The Midlands engine - full steam ahead

To make this strategy work we need strong regional leadership and a focus on productivity and skills

Last week saw the government use the spring Budget to announce the launch of the official Midlands engine strategy, as well as a £392m boost in funding. Chancellor Philip Hammond himself directly referenced the “enormous economic potential” of the region, and the arguably central position of the Midlands engine in this year’s Budget reflects the rising ambitions of an area that has seen record levels of investment in the past five years.

Given our imminent exit from the EU there is now an ever greater impetus to ensure that all regions in the UK are in the best economic position and have the ability to secure inward investment from overseas. To do so we cannot realistically rely on the macro level of government and the micro level of local councils. A strong and dedicated regional voice, focused on economic development across county lines, is essential - and this is where the Midlands engine is really set to come into its own.

Attracting inward investment is critical for the region and the Midlands engine partnership has been rightly chosen as the route to driving economic growth

The strategy focuses on improving the region’s productivity and skills retention, and encouraging entrepreneurship. By providing the Midlands engine leaders with the power to approach this from a regional perspective, funds and efforts are strengthened and supported in a much more efficient way. Attracting inward investment is critical for the region and the Midlands engine partnership has been rightly chosen as the route to driving economic growth.

The future success of the Midlands will also increasingly depend on its ability to develop the “liveability” and quality of life that will attract and satisfy residents, businesses and tourists. Alongside the Midlands engine etrategy, a 25-year vision to improve road and rail infrastructure was also announced. This will help improve the mobility of people across the fragmented and poorly connected areas of the West Midlands, bringing larger talent pools for the regions employers and more job opportunities for the labour market.

It’s not just about housing and infrastructure though; the last decade has seen an increased vigour for investment in Midlands’s culture and heritage, with the restoration of museums and art galleries and a renewed interest in fresh public spaces. Such factors mean that not only do companies want to relocate, but people do too. Last year saw record construction levels in Birmingham, a reflection of the growing number of businesses and employees relocating to the city - from big banks to tech start-ups.

However the creation of a skilled workforce to meet this demand is still one of the region’s biggest hurdles - London retains almost 70% of its graduates compared with the Midlands retaining almost 38%, and just over 55% in the East and West midlands respectively. Steps to address skills retention are therefore welcomed, and the industry as a whole has a key role to play in this. As employers we need to ensure young graduates have strong and exciting job opportunities to explore when they are ready for work experience and full time employment. This is being supported by investment in facilities such as the new world-class teaching university in Hereford, aimed at addressing the shortage of skilled graduate engineers, but we need to supplement this with our own initiatives and make sure the positions are there.

The Midlands engine sets out an impressive strategy for making the region a gateway to the UK economy. The opportunity to shape the region in a way which makes it an attractive place to live and invest should not be overlooked. On an increasingly competitive global stage, this opportunity to build a strong regional centre of industry and investment will be vital, and could just give us the edge we need.

Neil Harvey, Birmingham director, Ramboll

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