Boris Johnson: Time is right for West Midlands to play its part in UK's resurgence

There’s something about Boris Johnson and the various modes of public transport.

Boris Johnson visited The Mount Taven public house and restaurant in Wolverhampton on the local election campaign trail
Boris Johnson visited The Mount Taven public house and restaurant in Wolverhampton on the local election campaign trail

Only a month ago he was holding court from the back of a bus in a National Express depot.

On his return to the region this week, the Prime Minister manned the controls of a tram during a tour of the West Midlands Metro depot in Wednesbury.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Mr Johnson famously launched his own bike scheme when he was Mayor of London, and clearly sees connecting up communities as essential if his levelling up agenda is to bear fruit.

The Prime Minister was in the Black Country to back Andy Street’s campaign for a second term as West Midlands Mayor. He arrived at Penn Golf Club via helicopter, before travelling to the Metro depot and then stopping off at the Mount Tavern on Penn Road, Wolverhampton, to chat with drinkers in the sunshine.

Like the PM, Mr Street is a big believer that for a region to work efficiently, people need to be able to get around seamlessly.

It is no surprise that a big part of his election campaign has centred on the changes to the transport network he has brought in over the last four years, and the developments that will follow if he wins again next month.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Johnson believes his fellow Tory’s vision for the West Midlands is the right one for the region, describing his focus on transport, as well as housing, job creation and brownfield development as being “bang on the money”.

The Prime Minister told the Express & Star: “As a former Mayor I totally understand what Andy Street is trying to do.

“You have got to connect your centres of economic opportunity better. You’ve got to help people to get to the high quality, highly skilled jobs.

“So putting in 150 more miles of tram line is a smart thing to do, as is 50 more stations.”

Mr Johnson also went to the West Midlands Metro depot in Wednesbury

Mr Johnson says an effective transport system can be an important cog in the region’s fightback after Covid.

As well as connecting communities, he says, it will also help to bring in investment for long term housing projects on old industrial land.

“We don’t want to build on green belt land, we don’t want to build on precious countryside areas,” he said. “You can do wonderful things on some of the brownfield sites and that’s what we’re doing.

“It all becomes possible when you put in the mass transit, when you put in good affordable transport it all makes sense.”

Assessing the impact of the pandemic on the region, Mr Johnson said falling infection rates had given people fresh hope that better times were on the horizon, as the roadmap out of lockdown continues on schedule.

“It has been a very tough time and I want to thank the people of the West Midlands for their heroic efforts,” he said.

“They’ve done amazingly well to keep the disease under control in the way that they have. I know people have felt the pressure of the lockdown, but together with the vaccine it is unquestionably working now, although we have still got to be cautious.”

Mr Johnson will be keeping a close eye on the local elections in the region next month, as well as the Mayoral poll, with the results set to give some insight into how voters have rated the Government’s performance over the last 18 months.

He said he was “proud” to have the support of people who switched to the Tories from Labour in their droves at the last general election, and vowed to “fight for every vote in every part of the country” at the local elections on May 6.

The time was now right for the region to play a key role in the country’s resurgence, he said.

“We have protected the people in the West Midlands’ jobs and livelihoods with about £10 billion worth of support,”the Prime Minister said.

“What we want to do now is for the West Midlands to be the centre of a national bounce back.”

Meeting customers in the beer garden during a visit to The Mount pub and restaurant in Wolverhampton

He said the Government was looking closely at the region’s plans for a gigafactory at Coventry Airport, which Mr Street has pushed for, and that he wanted to see the region spearhead the country’s electric vehicle revolution.

“The West Midlands is already one of the great centres of manufacturing and has been for the last 200 years,” said Mr Johnson.

“It is now a place where we are seeing pioneering work in battery technology, and in low carbon technology of all kinds.”

Mr Johnson also addressed recent allegations which have seen former PM David Cameron and current Ministers caught up in a lobbying scandal.

It has prompted senior Tory Sir Bernard Jenkin to warn Mr Johnson that failing to address the issue could cost the Conservatives votes in places such as the West Midlands.

Asked if he thought the lines between public service and private gain had become blurred, Mr Johnson said: “It is very important for people to understand that we have a fantastic civil service. They do an amazing job and I would not want people to think there are loads of top civil servants who are moonlighting.

“That is just not the case. They are working flat out on behalf of the people of this country.”

The Prime Minister has asked lawyer Nigel Boardman to investigate after it emerged that former government procurement chief Bill Crothers worked as an adviser for Greensill Capital while in his Whitehall job.

Greensill, which collapsed in March, also employed Mr Cameron – who lobbied ministers on behalf of the firm.

The issue has put in danger jobs in the steel industry that relied on finance raised by Greensill.

They include more than 70 working at Liberty Steel in Wednesbury.

Mr Johnson, who said he has had no recent contact with Mr Cameron, said Mr Boardman will look at “the whole thing” after a series of organisations announced investigations into the lobbying row.

Boris Johnson denies having any recent contacat with predecessor David Cameron

Mr Johnson also visited Gloucestershire to launch a new Government-backed mortgage scheme, which launched this week and sees first time buyers or current homeowners able to secure a mortgage with a five per cent deposit.

He said: “What we want to do is address what I think is the unfairness that so many people, particularly young people, end up paying far more in their rent than they would do in their mortgage.

“And the way around that is to help them with a deposit.

“And so that’s why the product that we’ve come forward, a mortgage guarantee scheme, I hope will be so successful.

“I hope it will be taken up by people, because what you want is a situation where people can afford the deposit.

“So we’re offering a 95 per cent mortgage guarantee scheme to help people to get the home that they want and try to convert as many people as we can from being ‘generation rent’, coughing up huge amounts in rent, to ‘generation buy’.”

Mr Johnson spoke of the decision to scrap a planned trip to India for talks with its prime minister Narendra Modi because of fears over a rise of infections, possibly caused by a new more infectious variant.

A decision was made hours after he spoke to plane India on a ‘red list’ of countries from which most travel to the UK is banned. UK or Irish passport holders will be allowed in, but only id they quarantine in a hotel for 10 days.

Mr Johnson said: “The red list is very much a matter for the independent UK Health Security Agency.

“But Narendra Modi and I have basically come to the conclusion that, very sadly, I won’t be able to go ahead with the trip. I do think it’s only sensible to postpone, given what’s happening in India, the shape of the pandemic there.

“Countries around the world, including our own, have been through this. I think everybody’s got a massive amount of sympathy with India and what they’re going through.

“And I just want to stress that this is, we’re going to be going back, the relationship between the UK and India is of huge importance, and I’ll be talking to Narendra Modi. We’ll be trying to do as much as we can, virtually. Of course it will be frustrating, but we’ll try and replicate as much as we can remotely, and then look forward to doing it in person as and when circumstances allow.”

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