Q: The West Midlands is charging ahead with a £10bn investment programme. What are the highlights?
A: We are already doing really well as a region economically, and much of the new investment programme is based on sound economics If you look at the growth of the region it is running well ahead of the national average; if you look at exports, inward investment, start-ups, employment growth, all these factors are really positive, so the economic fundamentals are sound. Now we are putting major, unprecedented investment into infrastructure, of course High-Speed 2 [HS2], our local train structure, and the housing infrastructure as well. We got our deal with the government on March 13. So there are fantastic opportunities for private investors to come and be part of that success.
Q: How transformative can HS2 be for the West Midlands?
A: It’s hugely significant to the West Midlands so obviously it would put us right at the centre, the spine of the new transport network for the whole country, not just to London but to the north. It is also a catalyst for huge investment in our own transport structure as we said that nobody should be more than 40 minutes away from an HS2 station. That’s what drives the investment of trams into the Black Country and the reopening of railway lines in Birmingham. It also provides two nodes of growth, one at Curzon Street and one at the interchange, which I think are the best two commercial opportunities in the country now.
Q: And now a devolved West Midlands Combined Authority, with you as the first elected mayor, is able to co-ordinate these developments at a regional level.
A: It is important [to have a devolved combined authority]. If you think of transport you have to plan it on a regional basis. If you think of the housing challenge, we have demonstrated that by working together we can address that challenge in a way that again an individual local authority cannot do. If you think of an economic plan – take Jaguar Land Rover for example – they don’t think we are in Wolverhampton or in Solihull. But then I am equally clear that individual authorities have to do their individual deals against the backdrop that we provide.
Q: The region wants now to spearhead the Industry 4.0 revolution. How will you deal with the labour challenges that innovations like automation bring along?
A: The clue is in the title: ‘advanced manufacturing’. There are high-quality and highly-paid jobs. So each job in manufacturing creates much more output than the average job in the economy. That’s a complete sea change from where manufacturing was 20 or 30 years ago. So it is cutting edge and just the type of job we want, that high-value, hi-tech job.
Q: What will happen to the people that do not have got the skills for those jobs?
A: They will develop the skills. More importantly, there are lots of other sectors of the economy that are in support of those areas. And that has always been the case. At any time in history there have always been the cutting-edge jobs and the mass jobs. What’s brilliant is that manufacturing in the West Midlands is back at the cutting edge.
Q: Sector-wise, where do you see additional space to develop advance manufacturing? Which sectors other than automotive?
A: Aerospace of course, but also what’s interesting about manufacturing is that it abuts other sectors. If you look at life sciences our real strength in life sciences is medical devices. That’s where medicine adjoins manufacturing. What I’m trying to illustrate there is that it’s not just the pure thought about manufacturing, it’s the adjacent pieces of it.
Q: How will the £350m deal with the central government for housing development serve the region’s overall growth?
A: [It will do] three things. One, it will enable us to build the Commonwealth Games Village. The houses where the athletes live will be used to house Brummie families in the future. Two, it will be for our growth areas, to put infrastructure into those, in Coventry Sandwell, Birmingham and Solihull. Three, the railway corridor between Walsall and Wolverhampton will provide infrastructure there to bring back into use derelict brownfield sites. So for an area that has not had the most investment, it goes into reviving communities along that route.