When I look back to the beginning of the year, the future was bright, very bright. The West Midlands had the fastest-growing economy outside London. It was seen as one of the best places to invest: living standards were improving, regional infrastructure was benefiting from huge investment, there was a rapid expansion in housebuilding, increasing numbers of apprenticeship starts, construction on HS2 had started and the Battery Industrialisation Centre had been launched in Coventry. Then came the pandemic.
We know from the extensive research base we have developed through the West Midlands Regional Economic Development Institute that the West Midlands is likely to be one of the regions hardest hit by the pandemic – both in terms of health and economics.
Our young, diverse population and reliance on the manufacturing, automotive and hospitality industries made us vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic.
But they are also our strengths in recovery and we have been preparing for recovery from the start of the crisis, with weekly meetings of our Economic Impact Group which brings together business leaders, central Government, banks, trade unions, and local authorities under the auspices of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).
We are a region that has bounced back from adversity many times before. We are resilient and innovative – finding ways to seize on the opportunities that come from a crisis.
Although the West Midlands regional growth has been badly impacted by COVID-19, it also has one of the greatest potentials to recharge and grow in 2021.
We need to seize the opportunities that come from recovery – seeking investment in new markets, upskilling our workforce, protecting our environment, strengthening our communities and re-positioning the region as a leader in the national economy.
We have already put to Government a bold and ambitious investment blue-print seeking £3.2bn of investment over the next three years to boost recovery for local people and business and to make a step-change in tackling climate change.
It aims to build on the previous strong performance of the region’s economy, as well as the £2.7bn of Government investment secured since 2017.
We saw the first fruits of this in the Prime Minister’s speech in Dudley last week when we secured an extra £84m to expand the region’s trailblazing brownfield regeneration programme for up to 7,500 new homes across the West Midlands to be built on former industrial land.
But we must never lose sight of the fact that recovery is about a lot more than just our economy. We must use this crisis to rethink the way we live and work and using it as an opportunity to do things better.
It is clear that whichever way you cut it, the greatest impact will be felt by those who are young or were already poor and disadvantaged. We are therefore redoubling our efforts to ensure that the recovery focuses on them – they have felt the impact, first so they must similarly feel the recovery first.
The WMCA has set up a citizens’ panel of 36 citizens from across the region representing a diversity of gender, ethnicity, political views and locations. They have been meeting throughout June and early July to help us understand what our citizens want from recovery.
Initial feedback from the citizens’ panel and our own Young Combined Authority has been invaluable. They want the UK’s recovery to be led, shaped and defined by the West Midlands.
As the largest regional economy outside of London we have a responsibility to get the recovery right. This pandemic has already claimed too many victims. We must do our utmost to ensure it does not blight the life chances of those who live and work here. This is the key role for the WMCA.
We must use all our skills, capabilities and local knowledge to bring together partners from across the region to set a vision for our recovery. We will build on the region’s existing strengths; invest in our future; and do things better.
Recovering from this pandemic means reconnecting as a community; fundamentally re-thinking how we live and work to protect our environment as we recover; and rejuvenating our economy.
We want to work together to build the future, with a shared vision of a healthier, happier, better connected and more prosperous West Midlands region – a fast-growing global force with huge potential and ambition.
Despite the pandemic, the future of the West Midlands is still bright, very bright.
Deborah Cadman OBE is chief executive of the West Midlands Combined Authority