed of autonomous motoring too.
The Prime Minister has spoken of bringing the Gigafactory here, saying our region is seeing ‘a 21st Century industrial revolution’ in battery and low-carbon technology’. Electrification can provide the power to drive new jobs for Coventry and the region as a whole.
Finally, we are backing Coventry to shine on the national and international stage with City of Culture festivities next year.
There is £35m of regional money going into making this a success. It is focused on projects that will leave a lasting legacy for the City and its residents – above all jobs.
In the last five years, Coventry has embraced the benefits of a collaborative West Midlands, while contributing the drive that has always made it one of the UK’s most industrious places. As we look to create the jobs of the future, that combination of regional support and local innovation will be key.