Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Today, July 14, is the date on which a pivotal moment in British history occurred – a flash of brilliance in the West Midlands that set us on the road to the world we know today. Yet this date, the day in 1712 that the first steam engine hissed into operation, isn’t widely known across the UK.
It’s only in the Black Country, where that engine was built, that July 14 is marked each year. And today, the people of this proudly independent and unique place will celebrate its role in sparking the Industrial Revolution, in our annual Black Country Day festivities.
I want to use this column to explain how the Black Country continues to quietly influence the national agenda by pioneering new technology, attracting global recognition from UNESCO – and being at the heart of the political change that smashed Labour’s red wall.
People sometimes think I am Mayor of Birmingham – I am not. The Black Country is just as big as the Second City; a cultural and historic union of four of the West Midlands Combined Authority’s seven constituent boroughs in Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton.
It is set apart from its West Midlands neighbours by a strong and distinctive identity, great traditions and a lyrical dialect that is only confused with ‘Brummie’ by people not from these parts. But while proud of its past, this is an area forging a better future through the innovation and invention that has always burned there.
The Black Country is quite literally ‘Middle England’, sitting at the heart of the nation. And it is also now at the heart of the Government’s agenda as we look to kickstart the economy and reawaken industry.
The Prime Minister chose Dudley as the setting to make the keynote speech in which he revealed his New Deal – focusing on infrastructure and construction to drive the UK’s recovery. Why Dudley? Dudley is a brilliant example of how innovation, ambition and investment in infrastructure are already reawakening the local economy and bringing tangible, visible change.
Appropriately, he chose the site of Dudley College’s Technology Institute to outline his vision, a new facility that will create the local engineers and innovators of the future. Dudley’s town centre is on the cusp of a new future too, as the region’s Metro tram system extends to provide vital connectivity to the rest of the West Midlands, with 17 new stops along the way. In May, Cavendish House, a huge derelict office block that had been a symbol of decay on Dudley’s skyline for years, was torn down.
The energy driving Dudley’s re-emergence is reflected across the Black Country, where innovation and investment are making a real difference in housing and transport.
Most notably, the Black Country is pioneering the reclamation of former brownfield industrial sites to help tackle the housing crisis, while protecting the environment. The Black Country will lead the way on this, through a new £24 million National Brownfield Institute in Wolverhampton, as we invest to regenerate more derelict eyesores.
However, these are more than just blueprints – it’s already happening. In Wolverhampton the first homes have gone on sale at Steelhouse Lane, a former industrial eyesore, while in Walsall sites like the old Caparo engineering works and the Harvestime bakery have got the green light to be used for new housing. In West Bromwich the biggest brownfield site development of all – Friar Park – will see a former sewage works, bigger than 30 football pitches, become a 750-home community.
The Black Country also provides evidence of how investment in transport infrastructure can get local economies moving. This year we have seen diggers in the ground – delivering schemes that have been talked about for years.
On the railways, phase one of the new Wolverhampton city centre station has now opened – proudly decked out in yellow and black to reflect the Old Gold of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Plans are steaming ahead to reopen old railway stations linking Walsall to Wolverhampton, boosting public transport in communities that haven’t had a rail service for decades.
The Black Country’s tradition of invention lives on with technology powering business success. Dudley council has partnered with the Warwick Manufacturing Group, with plans to create a Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre, assembling prototype vehicles and training engineers. In Cradley, Walsall and Smethwick local firms are breaking new ground with modular home construction. Wolverhampton boasts two sites building state-of-the-art aerospace systems.
One brilliant piece of news that may help bring more people to the Black Country was its official recognition as a UNESCO Global Geopark, which was revealed last week. This means Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton join the French wine region of Beaujolais, Vietnam’s Dak Nong, and only seven other UK Geoparks including the Scottish Highlands on this prestigious global list.
This UNESCO honour recognises that behind the industrial and manufacturing might of this remarkable place lies a strong and proud culture, and a people with their own distinct character. Like all Midlanders, they offer quiet confidence and self-effacing humour in place of swagger and bluster – but they value hard work, encourage ambition and inspire ideas.
They are also resilient. In the last few months, as Coronavirus hit, that local character shone through as manufacturers turned over their machinery to make PPE and volunteers rolled up their sleeves to help the vulnerable and isolated. Black Country folk get things done.
As the people who built that first steam engine, they also embrace a clear, decisive vision that powers progress. That’s why, I believe, the Black Country turned blue in the general election, with five Conservative gains making ten MPs across an area previously considered to be a Labour heartland.
The fact is, the local investment I have outlined above is evidence of ‘levelling up’ in action. As we celebrate Black Country Day, this remarkable area and its people are once again showing how investment and innovation can drive real change.