Games and HS2 can help rebuild West Midlands economy

The Commonwealth Games next year can play a key role in helping the economic recovery of the West Midlands, business leaders have been told.

SANDWELL COPYRIGHT TIM STURGESS EXPRESS AND STAR......14/09/2021 WBA Richardson Suite - business breakfast being run by Richardson. Pictured, guest speaker Andy Street..
SANDWELL COPYRIGHT TIM STURGESS EXPRESS AND STAR......14/09/2021 WBA Richardson Suite - business breakfast being run by Richardson. Pictured, guest speaker Andy Street..

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street was keynote speaker at a business leaders' investment breakfast at West Bromwich Albion organised by Oldbury-based developers Richardson.

The gathering of around 150 was one of the biggest events held for the region's business community since the start of the pandemic 18 months ago.

Mr Street said there was a jobs target across the combined authority area of 100,000 new jobs and it was about a quarter of the way there since March

He said the region had been the worst hit economically because of Covid and said it had to make the most of the opportunities that HS2 and the Commonwealth Games were providing.

HS2 has already taken on 12,000 people with another 6,000 to be taken on and the Commonwealth Games will create 35,000 jobs and £1 billion of pubic cash going in to it

"It is critical to economic recovery," said Mr Street who added that the Games would also offer the opportunity to promote the West Midlands around the world

"It will be a great showcase for West Midlands businesses. A UK House in Centenary Square, Birmingham, will bring in visitors from around the world," he explained.

Mr Street told business leaders that the region was doing "incredibly well" before the pandemic hit with record employment numbers, but added: "We took one hell of a hit."

There has been an increase of 83,000 people claiming unemployment benefits, concentrated among the young, ethnic minorities and more women than men in areas with the worst social issues

Mr Street said one surprisingly good statistic was that the number of business liquidations in the region had been relatively small.

"We have come out of the pandemic with almost the same number of businesses," he explained. "Two years ago we were already beginning to see the downturn worse than other areas.

"The 2019 performance here was poor – that was the beginning of the Brexit affect," Mr Street added and explained that with many businesses rely on exporting to the EU, the area was more badly affected then other regions.

He said the real issue was the sectoral composition of the economy. Sectors like aerospace, centred around Wolverhampton, had not bounced back and it was at 50 per cent of pre-Brexit business

Some key industries were facing the challenge of technological change and automotive manufacturers, like Jaguar land Rover, producing diesel engines and companies making components for diesel engines were also being hit with tough challenges.

Mr Street said that since March the recovery has steadily opened up the regional economy, but it had not been fast enough and not as quick as some areas of the country although employment had increased by 18,000 by the end of July.

He said an encouraging factor was that vacancies were at record levels with 172,000 vacancies across the combined authority area – 45 per cent more than pre-pandemic – but there was some issue preventing those vacancies being filled, possibly lack of training or it could be attributable to people not wanting to work in areas where there are vacancies.

Mr Street warned that public sector funding was pretty much stretched but a number of big transport projects were going ahead which would be catalysts for investment.

The West Midlands would be bidding for some of the £1bn available from the City Region Sustainable Transport Fund in a competition between Mayoral authorities.

Mr Street said development of "a significant pipeline" of brownfield site schemes across the region were being announced.

He emphasised that the private sector was going to be key to the region's recovery and his role was to use public funding to leverage much more private cash.

Real growth areas would be in electric vehicles with the proposed battery gigafactory in Coventry key to that.

"We are getting closer and closer to a deal with the Government and JLR to make that happen," he said

Mr Street also said that development towards achieving Net Zero carbon dioxide emissions would also be an engine for growth.

On training he said that even through the pandemic the quality of the workforce in the region had been improved.

It was important now to get the Government to release cash for training to step up adult education programmes to drive further improvement in the quality of the workforce

Carl Richardson, who jointly leads the family business, said that he believed opportunities would arise.

"The slipside of danger is opportunity," he stressed.

Richardson is part of the £160 million McArthur Glen Designer Outlet development at Cannock which has delivered 1,000 jobs and phase two of which is soon to begin.

The family has also launched a £100 million enterprise fund to raise the profile of what the business is doing in the West Midlands

"That has generated plenty of activity. We are seeing more investment opportunities in the West Midlands than was previously the case," explained Mr Richardson,

Mr Street also said that investment from overseas was going to be important and said there was already a bigger pipeline of investments than there had been pre-pandemic.

"The West Midlands Growth Company is buys lassoing as many as possible and the £100m investment fund from Richardson will help to enable that," he added.

Jason Wouhra, chief executive of Lioncroft Wholesale, said there was a lot of interest from Indian businesses in the region which had to be capitalised on.

"There is a real connection between the two countries and it is a massive opportunity," said Mr Wouhra, who is chairman of the West Midlands India Partnership.

Martin Dudley, chairman of the Thomas Dudley Group in Dudley, called for an innovation hub to be established for the Black Country to involve the University of Wolverhampton and colleges in the area.

Helen Brocklebank, mergers and acquisitions partner at RSM, said that mergers and acquisitions had taken off like a rocket this year with appetite for investment at unprecedented levels.

The West Midlands had been the most active deals market outside London and the South East and she said the private equity market was sitting on record levels of cash.

"We are the engine house of the country and the huge opportunities to take that cash and drive the region forward are out there without a doubt," she added.

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