The London-based media has traditionally believed that the economic recovery is rooted there and that somehow regional cities ‘are in the slow lane’. But steadily the political, business and media worlds are waking up to the reality that the West Midlands is now leading the recovery.
The latest statistics show that the greatest fall in unemployment has come in our region – credit to the hard work of businesses across the GBSLEP area. Personally, I feel that this can continue as, while the underlying economic situation is clearly the biggest determinant of success, we also have a lot of home-grown reasons to be optimistic.
The first reason is the Growth Deal, signed by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on his recent visit to the GBSLEP board in Birmingham. This secured an impressive £357m of government funding, as well as further private sector leverage for local economic developments.
The Growth Deal’s key targets are to create up to 19,000 new jobs by 2020, build 6,000 new homes, help 7,600 people to improve their skills, and introduce a wider package of investment to improve transport and unlock stalled development sites across the region.
Now the promise of the Growth Deal is starting to become a reality as our first tranche of projects worth £63m are due to commence in April 2015. But we must not be satisfied with that alone. We must think about how to explore this new ‘partnership’ way of working with central Government.
Since the Scottish independence referendum, there’s been considerable discussion about regional devolution. My GBSLEP colleagues and I are keen to leave the political debate to the politicians. However, the arrival of the Growth Deal highlights how devolving funding from Whitehall to the LEPs can and will deliver faster growth for regions across the UK.
The pressure is now on to prove we can deliver on all our commitments, as undoubtedly successful delivery will provide central Government with the confidence to agree further economic devolution during the next parliament. The next big source of optimism must be the growing HS2 momentum – vital to ensure our area is well positioned to exploit the project’s potential investment, jobs and skills. Last year, plans advanced impressively for both the Curzon Street and Interchange stations, and it was an undoubted coup to secure the HS2 construction headquarters to be based at Two Snowhill. Similarly, the competitive award of the High Speed Rail College for Birmingham was a great team success, beating many other potential locations.
2015 will also see the completion of major infrastructure projects including New Street Station and the Metro extension, alongside commercial ‘votes of confidence’ such as Grand Central, the Mailbox refurbishment and Resorts World at the NEC.
One of the benefits of LEPs has been their ability to use original thinking with partners to develop new and innovative ways of generating growth. Our Enterprise Zone (EZ), the only city centre based EZ in the UK, is emerging as a clear example of this. Alongside Birmingham City Council we have developed what we believe is a unique finance model to create a £275m Investment Plan.
Among other things this will make investments in infrastructure works, which in turn will allow private sector investments to occur, both in the EZ and across the wider LEP geography.
The outstanding example of this thinking is the redevelopment of Paradise Circus, now renamed simply ‘Paradise’, where work began in January. This major development promises to be the next iconic piece of the city centre’s reinvention, an excellent example of how GBSLEP and our partners have worked together. In time it will create a substantial number of jobs, helping to attract significant commercial investment. Personally, I’m hugely looking forward to seeing this development take shape, although I’ll admit to a little sadness at seeing the old library go, as that’s where I studied for my A-levels – happy memories!
Another project that’s received support from the EZ and got underway in January was Innovation Birmingham’s iCentrum building. Due to open in March 2016, this is the first phase of expansion for the Innovation Birmingham campus, creating an anticipated 400 new and highly-skilled jobs.
Another exciting initiative is the Institute of Translational Medicine, under Birmingham Health Partners, housed in the QE Hospital, which brings that historic building back into use. This is at the leading edge of the life sciences industry and will improve patients’ lives by ‘translating’ medical research into new treatments. That’s powerful in itself, but also shows our economy’s growing diversity and hidden strengths.
So, 2015 has already got off to an excellent start with these new projects beginning and the prospects of others concluding during the year. It will be the year when those strengths show through – thanks in part to the public and private sectors combining for the mutual benefit of our citizens. That’s the GBSLEP mission.
Andy Street is managing director of John Lewis and chair of GBSLEP.
For more information, visit www.centreofenterprise.com.