Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
When I became the West Midlands’ first Metro Mayor four years ago, one of my pledges from the outset was to be a Mayor for the whole region, not just Birmingham.
I knew that, in order to properly unite our seven constituent boroughs, it was vital to dispel the long-standing notion that the Second City usually got all the attention, and the lion’s share of inward investment.
My ambition has always been to ensure all of our areas benefitted from the significant growth we enjoyed before the pandemic hit, to ensure that no communities were left behind as we revived the fortunes of the region.
In that sense, my job, and the work of the West Midlands Combined Authority, could be seen as a regional version of the ‘levelling up’ agenda. I am certain that one of the most successful aspects of devolution has been the ability for local decision makers to direct investment proportionally in this way, using local knowledge to ensure money builds a robust economy across the region.
I want to use this column to explain how one of our great cities – Wolverhampton – continues to benefit from this approach, and how investment and major projects are set to propel its recovery.
Much like constituencies in the North, Wolverhampton returned two ‘red wall’ Conservative MPs in Stuart Anderson and Jane Stevenson, so it is important that voters see results in terms of investment. However, the fact is that here in the West Midlands, we have been busy ‘levelling up’ for four years.
Just this week I visited to see Wolverhampton become the first big city to unveil our cycle share scheme, which will quickly spread out to cover the entire West Midlands. It was a fitting place to launch our version of Boris Bikes, because the city is buzzing with good news and progress at the moment.
Arriving, it was brilliant to see the progress being made on the new £150m transport interchange. We have demolished a drab 1960s station and are transforming it into the new interchange, that for the first time will link up with our expanding metro network, plus newer, greener buses and, of course, the new bikes. Backing this investment in Wolverhampton was one of the first decisions I made as Mayor, because I knew that improving transport connectivity would be crucial to driving forward investment and the city’s future. It has also provided the kind of tangible improvement that is so vital to the concept of ‘levelling up’.
Supercharged with support from Government, especially Wolverhampton-born Robert Jenrick, the Communities Minister, the plan is working – with projects transforming the city.
My vision is to make Wolverhampton the national centre of construction, and the Black Country’s position as a pioneer of ‘brownfield remediation’ (the science of reclaiming derelict eyesores) makes it perfectly placed to achieve this position.
Last year we put Wolverhampton at the heart of our bid for the Government’s funding of ‘shovel ready’ schemes, securing £14.9 million for the National Brownfield Institute at the former Springfield Brewery. Itself a major regeneration project, which is now well underway, this will put the city in a national leadership position when it comes to the skills, training, and expertise needed for remediating and redeveloping brownfield sites – meaning local people will be in pole-position to get a brilliant career in our successful construction industry. It will also mean that my ‘brownfield first’ housing policy for the region can be delivered by workers from our region.
On Boxing Day, we saw Wolverhampton win over £15 million from the Future High Streets Fund to drive the local economy forward. This was a very significant investment, which was followed by an even bigger £25 million in the budget through the Towns Fund. Crucially, the local spirit of levelling up means that this £40 million will not just go to the city centre, but will be shared with two other Wolverhampton communities, Bilston and Wednesfield.
And last month saw the culmination of a plan we have been working on as a local team for months: to persuade Government to move hundreds of good-quality civil service jobs from Whitehall to Wolverhampton.
With the move of Jenrick’s own Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to Wolverhampton we will see a major boost to the City’s trade and local businesses and open up brilliant civil service careers to local people.
But, more importantly, an idea like this moves decision making into the regions, further raising the Government’s understanding and commitment to Wolverhampton, the Black Country and the West Midlands.
Last week’s budget provided the first glimpse of this baring fruit – with the announcement that a new taskforce to accelerate Methods of Modern Construction would be based in the MHCLG’s new Wolverhampton offices, with £10 million of seed funding.
Another important factor in building a level economy across the region is to ensure that all of our areas can benefit from each other’s economic strengths. I have made no secret of my determination to support the West Midlands place as the UK’s car-making heartland, not least with my calls for a ‘gigafactory’ in Coventry, which is the centre of our automotive cluster.
So I was delighted to open a new Electrical Vehicle and Green Technologies Training Centre at the City of Wolverhampton College, which will deliver the UK’s first scheme to train technicians to work on electrical and hybrid vehicles.
Finally, there can new few better ways of levelling up across a region than by connecting people to job opportunities through the ability to travel easily between neighbouring boroughs. Our ambitious plans to reopen a rail line between Wolverhampton and Walsall – which has been closed to passengers since the Beeching cuts – is now fully funded, with work set to start imminently.
Wolverhampton has faced many economic challenges; the collapse of Carillion hit the city hard, and the closure of the iconic Beatties department store provided a powerful symbol of the problems faced by its city centre. Throughout the pandemic those challenges have continued, with key employers heavily affected by the economic impact of Covid-19, such as aerospace firm Collins or hospitality giant Marstons.
But these last few months have shown by working effectively with Government – and employing the full power of devolved decision making – we can secure the resources and investment needed to not only compete regionally, but nationally too.