Jane Stevenson MPMember of Parliament for Wolverhampton North East
In the first of a series of website articles that will be featured in our upcoming journal, Jane Stevenson MP writes about what levelling up means for Wolverhampton. This year, her work will feature in a book Curia is publishing, as part of the Levelling Up Commission.
The success of the Government’s promise to level up will be measured by outcomes in places like Wolverhampton, which is now second home to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC).
As a born and bred Wulfrunian, I have seen my home city decline over decades. Our city centre is a shadow of its former self, with our much-loved department store, Beatties, closing its doors for the final time in 2019 after trading for over 140 years. Unemployment sits at around eight per cent, double the national average, and while education outcomes have improved over recent years, there is still a skills gap.
When I was elected in 2019, journalists asked what my number one local priority was. My reply would still stand – to tackle unemployment. Getting people into decent jobs would transform so many lives and better support our local economy. Government has already spent big in places like Wolverhampton, with schemes like the Towns Fund and Future High Streets Fund. But cosmetic improvements will only go so far. To get maximum bang for the taxpayers’ buck, government investment needs to target and anticipate future areas of growth. It can and should also create the local conditions to establish and anchor these new industries.
In Wolverhampton’s case, many government-funded projects are directly connected to homebuilding and building technologies, including brownfield land remediation and Modern Methods of Construction (MMC).
The Government began to sow some seeds shortly after the election – Investing in the National Brownfield Institute (NBI) next to the University’s new School of Architecture and announcing that the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (now DLUHC) would have its second home in the city. This was followed by the announcement of a £10 million government taskforce into MMC, also based in Wolverhampton.
I wrote an article in the local newspaper in 2020 that quoted the great show-tune “You gotta get a gimmick if you wanna get ahead”. My pitch was simple – that Wolverhampton should embrace its gimmick (or USP in corporate-speak) as The Home of Homebuilding. This is an industry with high future demand and that requires workers with a range of both technical and academic skills. Building homes on brownfield land will be crucial in meeting the West Midlands’ housing targets, and research at the NBI should make remediation of brownfield land more commercially viable.
To be frank, green policies are a tough sell in the Black Country. Many of my constituents would call it an exercise in middle-class hand-wringing that requires them – at great expense – to purchase a heat pump and an electric car, and to feel guilty about flying off on their annual holiday. For them, the transition to Net Zero needs to be affordable and they need more evidence that new, green industries will bring them significant opportunities. If a better Wolverhampton is to be built on homebuilding, it must also make the most of retro-fitting older properties to be energy-efficient. As we look to future-proof high streets, there are development and conversion opportunities around city centre living. Wolverhampton has many beautiful Victorian buildings whose upper stories are crying out for residential conversion.
We must also make sure people have the skills they need to succeed. I am delighted that the Thomas Telford School next to the NBI is embracing T-Levels and is working with the University’s School of Architecture and local businesses. City of Wolverhampton College has shown itself to be forward-thinking and flexible to the needs of local employers.
The college recently opened a facility to train students in electric vehicle maintenance – another new industry that will provide thousands of good jobs. I am delighted that in just a few months hundreds of students have achieved qualifications, with many already in work. This includes over 100 older jobseekers through the Department for Work and Pensions Sector-Based Work Academy Programme.
Education will be crucial to levelling up. Government must encourage dialogue between employers, schools and colleges, and must also be aware that today’s school-leavers will need different skills over the coming decades of their working lives. Lifelong development and learning will be key to maintaining a skilled and confident workforce that can adapt to new technologies and industries.
The shift to a successful future High Street will also create opportunity. City centres will need a balance of residential, leisure, offices, retail and service industries. If we get this balance right, we will revitalise our high streets. However, in answer to the chicken/egg question, residential must come first to support this new local economy. Imagination will be needed to create desirable developments in city centres. Wulfrunians have a strange relationship with Birmingham, often seeking to distance ourselves from our bigger neighbour. However, we can learn a lot from Birmingham’s developments around Brindley Place and Symphony Hall.
One heritage feature we share with Birmingham is a fabulous canal network. I hope Wolverhampton’s Council and town planners will show far more imagination and ambition for our canals. While there are some waterside homes in the Wolves planning pipeline, this is certainly where we should look to Birmingham’s Gas Street Basin, with waterside homes, shops, galleries, bars and restaurants.
We have a long journey ahead to deliver a new era of prosperity for Wolverhampton. Improving my home city is why I entered politics and I make no apology for sounding proudly parochial. My city’s problems have been decades in the making and like all politicians I want to see quick results. But to effect meaningful change investment needs to deliver for both the short and the long-term.
We already see our new DLUHC Ministry, MMC Taskforce and NBI up and running. Government has also ploughed tens of millions of pounds into an ambitious new City Learning Quarter that will help close the skills gap over the coming decades. Construction begins this year.
I am optimistic that this focus on education, together with industry-specific investment will help Wolverhampton capitalise on the opportunities that new technologies, high demand for housing and a changing cityscape will offer.
By sowing the right seeds in the right places, government can encourage the private sector to follow – to anchor an industry as a cluster of connected players and partners. In our case, a major MMC company has just announced a relocation to Wolverhampton next year, creating hundreds of new jobs.
The seeds sown by this levelling up Government seem to have been well-placed and well-planted. I cannot wait for our city to reap the rewards.