While Westminster was abuzz with all the reshuffle gossip last week, my eyes were immediately drawn to the renewed focus on the levelling up agenda. With a new high-profile cabinet minister in place and a re-named department, it is clear the Prime Minister is intent on delivering the vision he laid out in his speech in Coventry back in July. The location of that speech was no accident – the West Midlands is leading the way when it comes to levelling up.
To us, levelling up is not a new concept. Before the pandemic struck we had moved record numbers of people into work, and even since then we have continued to work with Government to close our region’s skills gap and build a record number of homes. At the heart of this story has been our record investment in public transport, using Government funds and leveraging private investment.
For many of our residents, public transport is what connects them to the opportunities and jobs being created. But without those links, communities end up cut off.
Dudley, for example, is the largest town in Britain without a railway station – we’ve got diggers in the ground building a new £450million state-of-the-art metro route linking the town with our existing network. By creating new links like this, we are giving people the access they need to the more high-powered jobs and opportunities – surely, the very definition of levelling up.
In his last budget, the Chancellor announced the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement. It allocates £4.2bn of Government investment, to be split across eight Mayoral combines authorities. The West Midlands has bid for £1.7bn of that pot – and that’s before you consider our separate ask to pioneer state-of-the-art, environmentally-friendly, hydrogen buses.
It’s a big ask, but we have big plans. For too long London has been the only city to have a genuinely public transport system fit for the 21st century. It is no surprise therefore that the capital has blossomed into a global economic force while other cities and regions have lagged behind.
Our ambition, backed by the kind of investment enjoyed by London, is to create our own world-class network so that we emerge from the pandemic with an improved transport infrastructure to stimulate the economy and allow our region to thrive again. So then, we’ll need more rail stations, new rapid buses, lower fares, more zero-emission vehicles, and a new very light rail technology. All of this will put the West Midlands ahead of the Commonwealth Games. We want to create a legacy of clean, inter-connected, and accessible transport that will lay the foundations for decades of sustainable economic growth.
Regional connectivity and world-class transport won’t come at the expense of London.
Quite the opposite: the clue is in levelling up, not down. Achieving our regional ambitions will only make London stronger. In an increasingly interconnected world, opening new corridors for investment between our regions will allow our cities to compete together against the likes of Amsterdam, Berlin, and Paris as a truly Global Britain – not a divided and unequal one.
When he stood at the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry, the Prime Minister laid out a grand vision of what levelling up was and how it would benefit left-behind communities all across the country.
Now is the time for that description to come true with a multi-billion pound new transport system.