With an £8bn, 30-year investment programme, the West Midlands came hurtling out of the blocks in 2018.
Birmingham is officially the UK’s most investable city and host of the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Coventry is the UK’s City of Culture in 2021. A £10bn investment prospectus turned heads at MIPIM, while the region has burnished its reputation as a home to fast-growing business – from autonomous transport to life sciences to financial services.
But then a setback.
There was hope – expectation, perhaps – that Channel 4 would pick Birmingham as the location for its regional HQ, a decision that would have crowned a transformational year. It lost out to Leeds. Meanwhile, Brexit uncertainty forced carmakers, of which a number are based in the region, into a spin. There’s talk of three-day weeks and rumours of job losses as issues around demand and supply chains go unresolved.
For Deborah Cadman, chief executive of the West Midlands Combined Authority, there will be no let-up in 2019: talks with Netflix and Amazon to bolster the credentials of its creative industries are under way, preparations for MIPIM to keep inward investment flowing are advancing, and plans are being fleshed out to capitalise on a landmark housing deal with government.
“2018 has been has been a really, really good year for us,” says Cadman. “Challenging but we’ve seen some fantastic developments and we’re continuing to see the economic and cultural revival of the West Midlands. And the pace is gathering. Outside of London we still remain top for exporting, job creation and foreign business investment and, of course, we’ve also just captured the 5G testbed status as well.”
Since Andy Street was elected mayor in May 2017, the region has drawn £1.7bn of new funding. A devolution deal with government has unlocked fresh investor interest, fuelling housing growth and transforming transport infrastructure.
“We’ve captured the £350m housing deal and, combined with our existing investments into brownfield land, that’s more than £620m to invest in unlocking sites and providing strategic infrastructure to deliver new quality homes at pace.
“Not getting Channel 4 hasn’t detracted from the fact that we are still, I think, really, really good at digital delivery in this region”
“If you look at the chancellor’s Budget, that confirmed £185m of extra funding which will enable us to further deliver transport infrastructure. Also look at the £165m deal to build the Commonwealth Games athletes’ village in the region.
“Outside the combined authority, there’s been the announcement of £500m investment to expand Birmingham Airport and to increase passenger numbers, so it’s all building up that story of people wanting to invest and be part of this journey that we’re on at the moment.”
Foreign direct investment into the West Midlands is outperforming any other region, says Cadman. “We have a trade surplus with China in the US. We’re being very focused on non-EU market delivery and attractions and we’re developing our industrial strategy which builds on the strengths of those sectors that have global reach in the region as well.”
She’s reluctant to link projects and investors at this stage but says: “If you look at some of the key schemes like the Paradise development in Birmingham, it’s progressing really well. I’m confident those big schemes that were identified in the prospectus are attracting real tangible interest. And I think this time next year, when I hope we’ll be having another conversation, I’ll be able to be more specific about the global investment we’ve been able to attract”
At the beginning of 2018, Cadman told an EG podcast she was confident Channel 4 would plump for Birmingham. Today she describes the broadcaster’s decision to go to Leeds as “hugely disappointing”.
Congratulating Leeds on its success, she says: “We are in discussions with them about potential partnerships on certain things.
“But not getting Channel 4 hasn’t detracted from the fact that we are still, I think, really, really good at digital delivery in this region. The creative industries cluster is growing month by month and the 5G decision does reinforce that. And so the fact that so many people came together to plan for the Channel 4 submission is going to be put to good use and people who were around the table still want to remain round the table.
“We’re looking at what we can do in partnership with Netflix, Amazon and other international broadcasters because we still think there is a huge offer to be made for those organisations and sectors. So we’re having some really interesting and exciting conversations nonetheless. All the investment that we made putting that bid together I don’t think we’ll be lost. “
It’s not just about creative industries. Occupiers such as HSBC and Deutsche Bank are reenergising Birmingham city centre, but advanced manufacturing, life sciences, composite material R&D, autonomous vehicle developments and associated battery development are priority sectors too.
“Some of that will be replicated in the revised investment prospectus that we’re putting together for MIPIM,” she says. “So I think we can be quite bold about where we are currently. But more importantly where we think we will be in the future around some of those sectors.”