‘Recharge the West Midlands’ — does this offer the kind of economic, social and community recovery we all hoped to see?

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In earlier posts I have been trying to keep abreast of a variety of recovery planning initiatives, including recent proposals and reports.

Up for consideration today is Recharge the West Midlands — Kickstarting the West Midlands Economy. This is West Midlands Combined Authority’s (WMCA) business case to government for a £3.2bn investment package that will ‘reset, rebuild and recharge’ the region’s economy as part of post-Covid economic recovery planning.

The plan — backed in a collective letter to the Chancellor by 600 signatories from business, institutions, trade unions, the region’s Chambers of Commerce, local authorities and LEPs — was submitted to the government at the end of June 2020. Mayor Andy Street is hopeful that the scale, approach and ambition of the West Midlands plan will not just find favour with the Chancellor but will also inform the government’s national recovery strategy.

The WMCA strategy has three main pillars:

  • Creating green manufacturing jobs by harnessing clean technology and electrification.
  • Turning HS2, Coventry City of Culture and the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games into jobs for local people by accelerating major infrastructure investment.
  • Investing in healthcare innovation, capitalising on the region’s existing strengths as a centre for health research, and using this to improve the region’s health.

 

The scale and ambition cannot be denied. But is this really about ‘resetting’ the West Midlands economy? There still seems to be a massive emphasis on transport, infrastructure, capital projects, and brownfield regeneration. What seems less evident is the Combined Authority’s much-repeated commitment to inclusive economic growth. It is also difficult to see a comprehensive approach throughout the document to addressing inequalities — and especially to measures that will ensure that a massive economic kickstart won’t widen existing inequalities or further exacerbate those the virus has exposed.

If you take as an example the first pillar, creating green manufacturing jobs, it is perfectly true that this includes a £100m programme of retrofitting to take 50,000 households out of fuel poverty, and £30m to decarbonise Black Country industry. But these sums are far exceeded by the £484m dedicated to capital projects (Gigafactory battery production facility), transport (very light rail), electric vehicle charging infrastructure and automotive R&D.

Similarly, maximising local job creation via HS2 and other WM opportunities devotes around £225m to capital projects — the HS2 interchange; Curzon St/Digbeth regeneration; and the redevelopment of Birmingham’s Square Shopping Centre, King’s Parade and Dale End/High Street car park as a new mixed-use ‘destination’ called Martineau Galleries. And while an £80m ‘Cultural Catalyst Programme’ is included to enable critical business transformation in the cultural sector, even this sum includes £50m for ‘shovel ready’ capital projects for arts and cultural venues. Surely this isn’t what the arts and cultural sector in the region needs right now?

Investing in healthcare innovation shows a similar emphasis. This includes £10m for reducing health inequalities through radical prevention and £13m to create a community-based health diagnostics hub at Grand Central, but again these sums are significantly less than the £127m dedicated to capital spend on construction of a Precision Health Technologies Accelerator, and planned diversification and business transformation programmes in MedTech supply-chains.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not rubbishing the plan because I am certainly not qualified to do so. I understand that this has to be a plan for the entire economy, and it is a complex document, but in its overwhelming emphasis on capital projects, regeneration and high-growth/high-profit sectors I can’t help but wonder whether it will offer the kind of  inclusive economic, social and community recovery we are all hoping to see.

I would love to know what others make of this plan. Do you see it as a transformational ‘reset’ for the region’s economy that is in keeping with the new world of Covid-19 recovery? Do we have any economic analysts out there who can help us better understand this?

Birmingham UK. Freelance research, evaluation and policy consultant specialising in social enterprise and the third sector. I maintain the BSSEC blog and website

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