Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic continues to affect all aspects of life, heading the news agenda, fuelling social media and dominating conversation in households everywhere.
A week ago, the West Midlands – excluding Coventry and Dudley – was placed in Tier 2 of the Government’s new restrictions and we are now working to ensure, if humanly possible, we do not move to Tier 3.
As Mayor of the West Midlands, I voiced my disappointment after we were placed in Tier 2 – and in particular my concerns over the impact on our restaurants, cafes, pubs, and on the conference and events sector that is so important to our local economy.
While hospitality businesses in Tier 3 are formally closed and supported with cash, those in Tier 2 find their businesses severely constrained, without help. I continue to argue for specific support to address this.
The real challenge we face now is balancing medical advice with economic concerns, in ways that will protect not only people’s lives, but their livelihoods too. However, as we debate the tough decisions of today, and our immediate attention is directed at controlling the virus, local leaders must also focus on recovery: indeed, we must own the recovery.
This means not only recognising the unprecedented level of economic support that has already been provided by Government, but also ensuring that we take full advantage of the opportunities provided, as we Build Back Better.
So as we await new developments, I want to look to the future and write about the biggest economic opportunity for the West Midlands – HS2. As the short-term economy comes under immense strain, we need to ensure the UK’s biggest single long-term economic investment is delivering more jobs and much-needed contracts for business now.
It would be an understatement to describe HS2 as a Marmite scheme. The scale and ambition of the project, by its nature, has made it hugely divisive. Yet it is that scale, and the investment it will bring, that will make it a central plank of our region’s economic recovery.
I have been a consistent supporter of HS2. When the crunch moment came in February, I stuck my head above the parapet to urge the Government to give the project the green light in the face of considerable opposition. This was the right thing to do, and I make no apologies for standing up for what I believe was best for my region.
I chose to leave my business career to become Mayor because I wanted to make a real difference to the West Midlands, and that means standing up for what I think is in our interests, even when it means I may get some flak.
The job of being Mayor and the purpose of HS2 share the same overriding principle objective – bringing jobs to this region and improving the livelihoods of its people. That, of course, is now more acutely important than ever.
I have written before on this site about how HS2 is driving investment now, most obviously in Birmingham and Solihull, but it’s not just about where the stations are being built. Before the ticket offices open, HS2 will create jobs and wealth across the conurbation, as it already is – generating 12,000 crucial jobs in the West Midlands, right now. We are now at another crucial stage, as HS2 Ltd begins to award contracts.
As we grapple with the challenges at hand today, we need to be plotting how this huge transport investment can provide a route to economic recovery. That’s why last week I called together a summit for potential local suppliers to HS2.
This summit was generously hosted by McAuliffe – a Wolverhampton contractor already working on HS2. This setting perfectly illustrated our determination to ensure the benefits of HS2 spread far beyond Birmingham City Centre to support the whole region.
The response to this summit illustrated how this industrial heartland is eager to embrace the possibilities of HS2, with 700 firms dialling in to hear about the opportunities on offer for local business. HS2 will generate an estimated 400,000 contracts and I am determined that as many of them as possible are won by Midlands companies.
HS2 is also helping boost skills across the region, providing training opportunities for younger people who have been hit hard by the pandemic. Another innovative programme has enabling homeless people to join the HS2 workforce.
And the opportunities created by HS2 will stretch beyond the construction phase, with high-tech jobs running the digital operation from Birmingham in the future.
Of course, there are other major investments that will drive our recovery, such as the exciting new Health Innovation campus in Birmingham, which will see Bruntwood SciTech invest £210 million in our growing Life Sciences sector. But HS2 remains the biggest single investment in “levelling up” the regions.
Now, more than ever, we need Midlands and British businesses to hoover up every contract and every pound being spent on HS2. It is, quite simply, a monumental economic opportunity.
Whatever side of the debate you were on, HS2 is now happening. The diggers are in the ground here and along the route to the capital. At a time when we need to grasp every economic opportunity and exploit it, I believe it is time to leave behind the hand-wringing. As Mayor, it is my job is ensure this project is of maximum benefit to the West Midlands – and that starts right now with construction jobs.