Next government must fuel the Midlands Engine

If the government is really serious about revving up the regions then a new administration must turn plans for the Midlands Engine into reality, argues Steve Wooler.

It might seem strange to be talking about the vast potential in a government initiative when the government responsible for it has just handed in the keys at Westminster.

I make no great claims for the ability of BWB’s corporate crystal ball, but I suspect that when the dust settles after seven weeks of campaigning we’ll end up with an administration looking suspiciously similar to the one we’ve just waved goodbye to.

Theresa May doesn’t come across to me as someone who wants to reinvent the wheel. She’ll want to be in a stronger position to get on with her version of Brexit, but her basic approach to running the economy seems unlikely to change. That means a continuing international trade push, strategies for raising the game of key industries, and initiatives aimed at improving the performance of regional economies like the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine.

Thanks to Manchester’s undeniable ability to create headlines, we’ve heard a lot about the Northern Powerhouse, particularly its ambitions for better cross-regional transport links.

As the year progresses and a ‘new’ government beds in, I suspect we’ll hear a lot more about the Midlands Engine. Birmingham - bigger than Manchester, remember - is keen to set the pace, and if the Conservatives’ own Andy Street (the former CEO of John Lewis) succeeds in his campaign to become mayor of the West Midlands you can expect that he’ll be an early caller when 10 Downing Street reopens for business on 9 June.

There is also an undeniable appetite for progress elsewhere in the Midlands. Nottingham, Derby and Leicester are all keen to build on global strengths in key industries like advanced manufacturing, life sciences and digital tech. But they need better infrastructure and connectivity to thrive and prosper.

Thankfully, the Midlands Engine now has some tangible plans to build on. Only a few weeks ago it unveiled both its own economic strategy and a strategy for Midlands Connect, which is responsible for driving improvement in the region’s transport networks.

That strategy contained more than £400m of funding commitments and an incisive analysis of the challenges the Midlands economy faces - below average productivity, skills shortages, and poor connectivity. It’s pretty obvious these problems are linked, and it is pleasing to see a clear acknowledgment that the transport network across a fragmented expanse of the UK economy has got to be much better connected and more smartly operated.

While HS2 sits above the Midlands Engine, it makes absolute sense for such a connectivity game-changer to remain a key part of government transport strategy. I would go further and push for some early clarity on the route of HS2 East as it drives up to Scotland. In the same vein, a new government must look again at the plans for a Great Britain Freight Route, which could take the heat off our motorways by transferring some long-distance freight on to under-utilised rail lines - and in a form compatible with European rail freight networks.

The Midlands Engine strategy ticks a lot of very sensible boxes, and I hope that as an organisation it keeps talking directly to business about how these plans can be turned into reality. The challenge, of course, lies in two areas: long-term political commitment to the strategy, and making sure that national and local government has the capacity to help make it happen.

I would urge politicians of all colours to make absolutely clear during the election campaign that they are committed to investing in the economies of the Midlands and the north. The untapped potential is huge, and the Midlands could do so much more for Britain’s balance of payments if its infrastructure was brought up to 21st century standards.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. But whatever your political allegiances are, I hope you agree that we do need to get the Midlands Engine revving harder.

Steve Wooler is the chief executive of BWB Consulting.