PROSPER MAGAZINE: DIGITAL EDITION
WORDS FROM THE MAYOR
ANDY STREET: INNOVATION AND INVESTMENT CAN POWER BLACK COUNTRY RECOVERY
On July 14, 1712, a pivotal moment in British history occurred, a flash of West Midlands brilliance that set us on the road to the world we know today. Yet this date – the day that the first steam engine began operation – isn’t widely known.
It’s only in the Black Country, where that engine was built, that July 14 is marked each year, in our annual Black Country Day festivities.
I want to use this column to explain how the Black Country is influencing the national agenda by pioneering new technology, how we are attracting global recognition, and how we can call on the innovative spirit of the past to drive recovery.
The Black Country sits at the heart of the nation and is also now at the heart of the Government’s agenda as we look to kickstart the economy and reawaken industry.
The Prime Minister chose Dudley as the setting to make the keynote speech in which he revealed his New Deal - focusing on infrastructure and construction to drive the UK’s recovery. Why Dudley? Dudley is a brilliant example of how innovation, ambition and investment in infrastructure are already reawakening the local economy and bringing tangible, visible change.
Appropriately, the PM chose the site of Dudley College’s Technology Institute to outline his vision, a new facility that will create the local engineers and innovators of the future.
Dudley’s town centre is on the cusp of a new future too, as the region’s Metro tram system extends to provide vital connectivity to the rest of the West Midlands, with 17 new stops along the way. In May Cavendish House, the huge derelict office block that had been a symbol of decay on Dudley’s skyline for years was torn down.
The energy driving Dudley’s re-emergence is reflected across the Black Country, where innovation and investment are making a real difference in housing and transport.
Most notably, the Black Country is pioneering the reclamation of former ‘Brownfield’ industrial sites to help tackle the housing crisis, while protecting the environment and boosting the construction industry. The Black Country will lead the way on this, through a new £24m National Brownfield Institute in Wolverhampton, as we invest to regenerate more derelict eyesores.
In Wolverhampton, the first homes have gone on sale at Steelhouse Lane, a former industrial eyesore, while in Walsall sites like the old Caparo engineering works and the Harvestime bakery have got the green light to be used for new housing.
In West Bromwich the biggest brownfield site development of all - Friar Park – will see former sewage works, bigger than 30 football pitches, become a 750-home community.
The Black Country also provides evidence of how investment in transport infrastructure can get local economies moving. On the railways, phase one of the new Wolverhampton city centre station has now opened – proudly decked out in yellow and black to reflect the Old Gold of Wolves.
Plans are steaming ahead to reopen old railway stations linking Walsall to Wolverhampton, boosting public transport in communities that haven’t had a rail service for decades.
The Black Country’s tradition of invention lives on with technology powering business success. Dudley council has partnered with the Warwick Manufacturing Group, with plans to create a Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre, assembling prototype vehicles and training engineers.
In Cradley, Walsall and Smethwick we are breaking new ground with modular home construction. Wolverhampton boasts two sites building state-of-the-art aerospace systems.
One brilliant piece of news that may help bring more people to the Black Country was its official recognition as a UNESCO Global Geopark, which was revealed last week. This means Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton join the French wine region of Beaujolais, Vietnam’s Dak Nong, and only seven other UK Geoparks including the Scottish Highlands on this prestigious global list.
This UNESCO honour, recognises that behind the industrial and manufacturing might of this remarkable place, lies a strong and proud culture, and a people with their own distinct character.
In the last few months, as Coronavirus hit, that local character shone through as local manufacturers turned over their machinery to make PPE and volunteers rolled up their sleeves to help the vulnerable and isolated. Black Country folk get things done.
Of course, we now face a huge task in rebooting the economy post-Coronavirus. There is no sugar-coating the fact that the West Midlands could be the region worst affected by the economic downturn. But we are doing all we can to mitigate this, with announcements from Chancellor Rishi Sunak, that will help tens of thousands of people with their employment.
Before the pandemic, the Black Country was thriving. We must do all we can to get back to where we were, as quickly as possible. It will take all the invention, innovation and industry that the Black Country is known for.
Another fantastic Black Country Day is now over. Like that first steam engine, it’s time for the businesses of this region to pull together and help power real recovery.