Our comment: A new era for sustainability in the West Midlands?

It’s been an exciting week when it comes to the sustainability of the West Midlands. Monday saw the publication of the government’s Industrial Strategy setting out long term plans to boost productivity, and on Tuesday we held our Annual Conference focussing on the delivery of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) sustainability priorities.

SWM Annual Conference

We opened the conference by sharing our latest benchmark again our 2020 Roadmap looking at progress of the West Midlands in increasing productivity, decreasing carbon emissions, and reducing the health inequality gap. The region shows a decoupling of carbon emissions from economic growth with productivity (measured by GVA) increasing by 18% since 2010 and carbon emissions decreasing by 17% over the same period. However, health inequality is increasing with life expectancy between the best and worst performing areas varying hugely.

The Baroness Brown of Cambridge provided the keynote address detailing her work at the Committee on Climate Change and focussing on the vulnerabilities of our communities to climate change, and the evidence that climate change mitigation measures also make our cities beautiful, healthy, safe, and quiet.

Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, then presented on his sustainability priorities and progress since his election in June. Highlighting sustainability challenges such as increased demand for energy and journeys, the need to value our green and blue spaces, and the focus on social inclusion, he also stressed his ambitions for a modal shift in transport away from the car linked to the recent announcement of the West Midlands as a centre for next generation transport as part of the second devolution deal. He talked of the Energy Capital initiative as a means of moving towards next generation energy. He acknowledged that skills are a priority for the region and that more needs to be done in this area, building on the Mayors Mentors programme and the focus on apprenticeships.

The conversation that followed these presentation, including many insightful questions from delegates, stressed the need to build on the strengths we have in the region as highlighted in the recent Science & Innovation Audit, and a challenge for the West Midlands to lead the way when in comes to sustainability, with ambitious strategies and prioritisation of the well being of future generations. This is essential if we are to close the health inequality gap across the region.

The final session of the morning involved ten workshop discussions on priorities such as natural environment, air quality, transport, business support, commercial waste, resilience, energy, housing, innovation and health. The feedback from the workshops identified short and long term priorities for the WMCA and will be collated into a report that will guide the delivery of these priorities and steer the new portfolio holder and CEX for the Environment at the WMCA and the implementation of the Environment Delivery Plan.

There is a long way to go but this certainly feels like significant progress since our Annual Conference in 2015 when sustainability was given no focus in the prospectus of the newly formed WMCA.

Presentations from our Annual Conference are available here.

Industrial Strategy

The Industrial Strategy sets out a plan to increase the productivity of the UK through investment in skills, industry and infrastructure and by focussing on the five foundations of productivity: ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment and places.

The WMCA will benefit from £250 million from the Transforming Cities Fund aimed to drive productivity through improved connectivity recognising that the region is a UK centre of expertise on connected and autonomous vehicles. Investment of £34 million will be made to expand innovative construction training programmes across the country, including a £5 million programme in the West Midlands, focused on supporting the country’s housing needs and building upon existing good practice. £15 million will be invested in a new engineering university in Hereford.

The strategy includes ‘clean growth’ as one of the ‘grand challenges’ and recognises that clean energy must be a priority. The strength of the Energy Capital partnership in the West Midlands gives us a head start in this area. Innovation, resource management and the circular economy, and the need to enhance natural capital are also prominent in the strategy, again areas where we have leading cross-sector partnerships delivering action. Some have been disspointed with the level of detail in the strategy but there is a commitment to provide greater depth in the imminent 25 year environment plan and the Resource and Waste Strategy promised in the Clean Growth Strategy.

The Industrial Strategy is available here.