The WM economy slips down the UK rankings, a significant decrease in regional unemployment, and internal discord perceptible during the HS2 review

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The mechanism by which councils will have the opportunity to bid for funding of up to £25m as part of the government’s £3.6bn Towns Fund  has been unveiled by Midlands Minister Robert Jenrick.

The Towns Fund prospectus provides information to councils in 100 places chosen to pioneer Town Deals. Councils will receive a share of £16.4m funding to shape up their plans.

The funding could be used to redevelop vacant buildings and land, support small businesses, boost transport links and increase access to high-speed broadband.

Lead councils in each place will bring together a Town Deal Board, including representatives from across the public, private and voluntary sectors, to develop bespoke Town Investment Plans by summer 2020.

Thirty towns are in the Midlands engine area. WM towns include Burton upon Trent, Crewe, Dudley, Hereford and Worcester amongst others.

The deputy chair of the HS2 review panel and critic of the project, Lord Berkeley, says he has been given no opportunity to influence the final report. Lord Berkeley, a civil engineer who worked on the construction of the Channel Tunnel, was appointed when Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, launched the review in August.

The Department for Transport would not confirm when the Oakervee review would be published, but it seems likely this will now be after the election.

The new £88bn railway line would run from London to the West Midlands, Manchester and Leeds. Trains on the London to Birmingham route would be 400m-long, have up to 1,100 seats and would be capable of reaching speeds of up to 250mph. They would run as many as 14 times per hour in each direction and cut Birmingham to London journey times from one hour 21 minutes to 52 minutes.

Also on rail, West Midlands Trains routes were severely disrupted last month. West Midlands Trains operates West Midlands Railways and London Northwestern Railway, running services from London Euston to Birmingham and around the Midlands. On some days, 55% of its services were late or cancelled.

Train crew shortages, broken-down trains, a loss of power to overhead wires between Watford Junction and London Euston were cited as excuses.

Figures released by Network Rail in October showed one in five trains operated by West Midlands Railway were failing to arrive on time. This was the worst performance since the firm took over the franchise nearly two years ago.

The operator said a new timetable introduced in May had proved too complicated and a simplified timetable would be introduced on 15 December.

The Stats

Following its first publication of quarterly GDP estimates for the regions in September, the ONS has now published its next estimates for the West Midlands, the other eight English regions, and Wales, for the year to March 2019. GDP figures have been available for the UK since the 1940s, for Scotland since 2002 and Northern Ireland since 2013.

The latest available figures showed the WM economy grew by 2.3%, down from 3.2% growth the previous quarter. This placed the WM fourth (previous ranking second) out of the twelve UK ‘regions.’

London topped the table with growth of 4.2%. Propelled by a drive to meet the original March 31st Brexit date, UK growth over the same period was 2.2%.

The ONS figures showed that growth in the region’s economy eased off slightly in the quarter to March 2019. The WM economy grew by 0.5% in January to March 2019, following growth of 0.6% in October to December 2018.

In this period, the construction sector grew by 4.5% and made the biggest positive contribution to growth but manufacturing dipped by 1.7%, education fell by 4.2% and energy dropped by 6.5%.

In terms of sectors, services contributed positively to GDP growth, whereas both the agriculture and production sectors contracted.

Estimates published by ESCoE last month for the year ended September 2019, a more recent period than the ONS figures, ranked the WM ninth (previous ranking eleventh) with growth of 1.0%, which suggests the region has underperformed other parts of the UK since the winter.

Using this metric, UK growth was 1.45%. Growth in London (ranked first) was 2.32% which compared with the South West of England (bottom) at 0.41%

More positively, data from the ONS showed unemployment in the region decreased by 14,000 to 121,000 between July and September; the decrease of 0.5% was the second best performance in England and took the overall rate to 4.1%. Northern Ireland had the lowest rate at 2.5% with the UK rate at 3.8%. The highest rate was 5.9% which was recorded in the North East.

The South West had the highest employment rate at 81.0% which compared with 75.1% in the region. UK employment was estimated at 76.0%.

In September, average earnings in the WM were up by £14 to £591 per week. London had the highest average earnings of £830. The lowest average earnings of £527 were recorded in Wales. In the UK overall, average earnings grew by 3.6% or by 1.8% after inflation.

WM’s average property prices fell by 0.4% over the month to £201,273, which took annual growth to 1.6%. In comparison, UK prices fell by 0.2% to £234,370 during September, an annual growth rate of 1.3%.

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