Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
As Mayor of the West Midlands, it’s my job to bring the region’s seven constituent boroughs together and ensure that no areas are left behind when it comes to investment – a kind of internal ‘levelling up’. Transport, which falls under my remit, provides a powerful tool in achieving this aim. It connects communities together, injects investment, and gives residents access to opportunities and jobs.
This month saw the allocation of Government CRSTS funding (City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements), heralding huge investment in local transport networks across the UK. I want to explain how this will continue to drive levelling up in the West Midlands, how it will help us achieve our climate goals, and how it represents a vote of confidence in devolved decision making.
And, as we look ahead to next month’s local elections, I also want to explain how Conservative successes in the West Midlands have been underpinned by the delivery of real, tangible improvement in transport.
Over the next five years, £1.05billion of CRSTS funding will be spent in the West Midlands, a figure which rises to £1.3billion with local top-ups. Our transport strategy has three broad priorities. The plans focus on decarbonisation, with our aim to be a net zero carbon economy by 2041. Then there are two ambitions which chime with the levelling up agenda – reaching poor areas of connectivity and driving inclusive economic growth.
We have learned that speed of delivery is key, and the first four major projects have already been identified. £24 million will be used to seek sites for, plan, and deliver a network of 10 electric vehicle charging stations across the region. £43 million will extend the West Midlands Metro depot at Wednesbury to service the region’s growing tram fleet and network – including the extension to Dudley in 2024. £17 million will be spent on upgrading the Metro power supply on the Wolverhampton to Birmingham line, for the first time since it opened 22 years ago, while £56 million will deliver phase two of our Sprint bus routes.
These will be just the first schemes to proceed from an expansive transport strategy that includes a Very Light Rail System in Coventry, the capping of ticket prices, reopened railway stations, and new gateways in places like Sutton Coldfield. This latest money links in with existing plans which target specific parts of our network, such as buses.
Here in the West Midlands, before COVID struck, the bus was clearly the most popular form of transport. 267 million journeys were made a year compared to 50 million for rail and about 7 million on the region’s Metro tram system. We were one of the few places in Britain where bus use was rising.
Our Bus Service Improvement Plan allows us to access a share of the new £3 billion transformational Government funding, improving services, keeping fares low, and backing pioneering ideas such as our ‘bus on demand’ scheme, which has proven a great success in supporting more rural communities.
Improved public transport will pay a crucial part in our climate change ambitions by persuading people not to use their cars. We are also benefitting from the Government’s Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas fund (ZEBRA) to the tune of £30 million, allowing us to buy 124 hydrogen-fuelled electric buses. Hydrogen buses consume four times less fuel compared to diesel buses and cover 300 miles on a single tank, emitting only water vapour, meaning no carbon dioxide or other harmful gases are being pumped into the air. Birmingham City Council has already invested in 20 of these vehicles, while Coventry is set to become one of only two places in the UK to get an entirely electric bus fleet, which is fitting for a city that has been the epicentre of transport innovation for generations.
But this isn’t just about leveraging public money. The West Midlands Bus Alliance is a partnership between Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), which is part of the West Midlands Combined Authority, bus operating companies, the Safer Travel team, and passenger group Transport Focus. This alliance model brings the best of public and private sectors together, resulting in not only huge private sector investment but collaborative, joined-up thinking that has made the network itself work better for local people. For example, National Express, our leading service provider, has worked hard to cut fares while also investing massively in its fleet – with 350 impressive ‘platinum’ buses now serving the conurbation.
And underscoring all of this development is a commitment to encourage active travel, persuading our residents to take the healthy option whenever possible and get about under their own steam. At least £250 million of the investments planned for the CRSTS cash will go to projects designed to also enable cycling or walking.
Nationally, the CRSTS money is a vote of confidence in devolution and the Mayoral model. The money was only available to ‘city regions’ with a Mayor in place, and its five-year timetable firmly places local decision making at its heart. Locally, it represents the latest in a long line of significant investments by consecutive Conservative governments in the West Midlands transport network, and evidence that we continue to make a compelling case to attract the funds we need – as we have done since I became Mayor.
This is a region that for decades had failed to attract needed investment. That changed under a Conservative Mayor. The year before I took office, we spent £38 million. This year, we are spending £403million. Before we got a penny from CRSTS, transport spending here had increased seven-fold. I believe that the ability to attract that investment, allied with the local determination to deliver visible improvements within our communities, has been a pivotal factor in Conservative successes in the region.
Levelling up aims to create a more balanced economy, ensuring investment and opportunity reaches communities across the nation. In the West Midlands we are proving that transport investment, allied with local decision making, can provide a powerful vehicle to deliver this critical mission.