“This next recovery phase will be a collaborative journey”, said Liz McKenzie, Vice-Chair of the West Midlands Growth Company (WMGC), at the opening of the organisation’s most recent Commercial Partner event.
Chaired by Liz, the event brought together leaders from the region’s public and private sectors to consider how the West Midlands can recharge its economy following months of lockdown measures.
Set against the backdrop of the Chancellor’s £30 billion mini-budget in July, the region has slowly started to reopen its doors again. Consumers in the West Midlands have responded well since the easing of lockdown restrictions. Initial reports show the region saw the highest footfall recovery in the UK between 15-21 June, recording 52.7% of the previous year’s footfall, according to the High Streets Task Force.
However, the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic is yet to play out. With this in mind, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has set out its £3.2 billion economic recovery plan that aims to reset, rebuild and recharge the West Midlands economy. Central to these plans are Coventry’s tenure as the UK City of Culture 2021 and the 2022 Commonwealth Games, which are unique to the region and will be utilised to attract new investment, visitors and jobs.
The region has already responded quickly to the pandemic by setting up initiatives to mitigate the short-term impact of COVID-19. New initiatives such as the West Midlands Cultural Response Unit and the West Midlands Economic Impact Group have helped to alleviate the initial problems caused by the pandemic, but are now preparing for the region’s long-term recovery.
With the recovery phase in its infancy – what will help the region to bounce back quickly?
Recently, the Black Country was awarded UNESCO global geopark status due to its outstanding cultural heritage and the partnerships committed to conserving, managing and promoting it. With this new accolade under its belt, the Black Country can expect to see new visitors and investment into the region.
Cllr Ian Brookfield, Leader at City of Wolverhampton Council and WMCA Portfolio Holder for the Economy, said:
“While we all may be suffering at the present time on the economic side, our heritage will never change. So, the innovation that brought the Black Country to life still remains, and that is something we are going to rely on [greatly] as we go forward.”
Expanding on the importance on the region’s innovative heritage, he said:
“[We’re] lucky that we have our engines of innovation – our universities. We are blessed with some of the best in the country and that is something that we have got to foster, nurture and increase.”
Jobs and training
The pandemic has greatly impacted jobs, with figures for the West Midlands showing that people claiming unemployment benefits, including Universal Credit, were up 47,305 to 265,030 in May 2020.
The WMCA’s blueprint for economic recovery is trying to address this issue. It includes plans to create or safeguard more than 135,000 jobs and support over 154,000 young people into work through a number of projects that will upskill the local population.
Deborah Cadman, CEO of the West Midlands Combined Authority, commented:
“When we initiated the recharge proposition to Government – we had a very clear objective – and that was about championing projects of a significant regional scale that are distinctive to the West Midlands and those that can be delivered quickly.”
“We have imaginative new projects – if you look at project Great it is designed to retain highly skilled engineers and innovators in a new commercial R&D project list – that will also help us to retain our global competitive advantage, particularly in the advanced manufacturing and automotive industry.”
Project Great is a £65million programme for automotive and aerospace companies to retain highly-skilled staff who are engaging in important R&D activities.
The project will support the Government’s response to a range of mobility opportunities and challenges focusing initially on the automotive industry - safeguarding 5,500 jobs and increasing GVA by up to £1 billion nationwide.
Green manufacturing jobs
West Midlands Mayor Andy Street discussed the WMCA’s plans for a £614 million investment into green manufacturing jobs, which will harness the potential of green technology and vehicle electrification to deliver sustainable growth and unlock more than 51,000 green jobs.
“We have already had some good news on this – with big investments in brownfield remediation”
Street said, referring to £84 million already committed by government to support brownfield regeneration.
The Mayor also highlighted the region’s commitment to advanced methods of manufacturing, which involves manufacturing building components in factories away from building sites and then assembling the parts more efficiently to produce good quality and sustainable homes.
The WMCA has recently formed an Advanced Manufacture in Construction advisory group to support the delivery of these projects. A key component of the group’s remit is skills training partnerships with leading universities to ensure the region remains a centre for excellence and embeds ground-breaking modular building techniques for the next generation of manufacturing experts.
The region will soon host Coventry UK City of Culture 2021 and the 2022 Commonwealth Games – two unique events that will attract investment, jobs and visitors to the region.
Neil Rami, Chief Executive at WMGC, said:
“We have some very significant opportunities – the City of Culture, the Commonwealth Games, and a range of other things that are in our ‘kit bag’ – we need to make more use of these moving forward.”
More recently, the West Midlands India Partnership has been launched to support the region’s recovery objectives by forging stronger ties with the Indian market.
The recovery period will be significant, “something in the order of two-and-a-half to five years” according to Matt Hammond, Chair of WMGC. However, the region is well-placed to bounce back with infrastructure schemes such as HS2 and the UK’s first 5G multi-city testbed, which will improve the region’s transport and digital connectivity.
“We are uniquely placed as a region with big infrastructure investments that can be a catalyst to growth – and can be a catalyst for the public to private sector activity that we need so badly across the UK.”
Matt Hammond concluded the session by highlighting how businesses can support each other during the pandemic:
“Lastly - and this applies to all of us regardless of our sector, whatever our roles are – take advice. The universities across the West Midlands have collaborated really well to give advice to businesses - the LEPs are there to do that, the Chambers of Commerce and of course professional services firms.
“Take advice. Take it early. And work together to find solutions.”
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