Trade unions and their members must be at the heart of the West Midlands’ economic revival. We have the skills, the enthusiasm, the people, and the vision. We have an enviable tradition of good industrial relations with unions, managements and investors working together, and we must continue to do so if we are to secure a prosperous future for our region.
Every town and city in the region was at the centre of the industrial revolution that transformed the world. When the world demanded industrial goods, the response in the West Midlands was simple “We can make it”. We are ready to do so again.
The next industrial revolution will undoubtedly be based on the new green technologies. For the West Midlands to succeed we need clear and inclusive regionally based leadership, training to provide the changing skills needed throughout our working lives, and a rapid transport system which enables workers and their skills to move to where they are needed.
The Covid crisis has shown just how our communities depend on one another. We now understand the value of the “key worker”. Often underpaid and undervalued, these were the people who stayed at their posts during those difficult years and ensured that essential services were maintained.
We also saw government and local authorities in a new light. There were things that only government can do. Mass vaccination and testing, the building of the ‘Nightingale hospitals’ and timely regulation and advice can only be provided by government.
Communities throughout the country realised that each of us has a part to play. Almost overnight we saw small community mutual aid groups created on WhatsApp. Thousands of people volunteered to help at vaccination centres. For several months whole neighbourhoods would gather on their doorsteps to ‘clap for carers’.
The contrast with the economic and political narrative of the last decade could not have been starker. Austerity, combined with a fervent belief that any problem can be fixed with market forces alone, has led to a crisis in practically every sphere of community life – health, housing, transport, and policing are just some examples.
Over the last two years we have learnt again that important and strategic decisions rely on the support of the whole community working together, co-operating and having a common vision. Markets have their place, but also have serious limitations, especially in public services and we need to ensure we get the balance right and support a thriving social market economy in the West Midlands.
Trades unions want to contribute to a vision for the West Midlands. We want to reverse the deindustrialisation of our economy and the running down of public services and civic society. A social market economy would provide a stake for every citizen in our region, every community. It would mean all institutions and groups working together to reduce the poverty, inequality and entrenched deprivation that has afflicted too many areas of the West Midlands. A social market economy that allows our businesses, large and small, established and start-ups, to secure the funding, support and access to markets they need to thrive. But also strong local, regional and civic leadership, strong institutions and an enabling state that works to give opportunities to all. Our region is diverse, it would be a travesty not to utilise all our talents.
Our members want and need highly skilled, well paid, secure jobs which enable them to provide for their families. We want to live in safe and clean communities, in decent homes with well-run local schools, libraries and accessible health services.
Since the closure of Advantage West Midlands, the economic development agency, the region has struggled to make our voice heard in government and with investors. The hotchpotch of bodies created since has not had the same punch. The Local Economic Partnerships, each with varying powers and resources, nor the Combined Authority have the powers and resources to provide the strategic leadership.
There isn’t even a generally accepted definition of the West Midlands. Are we speaking of the conurbation that links the three cities of Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton, or do we include cities such as Hereford, Lichfield, Stoke, Worcester, and towns such as Shrewsbury, Rugby and Burton?
We hear much talk of the Northern Powerhouse but less of the Midlands Engine. I do fear that the Midlands is often neglected and overlooked with greater attention focussed on London and the South East and ‘the North’. Devolution will need to go further to allow us across the region to forge ahead and take advantage of the skills and assets that we know we have. But it will also take courage locally to come together to build the devolution of a scale we need. The TUC recently called for the creation of a National Recovery Council. We would like to see a regional equivalent bringing together unions, management, local government, and education providers at every level. Our preference would be for a regional body that encompasses the historic counties of Hereford, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, but with a clear understanding that there should be regular contact with opposite organisations in Wales, the South West, the North West and the East Midlands whose economies often overlap our own.
We can’t emphasise enough the importance of an agile and comprehensive education and skills programme. New products and processes will inevitably mean that we will each have to undergo retraining at different stages of our working lives. We need good schools to provide the basics but beyond that our universities and further education colleges have a massive part to play in equipping our members with the new skills they and their employers will need in the future. Young people should be able to start their working lives in a high-quality apprenticeship and to be provided a first class start to their working lives.
In recent years trade unions have played an active part in training, working in partnership with government and industry through the Union Learning Fund (ULF).
This scheme made an enormous contribution to improving access to skills in the local area, enabling both union and non-union members to access training. Such practical was crucial as it made paper entitlements to free learning a reality for working adults who need to improve their skills. Seven in ten learners through the ULF said they would not have taken part in learning or training without union support. This rises to around 8 in 10 of those with no prior qualifications.
The short-sighted Government decision to axe the Union Learning Fund shows how ideology and a Westminster first mindset can let our region down. We stand ready to work again with government to again deliver such practical schemes that give life to the mantra of lifelong learning. But it also shows that we need to take ownership of this agenda fully at a regional level and bring together those who know what works to deliver for our people and our economy.
We welcome HS2 as a symbol of the region’s connectivity with the markets of the world, particularly Europe. We would eventually like to see extensions into the North and to Scotland and one to the North West and Wales, taking pressure off the land bridge between Ireland and Europe, which contributes so much to the congestion on our motorways.
HS2 will also free up capacity on our railway lines within the three cities conurbation. And, of course, HS2 can, and should, be seen as a project that can deliver on delivering opportunities for underrepresented groups and deprived communities in so doing, it is a beacon of how we can use infrastructure and procurement in a fashion that delivers social value as well as greater GDP. A real example of how we can power up a social market economy.
Together with an expansion of a cheap and reliable metro system or very light railways, our workforce will be more mobile and benefit from a wider jobs market. Cheap and accessible public transport, especially if, where possible, using vehicles made in the region using renewable energy will be critical for our future success.
At the very least the revived West Midlands should see the living wage as standard and reject the siren voices that call for a race to the bottom. Birmingham’s recent accreditation as a Living Wage City is welcome and we must build upon this to deliver fair pay for the whole region, zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment should be scrapped. All workers should be enrolled into a pension scheme so that they can look forward to a secure retirement.
Workers should be at the heart of our recovery. When they make the contribution, they should reap the rewards. The West Midlands has a great future, and trade unions will be part of that future.
Together we can make it.