The State of Britain

West Midland’s sports developments, Primark bucks the trend and informal economic development on the Welsh/Shropshire border

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Unemployment in the WM rose by 7,000 to 153,000 between December and February; a rise of 0.2% to 5.2% – the second highest in the UK. The SW of England had the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 2.6% and the NE of England had the highest at 5.6%.; the national rate stands at 3.9%. In the UK average earnings grew by 3.5% or by 1.6% after inflation.

WM average property prices increased by 0.4% to £196,152 during the month which pushed the annual growth rate up to 2.9% – the second highest in England. In comparison, UK prices dropped by 0.8% to £226,234 during April which cut the annual growth rate to 0.6%.

April snow disrupting traffic in Shropshire and an earthquake near Market Drayton may have caused negligible economic damage to the WM economy but days of ‘go slow’ driving by Birmingham black cab drivers may have had more of an impact. Motorists with high-polluting cars will have to pay £8 to enter the city centre after the government approved the city’s clean air zone (CAZ) plan but taxi drivers claim the £5,000 offered by the council to upgrade their cabs is not enough.

The Centre for Cities research group suggests that Telford will be one of the worst hit areas in the UK if the country leaves the EU without a trade deal; 59% of goods exported by businesses in Telford went to the EU in 2017.

Brexit was certainly blamed by Jaguar Land Rover as it shut down production for a week because of uncertainties around the issue. Staff at Castle Bromwich, Solihull and Wolverhampton were affected; the shutdown is in addition to a scheduled closure the following week for Easter. The firm has also announced it will build its next-generation Land Rover Defender 4×4 in Slovakia rather than the UK although the new model is UK designed and engineered and some of its new engines will be built in Wolverhampton. The Defender was always likely to be built in Slovakia after the company spent £1bn on a new plant which opened in October 2018.

A series of unwelcome announcements during the month began when 200-year-old pottery manufacturer, Dudson, in Stoke-on-Trent, went into administration. The company employed 390 people of which only 72 staff will be retained to help with the wind down. Last month, another well known Stoke-on-Trent pottery firm, Wedgwood, announced plans to cut its workforce by about a third. Administrators have also been appointed to Dudley based Meridian Metal Trading which employs 170 people at service and sales offices across England and Wales. The firm processes steel sheets and coils but there are hopes that it can be sold as a going concern with no redundancies.

Barclays has announced a consolidation of some of its operations with about 350 staff at sites in Coventry and Birmingham affected. The bank will relocate the jobs to Glasgow, Greater Manchester and Northampton, but overall headcount could drop by 50.

On retail, fashion chain LK Bennett has been bought out of administration but 15 of the retailer’s stores are not included in the deal, including a Birmingham branch. Wolverhampton shoppers were left bemused when Debenhams new owners announced that the city’s store – which only opened in 2017 – will close.

The Heart of Wales railway has some of the most breathtaking scenery in Britain and now walkers can enjoy one of the UK’s longest fully-waymarked footpaths, loosely following the line, from Shropshire to Carmarthenshire. The last stage of the 141-mile trail has opened with the predicted rise in visitor numbers expected to boost the local economy. The largely crowd funded/volunteer project demonstrates what can be achieved without the involvement of more formalised economic development. There was more positive news on Shropshire tourism; the RAF museum at Cosford – celebrating the 100th anniversary of the RAF – saw visitor numbers increase by a whopping 20% last year to 444,965.

Notable regional development projects this month include the world’s biggest Primark opening in Birmingham. Covering c15,000 sqm over five floors – with a Disney-themed cafe plus two other eateries, a barber shop and beauty studio – the new store is thought to have cost c£70m; 500 new jobs have been created.

A new £60m aquatic centre for the Commonwealth Games has been approved; work on the development on Londonderry Playing Fields, Smethwick, will begin later this year. Areas around the Alexander Stadium could include running trails and a promenade as part of the redevelopment of Perry Park; more than £70m will be invested in upgrading the stadium which will host the athletics and opening and closing ceremonies of the 2022 games. Although Birmingham will host the Games, track cycling events will be held 130 miles away at the Lea Valley Velodrome in London as neither Birmingham nor the WM region has a velodrome venue; a 1,000-seater velodrome would cost c£20m.

A new £50m sports and gym facility has opened in Coventry. The University of Warwick’s Sport and Wellness Hub has two multi-purpose sports halls, a 230-station gym, indoor climbing centre and a 25m pool. The new Hub will be a venue for the 2019 European Corporate Games, expected to attract up to 7,000 athletes over four days. The facilities are open to students, staff and the general public. Also the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) will provide £31.6m to help the city prepare to host the UK City of Culture in 2021. The remaining funding for the £44.83m project is being raised locally.

On transport, regional rail operator West Midlands Trains will run electric trains services on the Chase Line from next month. Network Rail started a £100m scheme in 2013 to electrify the 15 miles of track between Walsall and Rugeley Trent Valley.