Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Rising inflation, soaring energy bills, and the spiralling cost of living have led to calls from some to step back from net zero ambitions and the levelling up mission.
This is wrong. I believe we must step into both of these challenges even more determinedly.
Here in the West Midlands, we are particularly affected by increasing fuel poverty, precisely because too many of our jobs are lowly paid – so we must act now to help those who are struggling. However, the real answer is building a more resilient economy for the future.
Crucially, as Conservatives, I believe we must recognise the huge economic opportunities of the green economy: to create well-paid jobs, improve our nation’s energy security, and bring prices down. This is not about tree-hugging or eco ‘virtue signalling’. It’s about pounds, shillings and pence.
Just as there are multiple causes behind the rising cost of living, we must find multiple ways of bringing it under control. I want to use this column to outline how we can do this by tackling the climate challenge, delivering on levelling up, and learning from the successes of devolution.
First of all, however, people need real help now with the rising cost of living. Regionally, we can help in a number of ways – by working to ensure fares on public transport remain low, for example. I have also never used a council tax precept to pay for the office of Mayor.
These may be small decisions, but they are real contributions we can make at a local level.
Nationally, the Government has introduced cuts to fuel duty, is raising the National Insurance threshold from July, has reduced the Universal Credit taper rate, and increased work allowances for the self-employed. Rebates on energy bills will also help.
However, there needs to be more short term help with energy bills, best delivered via the Warm Homes Fund, which provides a way of targeting support.
While I believe the Government is right to reject the idea of reducing VAT on energy – which would simply reward the biggest users – I do expect that the Chancellor will act again before Autumn to help those who are struggling.
The real solution to cost of living pressures, however, lies in schemes like retrofitting, which will cut household bills. Long term, we must think green.
In the West Midlands, we are leading the way in this innovative field. A consortium led by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has been awarded £7.5m to make hundreds of social housing homes more energy efficient.
The WMCA’s Energy Capital team works to drive forward innovation, retrofitting old homes, improving insulation, and making the most of the progress in solar power generation.
Again, the Government is encouraging this by reducing tax on renewable technology, including zero per cent VAT on solar panels – and it is in the regions that the challenge is being grasped.
For example, we are spending £2.8 million on retrofitting 300 homes across Coventry and Solihull to make them more efficient, in a scheme that will demonstrate what could be achieved on a much bigger scale.
Last week I also visited Project 80, the UK’s first affordable housing development to satisfy the Government’s new Future Homes Standard being built right here in the West Midlands – where eco building methods are driving bills down by 65 per cent.
This local innovation in the green economy can drive national policy, with the regions providing testing grounds for schemes of differing sizes.
We are pioneering Energy Innovation Zones, to stimulate local clean energy innovation and drive productivity, as well as exports and growth. Four of these zones are planned at Tyseley, UK Central in Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire and in the Black Country.
Ensuring a more resilient energy future isn’t just about adopting greener solutions and building warmer homes, it’s also about creating better-paid jobs that improve household incomes. Delivering levelling up will support people worst hit by the cost of living crisis, by driving growth in areas that have been ‘left behind’.
But we have to do it, not just talk about it.
Again, addressing the climate challenge can play its part in levelling up, by providing quality opportunities in green manufacturing, retrofitting, electrification, and the digital economy, all of which are being driven locally.
Only last week I opened a new Electric Vehicle Centre at the City of Wolverhampton College, which will help bring the Green Industrial Revolution to life: establishing a UK centre of excellence for the automotive industry while creating high-tech 21st-century jobs, in collaboration with employers.
As Conservatives, it is those employers we should listen to. I recently chaired an Energy Crisis Roundtable, which saw leading companies and business bodies discuss their most pressing energy concerns.
Energy costs are having a powerful impact on industry, a particular concern here in the West Midlands. Another initiative, called ‘Repowering the Black Country’, is developing four zero carbon industrial hubs so businesses can take advantage of clean growth opportunities. We must build on ideas like this, locally and nationally.
At the roundtable, business leaders also outlined the powers they would like to see transferred from Whitehall to our region to strengthen industrial resilience.
The message is clear: we must be bold in devolving the powers to allow the regions to innovate.
We can shape greener transport networks that are cheaper to run. We can build future-proof homes and retrofit older ones to make them warmer and more cost-efficient. We can develop a skilled, better paid workforce. We can regenerate our areas with future energy needs in mind.
The cost of living crisis is being driven by many factors. Short-term help is vital as families and businesses feel the pinch.
But by pressing ahead with future-proofing schemes, delivering on our levelling up mission, and empowering the regions to innovate, we can help to insulate our nation, long-term, against future cost of living concerns.