What kind of mayor does the West Midlands need?

Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce

As we attempt to overcome the seismic challenges created by Coronavirus, the West Midlands needs a Mayor that can display an intuitive grasp of short term policy prioritisation along with the longer term strategic vision needed to tackle the structural issues which continue to hinder our economic output, writes Raj Kandola. 

Leading the region from pandemic survival to economic revival whilst also helping businesses adapt to the post Brexit landscape

There’s no doubt that the West Midlands has been shaken to its core as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Prior to the crisis, the region had generated over £100bn in GVA, become a beacon for FDI and outperformed national averages across areas key indicators such as employment growth and enterprise. The socio-economic make up of the region made it particularly vulnerable to the twin headwinds created by Covid-19 and Britain’s departure from the European Union – with key sectors such as automotive and hospitality drastically affected.

Now more than ever, the Mayor needs to lobby Government to ensure the spending taps remain very much open in order for businesses to get the financial support they need to survive and ultimately overcome the worst ravages of the pandemic.

In addition, data from our latest Quarterly Business Report reveals that just over a third of local businesses are under pressure to raise their prices, with many citing the increase costs of importing raw materials –in part related to the additional outlay incurred by bringing goods in from the EU following the end of the Brexit transition period.  It’s essential that we have a Mayor in place that will make sure the region receives its fair share of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund whilst campaigning for wider changes related to immigration policy and fiscal support in order to help those firms that are struggling to adapt to the changes.

Building Back Better – Ensuring that the region reaps the benefits of HS2

With the onset of the pandemic, it’s almost easy to forget that the very existence of HS2 was under threat at the start of last year. Now its strategic importance has never been more important to the region. The project is expected to create 175,000 jobs in the West Midlands, additional GVA of £20bn and five thousand apprenticeships. Clearly, HS2 will play a significant role in rebuilding fragile confidence in the West Midlands whilst also playing an important part in tackling systemic problems related to productivity and skills shortages – issues which have become even more pressing as a result of the pandemic.

The role of the Mayor will be central in realising these benefits – notably by partnering with the business community to allow local firms to access the vast array of supply chain opportunities available but also by lobbying Government to deliver the project in full. The case for HS2 was made even more powerful when regional policymakers pointed out the fact that areas in the West Midlands which had suffered from decades of under investment had created local economic plans predicated on its arrival. The Mayor will need to coalesce both local and national stakeholders to guarantee these plans are delivered in their totality which will, in turn, unlock huge benefits in relation to housing, commerce, connectivity and technology.

Transforming the West Midlands through investment in the green economy and encouraging environmentally sustainable business practices

For centuries, the West Midlands has cultivated a proud reputation of being at the forefront of technological change and the Mayor will need to channel that spirit to ensure the region is at the heart of a green industrial revolution as we emerge from the Covid crisis. Anchor institutions in our region such as Jaguar Land Rover have already set out ambitious plans related to the future of the car industry – now is the time for the Mayor to seize the initiative and formulate a plan which embeds sustainability as a central pillar of our economic recovery.

Pivotal to realising this vision is the need for the West Midlands to secure a gigafactory – the Mayor will have a crucial role to play in displaying the prerequisite negotiating skills required to turn this dream into a reality. Furthermore, investment in green technology could also open up exciting new opportunities related to retrofitting our housing stock and improving our transport networks – all of which will help to boost employment levels and upskill a vibrant and diverse workforce. However, the Mayor will need to work closely with the business community to help policymakers identify and overcome the barriers that firms in the region face in attempting to adopt low carbon technology whilst also exploring new and innovative access to finance models to make sure businesses have the tools they need to make the transition to net zero.

As the preeminent business membership organisation in the region, we will continue to act as a conduit between the office of the Mayor and the local business community to ensure a pro-business agenda remains at the heart of their plans for the next four years and beyond.

For more information on the points raised above, click here to access Rebounding for Business: Vision for the West Midlands Mayor.

Raj Kandola is head of Policy for Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce.

To watch the Chamber's In Conversation event with Andy Street and Liam Byrne, click here