Below average growth, a Beat the Bots fund and the West Midlands is the first region to agree a local industrial strategy with the government

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Growth in the West Midlands ticked up by a modest 0.1% to 1.2% in the year to March 2019 according to estimates from ESCoE. At 2.7% and 0.7% London and Northern Ireland had the highest and lowest growth rates in the country. The East of England was the most improved region of the UK with growth accelerating from 0.9% to 1.9%. The UK growth rate for the same period was 1.5%.

Unemployment in the West Midlands fell by 3,000 to 149,000 between January and March, the drop of 0.1% to 5.1% still meant the region had the second highest rate in the country. At 2.4% and 5.4% the SW of England and the North East had the lowest and highest unemployment rates in the country. The UK unemployment rate stands at 3.8%.

In March, average earnings in the West Midlands dropped to £565 per week. London had the highest average earnings of £762 whereas the Northern Ireland had the lowest of £513. In the UK average earnings grew by 3.3% or by 1.5% after inflation.

West Midland’s average property prices fell by 0.5% to £196,571 during the month which meant annually prices grew by 3.4%, the second strongest growth in England. In comparison, UK prices dropped by 0.2% to £226,798 during March which cut the annual growth rate to 1.4% although transactions were up by 1.4%.

In its estimate of regional public spending and regional tax revenues in 2018, the ONS has concluded that the West Midlands had a deficit of £13.2bn. This compares with London which had the highest surplus of £34.3bn. On a per person basis the West Midlands deficit was £2,274, whereas London had the highest surplus of £3,905 per person and Northern Ireland had the biggest deficit at £4,939. The only areas of the UK to run surpluses were London, the south-east of England and the east of England. At a national level, the UK had a deficit of £636 per person which splits into deficits of £106, £2,452, £4,395 and £4,939 for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Positive news in the region’s engineering sector as sports car manufacturer Lotus Cars announced 200 new jobs as part of its expansion programme some of which will be at a new engineering office in Warwickshire. Lotus launched its new electric sports car, the Type 130, last month. Lotus has sub-assembly manufacturing facilities in Worcester which supplies its main factory in Norfolk. General Electric (GE) in Rugby will make the second batch of Type 26 Frigates motors. GE previously said the work would be moved to France which threatened 250 jobs. GE confirmed the facility would remain open but with reduced activities which will affect headcount.

In Stoke-on-Trent, the college will lose 39 jobs as part of a restructuring plan to make savings of £1.2m in staffing costs. The college employs more than 500 people and has around 10,000 students each year over two sites. Also in the city, it is not clear what impact British Steel’s liquidation will have on a sales office or on a metal selling centre in Wolverhampton.

On infrastructure, work on the £56bn HS2 high speed railway between Birmingham and London through Warwickshire is now supporting 9,000 jobs. More than 2,000 companies are working at 250 sites across the country according to figures released by the company. Work is continuing to construct the new Curzon Street station in the centre of Birmingham, which will be linked to the tram network as well as rail networks to the wider West Midlands.

Shropshire Council is working with the Welsh Assembly on plans to turn the A5 around Oswestry into a dual carriageway which would bring economic benefits to both sides of the border. It is the only section of the A5, which runs between London and Holyhead, to be single carriageway. The Council secured £54m from the government for Shrewsbury’s bypass earlier this year.

A key intervention this month after the Government invested a further £28m in the electric car battery development centre in Coventry. The funding for the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre adds to an £80m initial investment forming part of the local industrial strategy (see below) to boost the region’s economy. West Midland’s mayor, former Waitrose CEO, Andy Street, lauded the achievement and also launched a £5m ‘Beat the Bots’ fund which will help to retrain workers whose jobs are at risk from becoming automated. Dudley and Stoke-on-Trent were identified as two of the ten UK towns where most jobs are at risk according to the Centre for Social Justice. The funding comes from the government’s National Retraining Scheme, as part of the West Midlands Combined Authority’s Skills Deal.

The West Midlands has become the first region to agree a local industrial strategy with the government. The 83 page document was developed in collaboration with more than 350 businesses and was signed off by Business Secretary, Greg Clark. The strategy builds on previously agreed city deals, devolution deals and strategic economic plans. As well as battery industrialisation, other priorities in the document include data-driven healthcare innovation and creative content. The country’s first £20m Future Mobility Zone, between Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry, will host the testing of new technologies aimed at increasing journey predictability. Also £50m has been earmarked for 5G trials across region.

The plan highlights how the local economy will be boosted by the opening of HS2 and how the region is improving its international profile – with Coventry to become the UK’s City of Culture in 2021 and Birmingham holding the Commonwealth Games in 2022. The strategy also outlines plans for the West Midlands to partner with local specialist manufacturers and R&D centres to help create new markets and foreign direct investment opportunities. Growth in the West Midlands is 1.2% in the year to March 2019 with the UK growth rate for the same period at 1.5% and London’s growth rate at 2.7%.

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