The West Midlands is a remarkable place. It is packed full of exciting entrepreneurs and innovative business leaders, experienced workers and young people hungry for opportunities, it is one of the most culturally diverse places on earth and is full of incredible artists, writers, musicians, sportspeople and creative enterprises.
It has had both highs where it has led the UK economy home and abroad in productivity and innovation and lows where our unemployment and business closures have pushed communities to their limits. The character, resilience and uniqueness of our businesses and residents make this place so special.
However, the nature of our economy has meant national economic crisis ‘have a deeper and longer impact on our regional economy than others in the UK.’ A recent report by the Barrow Cadbury Trust – The State of Economic Justice in Birmingham and the Black Country – demonstrates that the makeup of our industry and the occupations within these industries, the lower-than-average wages and skills levels and long term unemployment levels in many of our most deprived communities means that for many parts of the West Midlands our productivity will take longer to recover, that our supply chains won’t win the contracts associated with recovery and that many of the jobs created won’t go to local people.
The next decade will be full of economic events that we can either treat as opportunities or hurdles for our local economy – the move from combustion engines to electric vehicles, the increased use of artificial intelligence in professional services, the reimagining of urban centres and high streets in the wake of home working and online shopping, the adoption of net zero targets for our logistics, manufacturers, construction and food and drink businesses, reduced commuter times between the West Midlands and London, huge growth in creative businesses, NFTs, crypto currencies and online communication and marketing and of course all those things we can’t even imagine at the moment – the list is endless.
If we want to ensure these are opportunities, we must acknowledge that not all growth is good growth, and we need to rebuild the links between our brilliant diverse communities and the businesses that sit within them. We need to create commercially successful civic businesses with a social conscience. Growth needs to be environmentally sustainable, inclusive and innovative. If we are serious about levelling up and we want this to be a truly golden decade for the West Midlands we need to rewrite the way we create wealth, the way that local community’s benefit from this wealth and how we develop a true partnership between business, decision makers and residents to make our economy as competitive as anywhere in the world.
Our businesses need access to well-paid and highly skilled workers. They need affordable energy, good quality sustainable buildings and first-class infrastructure to move their goods and services across the country and across the world and they need to be involved in the development of business-friendly policies that are accountable at a local level.
These ambitions of creating and retaining wealth at a local level and the coordinated development of local workforces and supply chains will only be realised if we make some big changes.
Primarily, we need true devolution that covers health, education, public transport, planning, infrastructure and regeneration funding. Levelling up isn’t just about addressing inequalities between regions, but in areas within those regions. The West Midlands has suffered decades of underinvestment and it will take more than one generation to unleash our potential. We need the powers and the budgets to make our own decisions, made by officials accountable to local people and based on strategies with residents and businesses at their heart. We need to end the costly, time consuming and competitive process of funding that pits regions against regions and requires Whitehall to assess, modify and approve every level of budget. We need joined up, single pots of funding that are agreed for decades, not annually, to allow us to plan and deliver.
Secondly, once we have control of these budget’s we need to revolutionise the way we use procurement. We can use the public purse to drive the economy, rewarding businesses whose workforces and supply chains reflect the communities around them. Wherever possible we need to retain the wealth and jobs we create for the benefit of West Midlands businesses and communities. With long term budget agreements, we will be able to plan, developing long term procurement strategies that will have sustainability and inclusivity at their heart – building sustainable houses or retrofitting existing stock, creating sustainable, community focused town centres and high streets, manufacturing the green products locally, growing sustainable construction businesses, training local people in the Green Skills they’ll need to fill these jobs and building sustainable houses for them to live in. With long term procurement plans we can spot gaps in the local market and use these contracts to help develop local capacity and support businesses to diversify their products and services with support from our excellent universities. Already, Local Authorities in Sandwell, Dudley, Birmingham and Wolverhampton are putting Community Wealth Building at the centre of their plans – we need to make sure this succeeds.
Thirdly, we need a skills revolution that delivers the workforce our local businesses need and we need to end the destructive disconnection between record levels of job vacancies in the West Midlands and growing unemployment levels in our most deprived communities. We need local skills plans developed by businesses and flexible budgets for providers to deliver training quickly. We need these plans to be ambitious driving sustainability through innovation, reshoring opportunities that have been made overseas for too long.
Our schools need huge investment and to be judged on educational mobility rather than just qualifications. We need independent, professional careers support in every primary and secondary school in the region and opportunities for local businesses to partner up with local schools.
Finally, let’s show the world how amazing we are. This decade can be the one where we get our swagger back, where business confidence is built on the back of major events such as the Commonwealth Games, the City of Culture, the British Art Show, our festivals and culture, the films and television programmes that are made here and, of course, the incredible businesses that trade across the globe. This will be a golden decade if we can stand side by side, diverse, inclusive, sustainable, innovative, hungry for success and proud to be the West Midlands.