Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
The battle to protect our economy from Coronavirus has brought comparisons with previous downturns, re-examining past recessions and reminding us of the impact felt when major industrial players have collapsed.
The levels of borrowing outlined last week by Rishi Sunak are testament to the unprecedented efforts being made by Government to draw on past experiences and protect jobs as we face a new kind of recession.
Here in the West Midlands, there remain acres upon acres of former industrial land which remind us of previous slumps. With government backing, we are now reclaiming these eyesores to provide new homes and job opportunities.
And as we face this latest challenge, I am hopeful that we will finally heal one of the biggest, and most painful, of these scars. Longbridge, in Birmingham, offers an opportunity to use this economic crisis to erase the results of an infamous economic shockwave.
Completing the regeneration of Longbridge would be a powerful example of Conservative policy actively “levelling up” the economy. For 15 years, local people have waited to see this site fully reclaimed. Let’s show them that after three years under a Conservative mayor, and with a new Conservative MP in place, we are ready to deliver it.
For anyone whose roots are in the West Midlands, car making holds a special place in our hearts. As someone brought up in Northfield, just up the road from the famous Longbridge car plant, I am also very conscious of the past of our car industry. Home of “the Austin”, Longbridge at its 1960s zenith was one of the world’s biggest car factories, employing tens of thousands of people producing ground-breaking vehicles like the Mini.
Then, of course, came the painful decline through the disastrous British Leyland years and beyond. The causes of that decline are still the cause of much debate, but no-one can argue about the individual and collective pain that each job loss brought.
This culminated 15 years ago in the collapse of MG Rover, with the loss of the remaining 6,000 jobs. It remains one of the darkest days in the history of Birmingham and the West Midlands.
Psychologically, the closure dented the confidence of a region with a proud automotive pedigree. Economically, MG Rover’s collapse impacted on the thousands of people who worked for the firm and the massive supply chain that supported it.
Physically, when MG Rover shut its gates for the last time it left behind a vast industrial site that reminded us of the closure.
Since then, much of the site has been redeveloped. Developer St Modwen has shown real ambition and vision, effectively building a new town centre on part of site, which also boasts a fantastic college. Aquapak, a firm at the cutting edge of recycled polymers, recently welcomed Alok Sharma to their premises on the new business park there.
The old MG Rover site is being reshaped by a sustainable mix of businesses and housing redevelopment, including state-of-the-art senior living. Yet every time I pass Longbridge, I look across to the parts that remain empty and think about what it once meant for local jobs.
Now I’m determined to complete the regeneration of Longbridge, reclaiming a site that once represented one of our region’s most established industries, by applying one of our newest.
In the last year I have been joined by fellow Brummie Gary Sambrook, the Conservative MP for the area, in this ambition. He has been working with developer St. Modwen to get MG Rover’s “West Works” site redeveloped, and once again generating opportunity for local people.
Together we are promoting Longbridge’s strong business case to be a critical site for Government support through the Urban Transformation Fund. That’s why I submitted Longbridge to Government as one of our region’s top funding bids and it is why Sambrook passionately pitched it to the Chancellor last week in the Commons debate on the Spending Review.
To put it simply, this derelict site – which has been levelled for years – could provide a quite profound and tangible example of “levelling up” in action, and illustrate the West Midlands ability to bounce back from adversity.
That ability is also reflected in the land reclamation technology being pioneered here, which up until the pandemic hit, was cleaning up derelict eyesores like Longbridge and helping us build new homes at record numbers, through our “brownfield first” policy.
The exciting investment in the National Brownfield Institute at Wolverhampton will cement our position as a national leader in remediation and construction technology.
It is fitting that this example of West Midlands 21st Century innovation can be put to use to “level up” Longbridge, given its links to our industrial heritage.
Of course, there is another reason why the fate of the remaining Longbridge site would resonate so much now. The automotive industry is facing huge challenges. The sector is going through a revolution, illustrated by the Government’s ambitious decision to stop the production of petrol and diesel cars in 2030.
Longbridge stood as a reminder of what happens when we fail to invest in our automotive sector. The promise of £500 million in the Spending Review, to back electric battery technology and production shows the resolve not let this happen again. That’s why the Gigafactory that is so critical to our automotive future must be built in the West Midlands.
Longbridge may, sadly, never produce another car – but the site can produce quality new jobs for local people. With a new Gigafactory, we can recharge the automotive industry 15 years after MG Rover’s collapse.
By backing the regeneration of Longbridge, while investing in the West Midland’s automotive future, the Government can not only accelerate its ambitions to “level up” the economy – it can also drive home a profound message about our ability as a nation to bounce back.