Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Across the West Midlands, the human impact of the coronavirus has been deep and painful. It has left people mourning relatives, friends and neighbours, while separating us from our loved ones. The number of cases and deaths here has been second only to London.
The last few days have offered some reasons for positivity, from the Prime Minister’s assertion that we have “passed the peak” of the outbreak, to the huge increase in testing. As I write, here in the West Midlands the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the NEC is yet to take a single patient, more than a week after opening – a sure sign that our region’s brilliant hospitals are creating the capacity to deal with COVID-19.
Planning has played a vital role in achieving these milestones. Now, as our NHS continues to battle the outbreak, we face the daunting task of developing plans to bring the economy out of hibernation. This is a tremendously difficult subject to face while so many lives are still being lost, but it is vital that we do so.
The Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted a 35 per cent hit to national GDP, with the possibility that the effect on economic growth could be felt for many years. In the West Midlands, 79 per cent of businesses in the area have seen a drop in their income.
When coronavirus hit, the West Midlands was in a strong economic position. We had record employment figures and the fastest growth anywhere outside London. However, our economic mix leaves us vulnerable. Research highlights our dependence on manufacturing and high levels of business tourism, as well as a significant economic contribution from universities, all of which are affected.
Government measures to put large parts of the economy into hibernation – furloughing staff, business rates deferrals, grants and loans – were a vital first step to protect our businesses. Last week’s £600million pledge to support small firms in shared spaces, market traders, charity shops and others was a welcome addition.
Now, as we draw up future economic plans, it is vital that we learn the lessons of past downturns. To deal with the 2008 recession, the West Midlands set up taskforces with business, councils, trade unions and politicians putting aside partisan interests. This is already happening again.
In the West Midlands, we are working together to create a plan which will be specific to our needs. Recovery needs to be informed by a detailed local knowledge. There is no ‘one size fits all’ model that can be rolled out from Whitehall.
For instance, the recovery of the West Midlands automotive and construction sectors is crucial. Our cluster of automotive firms directly employs around 46,500 people.
The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), Local Enterprise Partnerships and our seven member boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton are drawing up plans that will set out a road map to recovery. At times like these, public authorities can play a key role in boosting confidence, through their flexible handling of services like education and transport. Business has shown it can do this too – just look at the way our supermarkets have evolved to meet the challenges they face.
However, the West Midlands requires targeted efforts to help reboot our most important sectors and support local people as the economy recovers – gear changes that will drive growth.
An Automotive Response Programme would allow vehicle manufacturing and retail to resume in a safe way, while pressing ahead with the infrastructure and Gigafactory required to make the region a global leader in electric transport.
The region’s SMEs must be supported through the Government’s £1.3 billion fund for new firms, backed by local business accelerators offering advice and training. A new Clean Growth Innovation Challenge would identify ideas to stimulate the green economy.
Big capital projects – such as stations for HS2 and a central hub for our creative economy – would stimulate growth, along with major transport projects like the expansion of the Metro across the region. I have urged the Prime Minister to bring forward £4.2 billion of national transport funding, planned for 2022, while the WMCA is pressing ahead with major projects, including cleaning up former industrial sites in Coventry and Sandwell ready for housing development.
This ground-breaking Brownfield First policy can be fast-tracked to build 200,000 new homes in the next 10 years on more former industrial sites. Our universities will also be critical to recovery, collaborating with business to boost productivity through research and development.
Finally, as we compete with the likes of Berlin, Boston and Barcelona, we will need to showcase our region to the world, building international reputation and utilising the Commonwealth Games in 2022.
Our region’s plans also look at the short, medium and long-term challenges we face. In the short term, for instance, companies will need help with social distancing measures.
In the medium term, we will need to address how the crisis has impacted on people. From the youth job market to rural communities and the consequences of enforced isolation, it will only be when lockdown is coming to an end that we really understand how it has impacted on individuals.
We will need employment and re-training schemes for those who lost their jobs, and support for charities, social enterprises, the arts, culture, sport and council services too.
We are a long way from our long-term aims, when there will be fewer restrictions with the virus in retreat. This will be the stage at which global economic trends that have emerged from the crisis will become apparent – in terms of things like technology and home working.
Those days are far off, and we have a long road ahead to get through this crisis. The most important task at hand remains to respect the lockdown restrictions, drive down the infection rate and save lives. This is how we will defeat the virus. Up and down the country, we have seen cities, towns and communities draw on local spirit to play their part.
This virus was a challenge we did not expect, which came from the other side of the world. Our answer must begin at home with local leadership backed by Government support.