Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
In July, amid the electrical innovation of Coventry’s UK Battery Industrialisation Centre, the Prime Minister gave a landmark speech on Levelling Up – the programme which aims to re-energise the regions by spreading investment and opportunity more fairly across our nation.
Then, at conference in Manchester, we repeatedly heard from him of his resolve to deliver this agenda. Last week we began to see the tools by which this “defining mission” will be done.
In this column I want to talk about how the West Midlands will benefit from this budget, through investment in transport and homes, support for business and jobs, and helping those on the lowest incomes.
However, this isn’t simply about plugging the regions into funding, it’s about empowering them to use it to its full potential and recognising where they can offer expertise to ensure delivery.
Our region is a prime example of why Levelling Up is needed. For generations we faced underinvestment, leading to serious decline. Now, we provide evidence that it can work. When I stood for re-election in May, I was able to point to the money that had been brought in during my first term in office, and the major improvements already underway, from transport to housing to skills.
Between 2010 and 2019, the West Midlands was the fastest growing region, closing the gap on the UK average – levelling up in action!
This is important, as while some of the funds announced last week have been allocated to Government departments, it’s not yet clear how they will reach the front line. Where there is demonstrable local competence in delivering, then that money is clearly best distributed via devolved bodies, benefitting from local knowledge and existing partnerships.
Transport is a good example. Last week the Chancellor spoke about bringing regional transport spending to reflect the levels seen in London. This is a point I have often made; that’s why I used a Tube-style map to illustrate my ambitious West Midlands transport plan. Last week the Budget announced over £1bn for us in the West Midlands to make that vision a reality.
We will be cracking on with determining how we invest this in meaningful schemes that genuinely provide a step change in transport provision such as new railway stations, metro lines,, cycle routes, embracing the shift to electric vehicles and backing our bus services
Our challenge is to move at pace to get these improvements done quickly – and in the process help link citizens to new job opportunities, open up areas for further investment and help reach our climate change goals.
A further £1.8billion has been allocated to the biggest challenges facing us in housing, including a big investment in enabling more housing on brownfield sites. This is another area where the West Midlands has been leading the way. ‘Brownfield First’ has been a key policy of my time as Mayor, easing the pressure on the Green Belt and regenerating communities blighted by eyesores. The National Brownfield Institute, in Wolverhampton, will ensure that our region continues to drive this new science.
I was also pleased to see funding confirmed for affordable housing, another crucial priority. Here in the West Midlands, we have done well with housebuilding performance and brownfield reclamation. But we need to do much better on providing more affordable homes, as we do as a nation. Already, £8bn has been allocated to Housing Associations to get on with building affordable housing.
Transport and housing are central planks of Levelling Up, but the real test will be providing people with stable, good-quality jobs and equipping our people with the skills and training to get them.
I was pleased therefore to see £400m allocated to support Midlands business investment through the British Business Bank, as well as significant investment allocated to skills and training. We have seen great success here with our Digital Boot Camps, one of a number of projects boosting people’s skillsets and developing a talent pool to attract private investment.
This is a crucial point: public spending is a powerful tool in leveraging the private sector, whose investment will ultimately be the real driver of the recovery. Again, we can point to local success in this, such as the private backing of our Life Sciences sector, bringing high-quality jobs and investment.
Levelling Up must be visible if it is to have a true impact, and key to that is supporting our town and city centres. We have already seen benefits from the Towns and Future High Street funds, but now the Levelling Up Fund is also starting to deliver real investment, reinvigorating our civic centres and rejuvenating much-loved buildings. In Wolverhampton, a £20m investment in the Learning Quarter in Wolverhampton will cement the City’s role as a leading place of learning and skills.
Important though all these physical changes will be, of course Levelling Up has to mean the Levelling Up of people’s lives and opportunities. That’s why for me one of the biggest and best changes in the budget was the Chancellor’s move to support those on the lowest incomes.
It is no secret that I have expressed concerns about the Government’s changes on Universal Credit. Last week we saw a major move to support those affected and a response to the campaigning of, amongst others, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Centre for Social Justice, and the Resolution Foundation.
The significant cut in the Universal Credit taper rate from 63p to 55p and an increase in the work allowance by £500 means a tax cut targeted to the nation’s two million lowest paid – something worth around £1,000 in their pockets.
If we want to truly Level Up our nation, we must look beyond maps to people, and those on the lowest incomes.
When the Prime Minister gave his landmark speech in Coventry he said: “we will give you the tools to change your area for the better.” We have the knowledge and experience in the regions to use those tools to make those changes – and leverage even more money from the private sector to drive the recovery.