Just over a week ago Andy Street was re-elected West Midlands Mayor with an increased majority. In his first term he worked to address many of the city region’s underlying economic challenges. Continuing this approach over the next three years will be essential as the West Midlands has been hit hard by the pandemic and is grappling with high levels of unemployment.
Despite Birmingham city centre’s recent success at attracting more higher-skilled, higher paying businesses, the UK’s second city lags behind other big cities across Europe and this has a has a detrimental impact for the entire country.
In his second term Andy Street will need to build on his work addressing these challenges by investing in skills, increasing the number of jobs available and building on his ambitious £15bn transport plan by further improving mobility across the city region.
Policy priority 1: Continue the turnaround of Birmingham and Coventry city centres to support their roles as centres of knowledge-based jobs
In the years prior to the current crisis, Birmingham and Coventry city centres positioned themselves as more attractive places for higher-skilled, higher-paying businesses to locate – the most recent success story being Goldman Sachs’ plans to open a new office in Birmingham city centre.
This process as been absolutely essential in turning around the West Midlands’ economic fortunes in recent year and Andy Street must build on this in his second term.
To do this, his first priority should be to encourage office workers back into the city centre once it is safe. Centre for Cities’ High Streets Recovery Tracker shows that the pandemic has had a particularly damaging impact on Birmingham’s centre compared to other British cities, with footfall and spending struggling to recover to pre-pandemic levels. This is mainly caused by office workers continuing to work from home, greatly reducing demand for local retail and hospitality businesses.
To encourage workers back to the city centre when appropriate, Andy Street should work with city centre employers and launch a ‘Birmingham is open’ campaign. To do this safely, it should happen in coordination with Transport for the West Midlands.
As a second step, Street must continue to make Birmingham and Coventry city centres more attractive places to do business. The availability of office space in Birmingham and Coventry was not sufficient pre-pandemic and limited the West Midlands’ economic growth. Demand for office space is already increasing and so responding to this demand – either by building more or by repurposing excess retail and industrial space – will be key for ensuring the West Midlands’ continued economic growth.
Creating more jobs will put pressure on the West Midlands’ housing market and increase the cost of living. To avoid a London-style housing crisis, the West Midlands should deliver enough new homes in the suburbs and parts of the green belt. Andy Street should launch a housebuilding programme in which he advocates for a strategic review of the green belt around railway stations. These stations already have great connections into Birmingham city centre, and developing new homes surrounding them will keep housing affordable, reduce carbon emissions, and support the West Midlands’ prosperity.