I was born and raised in North-West Birmingham. A lifetime of travelling up and down the A34, past Alexander Stadium home to this summer’s Commonwealth Games, or driving down Thimblemill Road where I learned to swim in the early 90’s, seeing the development of what will be the new home of the Sandwell Aquatic Centre, the pace of change has not been so fast round these parts as in the last few years.
For me the Golden Decade will be measured by three key areas of investment in our region: in jobs, in new homes, and a renewed lifelong investment in sport and participation.
Jobs, homes and sport on paper feel like very separate ambitions, but there is a great deal of overlap here. Our region has quietly punched above its weight for years, and we are now seeing the fruits of that labour as innovation and new investment has created our second-ever tech unicorn. Gymshark started life in 2012 in Solihull trading £300 a day in fitness gear and accessories online. Today it has almost 1000 employees and is worth over $1 billion.
Tech is the fastest growing sector in the West Midlands. We have already seen global industry giants such as BT create 1000 technology and research jobs in the region, and Goldman Sachs open its digital bank Marcus in Birmingham making commitment to put hundreds of jobs here. These moves are revolutionary in getting employers to not default to London as the place for professional services jobs. These give our young people more chances to create full and exciting careers, here at home, without feeling they need to go to London or elsewhere to get on and do well.
I have lived and worked in Glasgow during my career, seeing first-hand the legacy the 2014 Commonwealth Games left in that region, both in terms of mass participation in sport but how Glasgow harnessed it as part of its outbound trade and investment promotion to the world.
In 2015 around 80% of Birmingham’s population were considered to be inactive. More specifically women’s participation in sport and physical activity in Birmingham was exceptionally low at just 14.1%. The challenge is set now for the Games to raise those stakes, how active can we be by 2030? How many of Team GB at Brisbane Olympics 2032 will proudly declare Birmingham when asked where they come from?
If the opening of the Commonwealth Games is the official start of our golden decade, then it can only be bookended by then opening of HS2, with the original promised high-speed links to the North, not just London. HS2 must go the length of the country in order for the West Midlands to fully enjoy its benefits. When Birmingham and the West Midlands are within a one hours reach to over 20million people, we reclaim our place as the UK’s second city with no naysayers and truly become the centre of the country.
But HS2 is not just about connecting people, but it will unlock the creation of 5,000 new homes and over 3,000 new jobs. We desperately need new homes right across the region.
As I convened a Green Manufacturing Commission as part of Labour’s campaign for West Midlands Mayor in 2021, we clearly heard three key demands from business and education experts:
• Full control over skills funding for sixteen to nineteen-year-olds and re-training adults should be handed over to regional control. We know best what jobs we need here and what skills we don’t already have locally.
• Government are always keen to talk about retrofitting homes, greener transport, and green energy. However, they do not talk about investing in those skills here in the UK, manufacturing those goods here in the UK, creating those necessary jobs here in the UK.
• We have a strong history in our part of the industrial revolution, we are proud of our manufacturing past, but today, our role as that centre of new power generation is not recognised. My hope is that this decade we aren’t afraid to flex our muscle, and our regional political leaders champion the West Midlands for the role we can play in greening our economy.
• Championing our SMEs and our Mid-Sized businesses. Jaguar Land Rover, IMI, Tarmac, Alstom are household names. We see their engineering expertise daily around us and they are essential anchors of our local economy, but they all have supply chains, they all have smaller companies where our mothers, brothers, cousins and nieces work supplying vital parts that make the whole thing run. But our system is letting them down. They struggle to get funding to expand or sell goods overseas, which means importing more than we are exporting. London, the South West and North East are all net exporting regions, meaning that is money reinvested back into their local economies, creating jobs and opportunities for their people. Our political leaders must lobby Westminster for more support of our great SMEs and get us to that position.
None of these ambitions come without challenges. They need political leadership, both at a regional, local and national level, to fight for the West Midlands to be front and centre. We need to take control of how we promote ourselves globally. Trade and Investment money and opportunity is not easy to win, especially in crowded fields where every major city is present. Our businesses and our academic institutions need to work closer together than ever before in both creating jobs the region needs, and ensuring we are creating the talent, here, to fill those jobs.
Success at the end of the decade, for me, is being able to sit in the centre of Birmingham, or Coventry, or Wolverhampton, and know that everything I need or want, and everything my cousins or nieces and nephews need to get on, to live, work, play and do well, can be found right here.