The State of Britain

Storm Gareth has an impact, automation a risk to the WM and the end of two regional icons

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Unemployment in West Midlands remained unchanged at 149,000 between November and January; the rate of 5.1% was the second worst in the UK. At 2.9% and 5.2% the SW of England and Yorkshire & Humberside had the lowest and highest unemployment rate in the country respectively. The UK unemployment rate stands at 3.9%.

In March average earnings in the West Midlands increased to £579 per week. London had the highest average earnings of £846 whereas the North East had the lowest of £523. In the UK average earnings grew by 3.4% or by 1.5% after inflation.

West Midlands average property prices fell by 2.1% to £195,399 during the month which trimmed the annual growth rate to 4.0%. In comparison UK prices dropped by 0.8% during March which cut the annual growth rate to 1.7%. The West Midlands market was also slower with the latest figures to September 2018 showing volumes down by 2.1%.

It is likely that disruption caused by Storm Gareth will – like most western parts of the UK – have some impact on the economic performance of the region during March especially those parts affected by flooding along the River Severn. What is more certain to affect the regional economy – according to think tank the Centre for Social Justice – is automation. In its study, Dudley and Stoke-on-Trent were identified as two of the ten UK towns where most jobs are at risk. If automation does render these towns’ economic dinosaurs, then more visits by Dippy the Diplodocus to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery – which boosted visitors numbers by more than a third last year to 832,000 – will be needed.

March saw the end of two regional icons with the passing of Lord Bhattacharyya and the end of the Morgan family’s majority ownership of their all wood car firm. Lord Bhattacharyya, the founder of Warwick Manufacturing Group, was a key figure in attracting inward investment to the region and a pioneer on how universities should work with industry. Lord Bhattacharyya came to Birmingham from Bangladesh in the 1960s and became an authority on industrial policy and an adviser to successive Prime Ministers; Gordon Brown was among those who paid tribute to him at a special service of remembrance held at Coventry Cathedral. Morgan is to be sold to Italian venture capitalist firm InvestIndustrial, which will take a majority stake. The Morgan family, which has owned the company for 110 years, will retain a minority shareholding along with the management team and the 190 employees. Last year the firm had revenues of £33.8m and a profit of £3.2m.

A slew of regional job losses began when insurance firm Ageas announced the closure of its Stoke-on-Trent office with about 350 staff affected. The call centre in Trentham Lakes will close in June 2020 as a result of more customers buying their policies online. The firm said increased business efficiency created by investing in technology played a part in the decision – a form of automation. Also Stoke-on-Trent contractor George Birchall Services – which specialised in facilities management and building maintenance – went into administration with the loss of about 400 jobs. Added to this Tata Steel cut 60 jobs at its base in Wednesfield and Hereford packaging firm Vision Gelpack was closed by administrators with the loss of 50 jobs. A key bright spot, however, was the 36 quality jobs created at a £50m facility for creating cleaner mobility which opened in Coventry at the university’s Technology Park. The Centre for Advanced Low-Carbon Propulsion Systems (C-ALPS), collaboration between Coventry University and engineering firm FEV Group, will support the development of the next generation of electric, hybrid and combustion engines.

Former Waitrose CEO turned West Midlands mayor Andy Street’s plans for £10bn worth of housing, regeneration, commercial and infrastructure development could be underway as plans for the Brewers Yard scheme have been unveiled. The ten acre brown-field site next to the railway station and the University of Wolverhampton’s Springfield Campus would be used for 1,100 city houses and apartments and 60,000 sq ft of new retail and commercial space at a price tag of £250m. The mayor highlighted the Region’s potential to international investors at the MIPIM property marketplace in Cannes. On a smaller scale, Stoke-on-Trent College will invest £1.4m in a new performing arts centre at its Cauldon Campus; the current centre in Burslem will shut.

On regional infrastructure the £17.5m scheme to widen the A500 in Staffordshire has started; over the next 18 months Highways England will add a third lane in both directions between Porthill and Wolstanton. Also the Department of Transport has agreed to £54m of funding towards the Shrewsbury north-west relief road which will be operational after 2022. The remaining £17m cost of the project will be council funded. Work on Hereford’s southern link road will begin later this year after HMG approved a series of compulsory purchase orders to buy the land needed to build it. The route will cut congestion on existing routes and provide access to the Hereford Enterprise Zone.

West Midland transport links will be strengthened by an upgrade of Birmingham’s Moor Street railway station. Its concourse will be expanded and two new platforms created allowing extra services to and from the East Midlands, Hereford, Worcester and the South West. Kidderminster rail services to Birmingham will increase from April as West Midlands Railway will operate with three trains an hour throughout the day and additional evening services. Coventry’s light rail project – which hopes to eventually connect the train station and the high speed rail network at a new HS2 interchange station near the NEC – has moved ahead with the unveiling of designs by Warwick University. The £14.5m project is funded by the West Midlands Combined Authority Devolution Deal and Coventry and Warwickshire LEP Growth Fund. In the air, Air India has suspended its Birmingham Airport flights to New Delhi and Amritsar. The change affecting four regular services is a result of closures to Pakistan airspace following air strikes by the Indian military.