PROSPER MAGAZINE: DIGITAL EDITION
BLACK COUNTRY 2.0
WEST MIDLANDS MAYOR - ANDY STREET
Re-elected to serve a second term as mayor of the West Midlands last month, Andy Street tells Prosper how he believes Black Country businesses are best placed to bounce back after the pandemic.
As I write this column, businesses across the Black Country will be coming to terms with the news that restrictions will not be relaxed on June 21.
I understand fully just what a tough time businesses are having and for many, this announcement will have been difficult to take. However, I think it is important that I say that I support the Prime Minister’s decision to delay the final relaxation by four weeks.
The backdrop to this decision is the deteriorating coronavirus position, primarily driven by the Delta variant. To give you the local picture, as I write the number of cases across the West Midlands Combined Authority area has increased by 96% over the past week, and we are also now beginning to see this reflected in hospital admissions.
We have been through so much pain and tragedy throughout this pandemic, the last thing we want to do is take a step backwards and suffer again.
When we come out of restrictions we must come out for good, and so waiting a short while for more people to get vaccinated so that can happen is sound logic.
However, that does not negate the difficulties being felt by businesses, and as someone who spent decades in retail, I know how many will be feeling.
However, I also believe business in the Black Country is well placed to bounce back post-pandemic, and I want to use this column to explain some of the opportunities that I believe could boost the local economy, unlocking new skills and bringing jobs and investment.
Crucially, two of the sectors which will see huge growth over the next few years are heavily concentrated in the Black Country.
This area has been known as a centre for construction for many years, but we now stand on the cusp of a new era of housebuilding and development, and the Black Country is perfectly poised to benefit from it.
It’s well known that the UK is facing a housing crisis, and it is acknowledged that there is a need to build thousands of new homes every year across the country. Our region has been leading the way in developing the new science of land remediation, to ensure that as many of those new homes as possible are built on reclaimed derelict sites rather than the green belt.
£17.5m National Brownfield Institute built on the University of Wolverhampton’s Springfield Campus in Wolverhampton provide the facilities to develop modern methods of building through innovation and partnership with the construction industry.
A Modern Methods of Construction Taskforce is also being set up, consisting of world-leading experts from across the Government and industry to fast-track the adoption of new, quicker, greener and cleaner ways of building homes.
Then there are the hugely exciting opportunities that will be presented by the emerging ‘green economy’, as we invest in our ambition to make the region carbon neutral by 2041.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity here – and again one that the Black Country is already well placed to embrace – is the huge retro-fitting programme that is going to be needed to make nearly 300,000 homes more energy efficient.
Retrofitting would target older homes that have low energy efficiency, which causes households to pay far too much on their energy bills. Work would include insulating walls and double or triple glazing windows.
We are already working with Dudley College on a national pilot scheme to train skilled people to do retrofit jobs, ensuring there is a supply of appropriate people for small businesses setting up in these new arenas.
Whether we’re talking about building new homes on brownfield sites or retrofitting older homes to make them futureproof, this investment in the Black Country is about much more than bricks and mortar – it will inject money into the economy, creating substantial business opportunities in the supply chain, and from small traders to larger companies.
Then, of course, we are seeing huge investment in the Black Country’s town centres and high streets through Government cash.
In Sandwell, £67.5 million is going into Rowley Regis, West Brom and Smethwick while Wolverhampton city centre will receive £15.7 million from the Future High Streets fund.
Dudley is also on the verge of huge levels of investment, in the town centre, innovation and skills. The Institute of Technology will be among the first to start providing T Levels in subjects like Digital production, design, surveying and planning from September.
The new £28 million Very Light Rail (VLR) National Innovation Centre is destined to push Dudley to the forefront of new rail technology innovation and manufacturing in the UK, by creating new and more affordable VLR transport solutions.
Finally, Walsall is the latest town to benefit, after being awarded £21.3 million from the Towns Fund to kickstart urban regeneration and boost green transport infrastructure, tourism and jobs.
Walsall Council have some exciting plans for the town, and this latest investment will help turn them into reality.
Town and city centres are absolutely critical to the West Midlands and our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, and that’s why all of this investment should be applauded.
That’s without even mentioning the huge investment going into transport, from the
Metro to new railway stations and buses. All of this will bring millions of pounds into the Black Country, creating substantial business opportunities, new jobs and driving the economy.
Right now, I believe our focus should be on trying to ensure that when we finally come out of restrictions we come out for good – by getting as many people vaccinated as possible.
I know that, for businesses, the delay in removing restrictions is disappointing. But I’m confident that the Black Country is well placed to bounce back, thanks to the hundreds of millions of pounds of investment that has already been agreed, and through the kind of innovation the area has always been known for.