Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Talk of ‘levelling up’ occupies much of the bandwidth of current political discourse, with so much airtime debating what it is, how it can be best achieved and its resonance with voters.
That chatter often overlooks the clear progress that has already been made. As Mayor of the West Midlands, I know that this Government mission is already having an impact here, in terms of inward investment and the movement of Whitehall departments to our region.
However, in recent weeks the focus has understandably fallen on what is one of the biggest potential drivers of levelling up – transport investment. Improving transport injects serious firepower into an area, boosting local economies and creating jobs, while it also provides tangible evidence of improvement, connecting communities to opportunities and opening up places to further investment.
It’s also an area where the rest of the nation has always lagged behind the South East in terms of spending. It was no coincidence that I used a London tube-style map to illustrate the network that we are building here, as it helped capture the level of ambition – and funding – needed to make it a reality.
I want to use this column to explain how recent transport decisions provide unprecedented firepower to deliver levelling up in the West Midlands, as well as a vote of confidence in the region.
My transport vision for the West Midlands is already taking shape, thanks to a seven-fold increase in spending since I took office, with projects such as the new Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro extension, the opening of five new railway stations and the roll out of West Midlands Cycle Hire earlier this year.
Indeed, it was fitting that when I recently joined the Prime Minister and transport secretary Grant Shapps on a train from Wolverhampton to Coventry, the journey took us from one brand-new city station to another. It provided the perfect moving platform for their announcements last week.
However, the £1.05 billion awarded to the West Midlands through the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement (CRSTS) is by far the largest amount we have ever secured, representing an unprecedented investment in our network and, in my view, clear evidence of levelling up in action.
This new funding will not only help us get some planned projects over the finishing line, it will set us well on the road to a real revolution in transport for the West Midlands, delivering the next round of metro extensions, bus and cycle routes, and stations that will help our region grow and prosper. Now residents want to see action.
Only this week we cut the first sod of ground at the site of a new railway station in Willenhall in the Black Country, one of a number set to be reopened that have been shut for decades. We also have plans for key interchanges, such as Dudley Interchange and Sutton Coldfield Town Centre Gateway, which would forge better links between bus, rail and cycling routes.
Any plans to use transport to drive levelling up must prioritise the workhorse of our public transport system – the bus. Before Covid, bus was by far the most used form of transport here, with 267 million journeys a year compared to 50 million for rail and about seven million on the region’s metro tram system.
In fact, we were one of the few places in the country where bus use was rising. In the 12 months up to December 2019, the number of people catching the bus in the West Midlands rocketed by almost eight million.
Now, with the funding we have bid for from the Government’s Bus Service Improvement Plan, we aim to develop 110km of new bus priority routes. This would include bus lanes and junction upgrades to improve the reliability of services and a simplified lower cost fare system across operators.
Encouraging more physically active travel – like walking or cycling – is a key pillar of our thinking going forward, with 16 new safe cycle routes among the schemes on the agenda here.
Along with all this investment, there has also been a Government commitment to a degree of local control over how it is spent, ensuring that the expertise harnessed by regional devolution does not go to waste. This is another often overlooked facet of levelling up, and one which I hope to see grow in importance.
Then we have the Integrated Rail Plan, which confirmed HS2 and much more, representing a huge vote of confidence in the Midlands and a major step towards my 2040 transport plan.
Not only has the Government confirmed that HS2 will connect Birmingham and Solihull to London and Manchester, but it has also confirmed a new high speed line to link the East and West Midlands.
This will halve journey times to Nottingham and provide passengers with much improved capacity and connectivity East to West. It will also place our region at the very heart of this high speed rail network.
The other big prize was the Government’s support in principle for Midlands Rail Hub, which involves expanding Moor Street station in Birmingham linked to the HS2 station at Curzon Street. This could mean up to 24 more trains per hour on the Midlands passenger network, with more services and faster trains connecting places such as Hereford, Worcester, Coventry, Birmingham, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Bristol and Cardiff.
As a result, we now have the very real prospect of significantly extending local lines, creating additional capacity, re-instating the direct link between Coventry and Leicester and perhaps most exciting, the chance of a third cross-city line in Birmingham.
Levelling up is more than just a buzz phrase. It is a critical mission to create a more balanced and robust economy, ensuring investment and opportunity reaches communities across the nation. This investment into transport for the West Midlands gives us an unprecedented opportunity to deliver both my transport vision and levelling up.