Building back better: Infrastructure holds the key to our recovery

Burns & McDonnell

Birmingham and the West Midlands have been a major success story over the last few years.  Outstripping the growth of the rest of the UK, apart from London, increased prosperity has duly followed. Sadly, the Birmingham Economic Review 2020 has reported that the Birmingham city region will be hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. The economy is forecast to contract by around 9.1% this year, compared with the UK average of 7.2%. Productivity and employment are going to fall here more than the average.

How can this be reversed? How do we take advantage of the assets this region has to grow more rapidly in the future and truly build back better?

As a Birmingham-based company with a real stake in our region’s future, we at Burns & McDonnell think the answer lies in the rollout of cutting-edge infrastructure. Updating and expanding the infrastructure that we all rely on will create jobs and generate investment. This includes the electrical infrastructure that transports clean energy, smart meter technology that gives consumers greater control of their energy usage, electric vehicle charging capability, and 5G networks. The WMCA agrees, with infrastructure forming a key part of its recent Recharge the West Midlands recovery plan. With substantial infrastructure investments already made by the WMCA, economic output has increased by 25% over the past five years.

The recovery from the pandemic is also an opportunity to “build back better”. This means promoting growth that is sustainable, supporting the Government’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. With the publication of his recent green recovery programme, the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, has made strides in this area, building on the commitment of making the region carbon neutral by 2041.  

The plan’s commitments - including retrofitting old homes to make them more energy efficient, rolling out charging systems for electric vehicles, and supporting the growth of green neighbourhoods – will all be underpinned by critical infrastructure. Getting the deployment of this right will be crucial to ensure the network can cope with increased electricity demand and that power is used efficiently.

Investment in infrastructure that supports sustainable energy generation will create new jobs and drive the connectivity that will reinvigorate the region. This will require the upskilling of the workforce and will allow people to increase their incomes and stimulate growth through spending. The West Midlands will require more funding from the UK Government to create a new generation of engineers, technology specialists and construction professionals. The WMCA has already set out its proposals to the Government for greater investment to equip people with the skills needed for the future. This includes helping 38,400 young people obtain apprenticeships and upskilling 24,000 for jobs.

Next year, Birmingham will launch its Clean Air Zone, which will impose charges on those driving high polluting vehicles in the city centre. As well as focusing on disincentives like this, we also need to see the roll out of infrastructure that encourages people to use more sustainable forms of transport. The development of electric vehicle charging capability across the region will require an overhaul of infrastructure in the region.  Done well, it will reduce emissions and facilitate greater connectivity, attracting talent and investment to the region.

With major parts of our national infrastructure owned by private firms, investor confidence will be critical to the recovery.  We need strategic clarity from the Government. It must publish its National Infrastructure Strategy rapidly, setting out a clear road map to net zero in each region. Westminster must also give greater backing to local leaders in our region, both in funding and powers, so that they can deliver the WMCA’s blueprint for recovery.

Implemented effectively and at scale, infrastructure has a critical role to play in driving growth and the transition to net zero. As we move towards a more sustainable regional economy, we will need to see investment in the training and development of essential skills needed for the power generation supply chain to deliver the required programmes of work.  

We already have a strong industrial base in the West Midlands. With support from central government, our workforce is poised to take advantage and become the beating heart of a new green infrastructure region and make us a success story again.

Jonathan Chapman
Managing Director UK
Burns & McDonnell