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Boris, Andy And The £80B Funding Boost: Birmingham After The General Election

The General Election saw Conservative gains across the West Midlands contribute to a resounding Tory majority at Westminster.

Could this mean more funding for West Midlands infrastructure, assurances that HS2 will be delivered, and four more years as regional Metro Mayor for Andy Street?

Birmingham Tram

Birmingham Northfield, West Bromwich East, West Bromwich West, Wolverhampton North East and Wolverhampton South West. The list of Conservative gains from Labour in last week's general election is impressive, and might have been even more impressive: two Coventry seats were held by Labour by 208 and 401 vote majorities.

Today the West Midlands has 15 Conservative MPs and 14 Labour, the first time in decades that the Labour Party has been in the minority. For Street, Conservative West Midlands Metro Mayor, this is unalloyed good news.

Street has already made tracks to Downing Street to lobby for a share of £80B of government-funded investment in infrastructure. He plans to make good on Boris Johnson’s insistence that he would “level up” spending in the regions, the Financial Times reported.

Street has published a list of his priorities. Funding the Midlands Hub local rail plan will be top of the list, and an extension of the Midlands Metro tram network to Birmingham Airport and Solihull is understood to be part of the package of requests. Assurances that HS2 will be delivered are also high on his list.

The Oakvervee review into the viability, costings and structure of the scheme was due to be published in the autumn but was postponed due to the general election. The widespread expectation is that the scheme will survive, but will be reconfigured to deliver more to the Northern cities (and incidentally, to save money).

Transport-linked demands are undoubtedly popular with the real estate sector.

“As Boris Johnson has acknowledged, the Conservative party’s stunning election success owes much to the votes cast north of Watford — including six gains in the West Midlands," CBRE Birmingham Managing Director Martin Guest told Bisnow. He has pledged to repay this trust not only by delivering Brexit, but by investing in the regions.

“Confirmation that HS2 will go ahead is expected," Guest said. "The region has enjoyed new investment on the mere promise of HS2 and we in the property industry have had a ringside seat.

“Funding for other infrastructure projects, including the expansion of the Midlands Metro and the reopening of mothballed train stations is also required. Andy Street will be pushing for these and I’m hopeful he’ll get them across the line."

There has been chronic underinvestment in connections between and within regional cities and towns, BizSpace chief executive Gareth Evans said. "Faster and more frequent services will have a positive impact on the companies choosing to do business in the midlands and the north, benefitting local communities and creating more economic prosperity in the regions that have put their trust in the Conservative party.”

But transport isn’t the only story. An eye-catching demand for £1.5B to fund the UK’s first Tesla-style battery gigafactory is also on Street's list. The facility would help develop power sources for electric vehicles.

There will also be efforts to stimulate the West Midlands brownfield land strategy, a policy vital if Street is to divert development away from the green belt areas that voted Conservative.

“The figures speak for themselves — nearly 17,000 homes were built during 2018/19, a 15% rise on the previous year and twice the national average increase," Street wrote in a post-election manifesto published by Business Desk. "It is vital we have the funding to carry on what we have pioneered through ‘Brownfield First’.”

Andy Street, speaking at the Birmingham State of the Market event, 26 April 2018

Street, a former retail boss elected Conservative metro mayor against the odds in 2017, has had a tough two and a half years in post. He has not had the easy ride a Tory government might have been expected to give him.

Not only is flagship investment in the HS2 high speed rail line in doubt, but smaller baubles like the relocation of Channel 4 from London have eluded him (the broadcaster went to Leeds instead). Meanwhile a slightly hostile West Midlands Combined Authority has kept the lid on mayoral powers and denied him the chance to raise his own modest budget.

Street is due to defend his mayoral status in May, and his chances of success are sharply improved. But the real win could be an improved regional devolution package on Street’s terms rather than on those dictated by the Labour-dominated West Midlands Combined Authority.

Street modestly put greater regional devolution as low as item eight on his list of requests to the new government. But it could help him win the kind of economic and planning powers enjoyed by Greater Manchester Metro Mayor Andy Burnham.

They key element in the devolution plan will be full devolution of business rates to the West Midlands, with the region acting as pilot for a wider English re-think on council funding and local autonomy.

There are hints that Street may get his way: in the course of the general election campaign Johnson promised “to do devolution properly”. That the Conservatives now have a number of regional mayoralities including the West Midlands and Teeside, both of which they will want to defend, and hopes of winning Greater Manchester, they have every interest in boosting mayoral powers.

The real estate sector is agog, believing a stronger regional voice could make a real difference to economic development.

“Interestingly, the mayor has not asked for regional planning powers at this stage," CBRE's Guest said. "Given the vacuum in terms of regional planning policy this is sure to be on his agenda in the future to provide a clear strategy to drive economic growth and provide individual local authorities the scope to look beyond the ‘local’ picture.

"However, the pressure to release green belt land to deliver strategic employment and housing will not go away and this political hot potato will need to be addressed downstream. I’m not altogether surprised that he has shied away from it for now."

Guest is hopeful that business rates devolution can be agreed swiftly.
“Before turning to politics, Street spent 30 years in retail, so he understands the pressures on our high streets," he said. "Punishing business rates have contributed to many traders going out of business, decimating a number of Midlands’ towns in the process. A promised review is a priority and is likely to enjoy national as well as regional support. An easy win.

"The new government will be keen to keep him in situ, so let’s hope they’ll toss a few crumbs in his direction to help him seduce voters," he added.

General elections can change everything in the UK's winner-takes-all system. For Street, the election of a majority Conservative government could be the moment he becomes one of the big winners.