Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
In his first speech as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak spoke of his determination to deliver on the manifesto of 2019, including a renewed commitment to Level Up.
He naturally has my full support as he refocuses the Government to take on the daunting challenges facing the nation.
In this column I want to set out how, by devolving more powers to the regions, he could supercharge Levelling Up – and I’ll share our own track record in the West Midlands to back up that claim. The framework of devolved power, built by consecutive Conservative administrations, provides the perfect conduit to deliver Levelling Up at pace.
Politically, speed of delivery is important. When the Red Wall crumbled in 2019, many former Labour supporters lent us their votes, on the back of that manifesto. They expect the Government to fulfil their promise to Level Up.
To unite the country, the prime minister must reach out to the regions, and tap into their energy and expertise.
Levelling Up and devolution go hand in hand, with local decision-making providing the knowledge to deliver tangible results. Both signature ambitions of 21st Century Conservatives, these two concepts have developed in parallel.
This year’s draft Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill came as the West Midlands was named one of two areas to negotiate a trailblazing devolution deal.
This deal would give us the ability to take our future into our own hands, drive renewal, and end the centralised decision making that has hamstrung so many regional ambitions. If you want to deliver Levelling Up, give the regions the powers, the cash, and the responsibility to do it.
I believe it’s an opportunity we have earned. Just look at the West Midlands’ track record in skills, where we have already benefited from significant devolution. One of the core responsibilities in our original devo deal, the region secured greater powers in a second agreement, including control of the region’s £130m Adult Education Budget.
We knew how to use this budget to get the best results: we put a greater emphasis on jobs, on being more responsive to employer needs, on developing higher-level and higher-quality skills. The outcome has been high value training provided by fewer but better providers, who work in partnership with colleges.
The results are there for anyone to see. At the end of 2018 48.5 per cent of our people had NVQ Level 3+. By the end of last year – even with the pandemic’s impact – that figure hit 54.9 per cent. We’ve had 9,231 people pass through our cutting-edge courses on electric vehicle maintenance, cyber security, and coding, while our ground-breaking digital boot camps have now been adopted nationally.
Our track record on growth stands up too. Before Covid struck, the West Midlands was the fastest growing region outside of the capital. We know how to grow our economy, we understand our sectors, and we know how to get the best out of them. We have the expertise; we just need the devolution of powers and cash to enable us to press on.
Indeed, Investment Zones could be the next testing ground where the regions once again prove their ability to get results.
The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has proposed Investment Zones in east Birmingham and north Solihull, including the area around the new HS2 Interchange Station; at the proposed Gigafactory at Coventry Airport; and at sites in Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton.
Crucial to this concept is unlocking significant new private sector investment – something else for which the West Midlands has a proven track record.
Earlier this year, I launched a £15 billion investment prospectus to investors, featuring more than 20 diverse development opportunities across the region. In fact, our region has been successfully directing investment into targeted areas for years with remarkable results.
The Commonwealth Games highlighted Birmingham City Centre’s iconic buildings and striking public squares – which are the result of 12 years of investment and development, evidence of a successful enterprise zone working its magic.
Across the region you can see many other examples of targeted, localised investment that has driven growth. There is the vast project that is regenerating the site of the Longbridge car factory, including commercial and housing developments.
In Edgbaston, a Life Sciences campus is springing up, backed in part by the WMCA. A joint venture between the University of Birmingham, leading science property specialists Bruntwood SciTech and Legal & General, this is a perfect example of how we are unlocking private funding as well as public investment.
Investment Zones are another powerful conduit through which we could Level Up the nation, but with decision-making so centralised in the capital, I fear we may take too long to get them in place.
Which brings me to another reason why devolution must press ahead: The distractions of the Westminster bubble can paralyse decision making, leaving the regions in limbo and unable to progress with important projects. Right now, our ambitious retrofit programme remains only partially funded and we are waiting for a decision on our bid for cash to build more affordable homes on brownfield land.
Of course, I know that given time these matters will be addressed by the new Government, but they are decisions that can, and should, be taken in the West Midlands, allowing us to deliver quicker results.
Our trailblazing devolution deal would mean we no longer have to go cap in hand to a civil servant in London whenever we want to fund a key project. It would give us greater control over post-16 education so we can give our young people the skills we know our employers need. And, by devolving inward investment powers, it would enable us to attract even more high quality jobs and international businesses.
The Prime Minister has signalled that he wants to refocus on the manifesto of 2019 and deliver on the Levelling Up promise. He must reach out to the regions and give us the powers to make it happen. We already have a track record of getting real results – imagine what we could do if the shackles were off.