PROSPER MAGAZINE: DIGITAL EDITION
BLACK COUNTRY 2.0
BUSINESSES URGE ACTION ON STEEL QUOTAS
Local Manufacturers Highlight Supply Challenges, Increasing Costs and Added Pressure
At a recent roundtable hosted by Suzanne Webb, MP for Stourbridge, facilitated by the Black Country Chamber of Commerce and attended by Jane Stevenson MP for Wolverhampton Northeast, MAKE UK and NASS, local manufacturers were invited to share their views and experiences of steel exporting and importing which, from January 2021 have been subject to EU tariffs and safeguarding.
For the diverse group of manufacturing businesses, whilst quotas were set based upon historical levels (from the period 2015 – 2017), these current measures are set to expire in June. The session highlighted challenges around supply in quarter one, increasing costs and added pressure for local firms which will continue should the measures not be extended or reset for the second half of the year and beyond.
For one business, whilst current quotas appear to be fairly accurate across 19 different product categories, there appeared to be a clear impetus to buy from British manufacturers rather than importing but, for some categories though, no British producers exist; whilst another indicated that in some instances, no steel was moved or allowed to come in from one supplier as the quota limit had been reached.
Consensus existed that an area of concern remains trade to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which has further compounded issues with supply chain delays of up to three weeks added costs, along with estimates of a looming three-month shortage in steel supply and spiralling inflation.
Matters which the group called for action and to be considered in future policy decisions included: the introduction of a forward allocation system; resolution of issues getting steel goods across the Irish Sea; the spiralling costs of freight, rising inflation and other price increases; the knock-on effect to those industries who will be impacted by the lack of steel in the supply chain; and an integrated manufacturing strategy.
Corin Crane, CEO of the Black Country Chamber of Commerce said, “The region remains a centre of manufacturing, reliant on efficient and seamless availability of materials. Right now, businesses need all the help they can get, they have faced a turbulent number of years and any assistance and intervention to help overcome challenges and enable a reliant and robust and responsive steel supply chain is welcomed.”
Charlotte Horobin from MAKE UK added, “Manufacturers need access to high-quality steel and resilient supply chains. We need an urgent resolution of movement of steel across the Irish Sea and for government to ensure that domestic steelmaking is protected, and manufacturers can access products needed from abroad, where no or limited UK supply exists. As the UK takes its first key decisions as an independent trading nation, government needs to ensure that our economy can benefit from domestic supply chains, however, we must recognise the need to import certain materials where there is no domestic production capacity.”
In her role as PPS to Rt. Hon Liz Truss MP, Secretary of State for International Trade, Suzanne Webb, advised that she would be raising these matters on behalf of the group and added, “It was a pleasure to chair the meeting and meet local West Midlands businesses. Important issues were raised such as steel safeguards to our British industry, which are key - particularly given the challenges and uncertainties that the industry is currently facing in this current climate.”
The Steel Round Table event was held as part of Black Country 2.0, the Chamber’s biggest ever campaign to support businesses following the triple challenges they have faced resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit and the worst economic trading conditions on record.
CHAMBER SUPPORTS MIDLANDS CONNECT
How rail revolution will bring faster trains to the Black Country
Earlier this month it was revealed how the region can look forward to faster trains in the West Midlands as electrification on local lines is extended.
The changes involve a new body – Great British Railways – to oversee all services, owning the infrastructure and tasked with collecting revenue, planning the network and setting fares and timetables.
The new study, Rails to Recovery: Building Back Stronger, proposes rail electrification, faster local trains and a new hourly train to London from Shrewsbury. It also suggests that more local stations are opened or reopened, enabling people across the entire region to access services.
According to the report authors Midlands Connect, the body tasked with developing transport projects in the region, the proposals will save passengers time and money, while also boosting the economy and helping the environment.
As chief executive Maria Machancoses points out, the report marks the start of a process that is likely to take years rather than months. But in light of the pandemic, she says, reform on the region’s rail network is more vital than ever.
“This is the definition of a win-win project and can help take us from rails to recovery,” she said.
A key element of the plans will see the electrification of the line from Shrewsbury through the Black Country – which it is understood is currently being considered as a pledge in the next Conservative manifesto.
Electrification, along with track upgrades, would see journey times between Shrewsbury and Birmingham cut from 56 minutes to 45 minutes, the report says.
The report also presses the case for a new hourly service to run from Shropshire through the Black Country and Birmingham to London, increasing capacity on the often-over-crowded route. And it says journey times could be slashed by using faster trains travelling at speeds of up to 90mph – up to 80 per cent faster than they do now.
Time savings to passengers are valued up to £377m, according to the report, with the benefits of fewer cars on our roads and other environmental benefits worth up to £145m.
Shaun Bailey, Tory MP for West Bromwich West, is among those to have backed the plans, which he said would see “massive benefits” for people across the region.
He joined fellow MP Jane Stevenson, senior rail program manager Steve Fisher, Neil Anderson from the Black Country Chamber, CEO of Midlands Connect Maria Machancoses, chair of Black Country LEP Tom Westley, and Councillor Ellis Turrell, at the train station in Wolverhampton to celebrate the Rails to Recovery report.
He said, “For residents using Dudley Port and Tipton stations the idea of faster and more frequent trains would be welcome news,” he said.
“I know that there are some ‘quick wins’ here, especially the new hourly trains to London. This can only help businesses in my constituency grow and thrive.
“My constituents want faster; cleaner and greener trains and these plans will help us build back better from Covid-19.”
Meanwhile, the case for new stations is also being looked at, with second stations for Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury have been under consideration for a number of years. Wolverhampton South West MP Stuart Anderson, with the backing of West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, has campaigned for a new Tettenhall station, while Wolverhampton North East MP Jane Stevenson is calling for an Oxley and Pendeford station to open.
She said, “In a city the size of Wolverhampton’s, it cannot be right that there is only one train station to serve approximately 265,000 people. So, I’m delighted that further work is being carried out by the Government on the feasibility of a new station.
“It would help to reduce congestion on our roads, as many people have no alternative but to travel by car to work.”
Regardless of its proposed name, any station would effectively be located on the line between the Bilbrook and Wolverhampton stations.
While the idea is popular among residents – it would enable thousands more people to access services without having to use other forms of transport to get to a train – adding another stop on the line would see journey times increase. For this reason, some transport bosses view the move as a political priority rather than a technical one.
Ms Stevenson has also backed plans for an extra London service from the West Midlands, saying, “It will be vital in the years ahead as the housing department brings hundreds of well-paid jobs to the city and we need better connections to the capital.
“All this shows that working with the Government, in partnership, is delivering real jobs, investment and growth for our city.”
Midlands Connect says there is widespread support for the plans, with 91 per cent of 800 people in the region backing it during research.
Alongside the changes to working patterns, a rail revolution may just be one of a few positive things to come out of the pandemic.