Whilst there is plenty to reflect on this past week, I must, of course, start with an update on the Coronavirus pandemic and how the West Midlands is faring. Although the deadly virus is still in circulation, and we must never forget those who have lost their lives, our region is currently in a good place. The new infection rate remains low in all of our seven boroughs; Test and Trace is proving effective, and there is no immediate danger of any of our areas having to lock down like Leicester. This has only been made possible because people continue to act so responsibly, so I must say a massive thank you to everyone who is playing their part in the fight against Coronavirus.
But while the public health picture is improving, the economic effects of the virus are being brought sharply into focus. This week DHL revealed plans to cut 2,200 jobs from its JLR plants, while Boots, Rolls Royce, and Burger King also look set to lay off staff in the region. This is all on top of the news that John Lewis is proposing to close its flagship Birmingham store in Grand Central, putting hundreds of jobs at risk. As many people know I used to run John Lewis and was one of the great believers in bringing this shop to Birmingham. I also still know lots of the people who work there whose jobs are now at risk, and my thoughts and support are with them. On a personal level, it was incredibly sad to hear the news, and I will be honest it did make Thursday a very difficult day. But you learn in this job to roll with the punches, and I now intend to channel my sadness and frustration into making the case to keep the store trading. Birmingham is a vibrant, economically dynamic, and incredibly busy city, which is now the third biggest retail centre in the UK. Many other retailers, from the high-end to the lower end, have been phenomenally successful in the city, so I find it quite surprising that a brand like John Lewis, perhaps the best retailer in the country, is feeling it cannot be successful here.
These are incredibly difficult times, and I want to assure everyone who is facing redundancy, or is worried about their future employment, that leaders across the West Midlands are working round the clock to do all they can to support you.
Given this economic backdrop, it was good to hear the Chancellor’s financial statement on Wednesday where he unveiled his plans to try and support workers. It was a clear set of measures that focused on keeping people in work, encouraged employers to take on youngsters, and urged people to get out and spend money to get the economy moving. I have tried to do my bit personally this week, both heading for a long-overdue haircut, and having my first meal out at a restaurant since lockdown began.
It was also encouraging to see the Chancellor address some of the investment that we have asked for in our £3.2bn prospectus. We had sought further support for apprenticeships and traineeships, as well as money to help retrofit homes to help address fuel poverty, and both of these were forthcoming.
The region’s Economic Impact Group, which includes leading business figures and which I have the privilege to chair, also welcomed the Chancellor’s measures. The hospitality industry was particularly buoyed by the VAT cut and the chancellor’s ‘eat out to help out’ scheme. However, there is still great concern about the lack of support for the manufacturing sector – particularly automotive and aerospace – which is a huge part of our regional economy. The UK is lagging behind its European counterparts when it comes to support for this sector, and we will continue to keep the pressure up on Government to get the financial support we need.
Finally, there were some other announcements this week which give glimpses of a positive future. On Tuesday I visited phase two of Icknield Port Loop in Birmingham, a formerly derelict industrial site that the West Midlands Combined Authority has helped unlock to turn into homes. Before the outbreak of the pandemic, housebuilding was one of our region’s great success stories. We had doubled the number of homes being built in just six years, and the majority of these homes were built on old brownfield sites, protecting precious greenbelt land. I remain utterly committed to this brownfield-first approach to housing, and it was great to witness first-hand this work continuing despite the coronavirus pandemic. There was also some exciting news from Royal Mail, who are trialling the use of all-electric vans made by LEVC in Coventry, while DWP has announced that 300 more work coaches are coming to the West Midlands to help get people back into work. The Royal Mail news, in particular, is very exciting, as we want the West Midlands to be the global leader in electric vehicles and state-of-the-art battery technology.
I am going to try and do these reflections more regularly as and when time allows. But for now, please keep following the Government’s coronavirus guidelines, and have a great weekend.