But change is also tangible in the attitude of local people, in a more confident and assertive West Midlands. People from this region offer quiet confidence and self-effacing humour in place of swagger and bluster – but they value hard work, encourage ambition and inspire ideas. We are seeing that strength of character now, as our region faces the challenges of the COVID-19. It has also been reflected at the ballot box, as the local political landscape changes.
Here in the West Midlands, we are building a new kind of urban conservatism, which shares much with the Blue Collar parliamentary group making waves in Westminster.
Our new approach is about inclusivity and opportunity for a young and diverse population, which naturally strikes a chord with all conservatives, whatever their background.
“Red wall” gains here in last year’s General Election – in places like West Bromwich, Dudley, Wolverhampton and Birmingham – continued a trend that has seen councils in Dudley and Walsall turn blue, after holding Solihull against a tough Liberal Democrat and Green challenge.
Of the seven councils that make up the West Midlands Combined Authority, three are now Conservative.
Andy Street is Mayor of Birmingham
While this may still put us in a minority in the region, there is a strong Conservative platform being built here and a clear direction of travel.
How has this been achieved?
By working to a plan, delivering results and ensuring that new investment benefits all of our communities, including areas that have in the past been left behind.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the West Midlands economy was in a strong position, showing levels of growth only bettered by London.
Output here had risen by 27 percent in five years.
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Our productivity growth was twice the rate of the rest of the UK in 2017-2018.
The jobs market was buoyant.
Our “Brownfield First” housing policy has delivered thousands of new homes on once derelict sites while helping to protect the Green Belt.
We have a proven ability to deliver much-needed homes quickly, with a surge in housebuilding of 40 percent in just two years.
Of the 17,000 houses built last year, three quarters were on brownfield sites – placing new homes in urban areas, regenerating communities and providing footfall for local high streets.
A revolution in transport has been connecting communities across our huge region, with hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on a Metro tram system, reopening long-closed railway stations and developing new modes of mass transit such as Very Light Rail.
All of this progress, mixed with the excitement over plans for Coventry City of Culture next year and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022, added to a sense of renaissance in the West Midlands.
Then COVID-19 struck.
The West Midlands economy was put into hibernation.
Elections were postponed.
Our communities and businesses showed new depths of resourcefulness as we dealt with the tragic consequences of the pandemic.
As I write, parts of our region – Birmingham, Solihull, Sandwell and Wolverhampton – are under new restrictions as we manage and monitor the infection rate.
There is still a long way to go in our battle against coronavirus.
We face a second wave of coronavirus.
Our focus right now must be on defeating a growing COVID-19 infection rate.
However, economically it is going to be imperative that we return to the levels we achieved before the pandemic struck, as soon as possible.
That means once again looking to how urban, blue collar conservatism can provide the opportunities needed.
That’s why next year’s mayoral election is a crucial point for our region.
We need to continue the work we have started and deliver the jobs needed to recover.
That means working to a plan that is focused on what really matters – new jobs, more homes, better transport – adopting the no-nonsense, business-like approach that has proven successful here and that voters respect.
That means working closely with the Government, our new MPs and councillors to transform communities, not just in Birmingham city centre but in the towns and villages where the overwhelming majority of the population live.
People here have waited decades to see real change, after years of stagnation.
They are now seeing diggers in the ground.
Longstanding eyesores are being reclaimed for development, and symbols of decline torn down.
The Government says it wants to ‘build, build, build’ our way to recovery.
So do we – let’s do it.
It means pressing ahead with our plan to futureproof the West Midlands’ vital automotive sector and give it the investment it needs in the new era of electric vehicles.
Since last summer I have been calling for the UK’s first “Gigafactory” – which would mass manufacture the batteries needed for next generation cars – to be built right here in our region.
It’s time to deliver on that.
That means driving innovation through our universities and 21st Century sectors such as Life Sciences to develop new technologies that will lead to jobs.
That means completing our transport vision and continuing to build record numbers of new homes.
It means ensuring that all our communities benefit from the thousands of jobs that will be created by HS2.
It means revamping and supporting our NHS.
It means rethinking our town and city centres.
Crucially, it means making sure that the West Midlands is at the heart of efforts to “level up” the nation’s economy.
Blue collar Conservatism is taking over Britain
When you consider the political landscape over the last few years, and where the first cracks began to appear in Labour’s Red Wall, some have pointed to my election as a Conservative Mayor in the West Midlands as a sign of coming change.
I’m not so sure we were the “advance guard” of a new conservatism, whether you call it ‘urban” or “blue collar”.
However, I am certain that the West Midlands is at the vanguard of a new way of doing things, that has reaped real results.
Now I want to finish the job we have started.
The task at hand, right now, is to defeat coronavirus.
By working to a clear plan, we can provide the jobs to restore our economy too.