Growth in the West Midlands is strong. The size of the regional economy has increased by 20% over the last five years.
With key sectors and innovation in the ascendency – and with the Commonwealth Games, City of Culture and HS2 on all on the horizon – we have reasons to be confident about our future, even with the uncertainty around Brexit. The combined authority was formed to boost the region’s investment potential and the ways in which it works together, and we have come together as politicians, sectors and places to support this.
But growth and inclusion are two sides of the same coin: we can’t have one without the other. Sustainable growth over the long term needs the right social infrastructure, to ensure the health and wellbeing of our citizens and their places is valued as much as the wealth they create.
We know that many communities in the region have not benefitted from the opportunities it now offers, and the narrative of a growing economy is not one that they recognise. Our healthy life expectancy gap is growing, and evidence suggests that 25% of children in the region on average grow up with some experience of poverty. Median pay in some areas is £440 per week, and it is estimated that 54% of those in poverty across the West Midlands as a whole are in work.
This is why we have launched our Inclusive Growth Unit, and why we are rebooting our approach to public service collaboration – to ensure we have a definition of economic growth that our citizens shape, feel, and buy into.
To underpin this work, we are building the evidence base, engaging with citizens and communities, and working with our partners across the sectors to build a vision of what good would look like in our place.
In this way, we will make good on our commitment that all investment in goods, services, infrastructure, and people will be to inclusive growth principles that resonate locally.
Furthermore, we will seek to grow in the sectors that will best serve the West Midlands of the future and will ensure the people of our places have the skills to enable and participate in that growth.
Put simply, our inclusive growth approach seeks to link cranes with communities. We want to be outward-facing in the way we do that – so we have built a collaboration between the West Midlands CA, Public Health England, the Barrow Cadbury Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Centre for Progressive Policy, and a range of national and regional organisations supporting social and economic inclusion.
Our intention is to create an inclusive space to support our members and ensure that the communities of the West Midlands can help define the vision, metrics and the solutions by what they say and what they do. This wealth of insight will form the basis of our blueprint for inclusive growth, around which the whole region will coalesce.
Leadership on this agenda is happening at multiple levels, across the region – the WMCA cannot and should not do everything. One example is Sandwell MBC’s emerging Vision 2030. Working with JRF researchers, the council will develop a locally-specific model that measures progress according to how inclusive and community-focused the council and its partners are.
Another example is Wolverhampton City Council’s Wolves@Work – whole-person employment support that is helping the most marginalised into work, and importantly, helping them to stay there. Meanwhile, as a combined authority, we are expanding our Thrive programme which supports people with mental ill health into work and are building links across the health, care, criminal justice and business sectors to create a ‘social movement’ for change.
We are often asked: “What will be different now?” Our answer is twofold. Firstly, we cannot afford to fail. Too many people have been locked out of prosperity within this region for too long. The combined authority has a chance to build collaborative solutions that go beyond local authority boundaries and start to build networks of support that connect the whole region.
Secondly, we must use the power of devolution, which is most apparent when we bring together the levers of change across growth, housing, transport, skills and public services in a way that Whitehall simply cannot do. This is the key to achieving sustainable change. It is a challenge, but one we are ready for.
Steve Eling (Lab), leader, Sandwell MBC; portfolio holder for inclusion, cohesion and public service reform, West Midlands CA; and Henry Kippin, executive director, West Midlands CA