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Can the UK’s New Mayors Revitalise the UK’s Regional Economy?

In Birmingham and Manchester, regional powerhouses await ignition.

BIRMINGHAM

It seems fitting in a public-sector-poor region that its new political leader isn’t a politician. Former John Lewis managing director Andy Street is the West Midlands’ first metro mayor. He will be tackling skills and housing crises, the biggest council cuts in the country in Birmingham, deprivation in places like West Bromwich and Walsall, sub-par public transport – not to mention a divided region.

But it is at the heart of the HS2 rail development, boasts the country’s best company in Jaguar Land Rover and three of Europe’s largest regeneration schemes. A smart financial brain and friends in Whitehall, not political prowess, are the order of the day.

Street arrives with three regeneration projects on a precipice of realising their potential: Curzon Street, around the city centre HS2 station; the mixed use development UK Central, near Birmingham Airport in Solihull and close to the forthcoming Birmingham Interchange HS2 station; and the mammoth wholesale markets area. They promise to inject more ambition into the region – alongside Birmingham’s hopes of landing the 2022 Commonwealth Games, spurring more investment.

Parts of the West Midlands suffer from skill shortages, so the trick will be to link engineering demand from the likes of JLR (and its local suppliers) and HS2, to the young and unemployed – not least as Street has pledged to end youth joblessness. Turning talk of apprenticeships into actual apprenticeships is vital. The new mayor has chaired the region’s local enterprise partnership since 2011, so he knows full well the task ahead of him.

There’s also a race taking place in the regions to win business from an overheating capital. An immediate priority will be attracting the possibly relocating Channel 4. One might think culture secretary Karen Bradley, a Midland MP, might take to a Tory mayor.

The same is true of the Commonwealth Games, which also promises to speed up transport and infrastructure at the core of Street’s ‘renewal plan’. The region lacks sufficiently functional tramlines and transit into Birmingham city centre could be better. Any growth in the digital economy – hopes are high – hinge on that improving fast.

But there’s no shortage of opportunity in the West Midlands. Mr Street has the nous and connections. He will need to deliver quickly.”

An immediate priority will be attracting the possibly relocating Channel 4. Culture secretary Karen Bradley, a Midland MP, might take to Andy Street, a Tory mayor, more than Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester

Parts of the West Midlands have some of the worst skill shortages in the country. The trick will be linking engineering demand from the likes of JLR and HS2, to the young and unemployed – not least as Street has pledged to end youth joblessness. Turning talk of apprenticeships into actual apprenticeships is vital. The new mayor has chaired the region’s local enterprise partnership since 2011, so he knows full well the task ahead of him.

There’s also a race taking place in the regions to win business from an overheating capital. An immediate priority will be attracting the possibly relocating Channel 4. One might think culture secretary Karen Bradley, a Midland MP, might take to a Tory mayor more than, say, Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. Birmingham expects.

The same is true of the Commonwealth Games, which also promises to speed up transport and infrastructure at the core of Street’s ‘renewal plan’. The region has no sufficiently functional tramlines and transit into Birmingham city centre is a little fun. Any growth in the digital economy – hopes are high – hinge on that improving fast.

But there’s no shortage of opportunity in the West Midlands. Mr Street has the nous and connections. He will need to deliver quickly.

Graeme Brown is acting executive editor of the Birmingham Mail and Birmingham Post.

MANCHESTER
Having a mayor of Greater Manchester is the next step in a developmental process that has been happening over the last 15-20 years. Manchester has had good leadership, and there’s been excellent private-public sector partnership that has led to the growth of so many things in the city. The electoral mayoral system has been embraced, and the whole city region is looking forward to growing with that in place.

By certain measures, Manchester can be classed as the second-largest UK city after London. There has been huge growth in real estate, driven largely by the expansion in the growth of professional services and business services. In many ways, it’s a successful economy, but there are challenges facing the region and inequalities that must be mitigated.

The new mayor, Andy Burnham, has said he wants to combat homelessness, help young people with education, skills, training and apprenticeships, improve public transport and assist with the needs of an ageing population. One of the great challenges, however, is to work with increasingly tight budgets given central government cut backs and the demands of a growing economy.

Of course, there are significant concerns about Brexit. We have to wait and see what the outcome of negotiations is going to be. Whatever the outcome, I’m sure the Mayor’s office and groups like ours [Pro-Manchester] will ensure Manchester is in a strong position to capitalise on opportunities presented.

Going forward, we hope that Manchester will continue to grow as it has in the last two decades. It mirrors the national economy in terms of sector weighting: there’s a similar proportion of manufacturing, construction, professional services and overall service sectors. We don’t have the same exposure to agriculture as some may have, but otherwise, it’s a unique microcosm of the national economy, providing 4-5 per cent of the UK’s GDP.

The big growth in the UK has been in leisure services, and that has been mirrored here too in the increase in bars, restaurants and hotels. Manchester has become a great tourist attraction. And as for the Northern Powerhouse? It’s for other people to say that Manchester is the largest and leading economy in the Northern Powerhouse – we couldn’t possibly comment.

John Ashcroft is CEO of Pro-Manchester, the largest business development organisation in the North West.

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