Turning the tide on decades of chronic underinvestment in the Midlands must be an urgent priority
In 2021, we want to see the government deliver a step change in its promise to ‘level up’, putting the Midlands at the heart of a green recovery.
Recent polling by YouGov reveals that 67% of people have either never heard of, or do not understand, what politicians mean by ‘levelling up’. As Midlands MPs we want to set out what this term means to us, to see the regional divisions within our country - which have worsened during the pandemic – addressed and to make 2021 a year of progress for our region.
Being MPs from opposing parties, there are many things we disagree on, but we both recognise the importance of government delivering on pledges to ‘level up’. We need to see rapid, prioritised investment across our regional transport, energy and digital infrastructure – as a start.
There is significant evidence that Covid-19 has heightened inequalities, and ours is a region where its effects are being felt deepest. KPMG forecasts that the West and East Midlands will be in the top three regions hit hardest by its economic shock. In November 2020 there were already more than 416,000 Midlands Engine residents claiming unemployment benefits – nearly double March 2020.
There are signs of progress and the government’s ‘levelling up’ fund is a recognition of some of the challenges we face. We may differ on whether central, bid-for funding is the best approach, and how and where funding should be directed, but we can agree that turning the tide on decades of chronic underinvestment in the Midlands should be an urgent priority.
Likewise, the new National Infrastructure Bank follows ideas that politicians on both sides have called for, and we will be looking carefully at the government’s plans and how they might support our region’s economic objectives at the Budget.
HS2 is so much more than a railway and delivering on it in full is not just good for the Midlands, but will unlock economic growth both here and in the North
What are we looking for in 2021?
We need to see sustainable green growth, unlocking the Midlands Engine’s vast potential and boosting future competitiveness to help our businesses to recover, adjust and grow, and to make the region a better place to live, work, study and invest. As Chair and Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Midlands Engine, we are setting three key tests for assessing progress towards levelling up this year.
First, investing in our world-leading energy research and offshore wind capabilities. That will not only help to ‘level up’, but also to achieve the UK’s net zero commitment. The Energy Research Accelerator’s Big Ideas programme would deliver £1.5 billion to the regional economy, while the West Midlands Gigafactory would create over 10,000 high-value jobs. A commitment to deliver the East Midlands Development Corporation would drive inclusive, zero carbon growth - a catalyst for 84,000 jobs and £4.8 billion a year into the region's economy.
Second, investment in the vital connections between the East and West Midlands. Midlands Engine Rail will open up extra capacity and improve journey times between our economic centres, including Hereford, Birmingham, Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Lincoln. We both agree that HS2 must be delivered in full. Notions of downgrading HS2’s eastern leg in the National Infrastructure Commission’s recent report, bypassing the Hub at Toton, are unacceptable for our communities – particularly in the East Midlands. HS2 is so much more than a railway and delivering on it in full is not just good for the Midlands, but will unlock economic growth both here and in the North – ‘it has 2b Toton’.
The third test is accelerated progress on digital, and critical interventions in full fibre broadband, 5G and the digital skills businesses need to grow. Currently, full fibre is only available in 10.1% of Midlands properties, meaning businesses cannot take full advantage of digital opportunities. If the Government fulfils its promises for 5G, this could be worth £5 billion to our economy over the next five years.
The last 12 months have been unprecedented and we must do everything we can to rebuild and recover – minimising the lasting impact on our communities, our businesses and our economy. This year, we want to see the government deliver a step change in its promise to ‘level up’, putting the Midlands at the heart of a green recovery.
We believe that we can unleash the UK’s potential when every part of the Midlands is connected, and when every part of the Midlands can grow.
Darren Henry is the Conservative MP for Broxtowe and chair of the APPG for the Midlands Engine. Lilian Greenwood is the Labour MP for Nottingham South and vice-chair of the APPG for the Midlands Engine.