In this article, Dr Steve McCabe (Associate Professor, Birmingham City University & Member of CNM’s Housing and Communities Leadership Board) and Mike Leonard (Visiting Professor, Birmingham City University, CEO, Building Alliance & Member of CNM’s Housing and Communities Leadership Board) make the case for why the region’s economic recovery needs to be construction led, providing the pathway to a resilient, safe and socially inclusive healthy future.

(June 2024)

Just a few weeks after the West Midlands people chose Richard Parker as our new Mayor, our politicians are back on campaign trail ahead of the General Election on July 4th. If the polls are to believed, the UK voters seem ready for change.

Importantly, it’s necessary that such change ensures locally produced inclusive economic growth.  In an increasingly uncertain world, it’s essential to focus on resilience, reducing dependency on imported energy and products and the creation of safer and healthier buildings.

A different approach, including vital support to the manufacturing of building materials produced in the UK, will lead to employment, address the curse of youth joblessness, promote inclusive growth, and assist in delivering a more balanced economy.  Now is the time to invest in the region’s critical infrastructure. This includes new homes, public and commercial buildings, and a massive programme of retrofit of the existing stock.  Ensuring a built environment that’s future-proof is essential to economic growth and collective prosperity.

The multiplier effect of purchasing materials produced in the UK and building homes employing local labour would deliver a £94 billion return to the UK economy at current rates of build.  However, delivery of newly built homes is currently constrained by a limited supply of available land to build on, finance for local builders, planning delays and lastly, but certainly not least with regard to impediments, affordability for purchasers.

The new Mayor, Labour’s Richard Parker, has committed to building a 20,000 extra homes by 2031 and backing local business. This is in stark contrast to the previous Mayor’s preference for inward investment with the profits often leaving the region.  This presents a wonderful opportunity to think and act locally in pursuit of ‘bottom-up’ inclusive recovery.

Parker can reorientate West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) housing policy to ensure that all new social housing is constructed in compliance with the Future Homes Standards.

Under the previous Mayor, the WMCA advocated an alternative approach; building modular homes, which would increase cost, replace local onsite jobs and reduce the number of social homes built and exclude locally produced masonry bricks and blocks.  This policy, based on the wisdom of a London based consultancy, will undermine housebuilding in this region and will deprive families of urgently needed affordable new homes as social home providers struggled with viability.

The West Midlands is well positioned at the epicentre of UK Construction, driven by HS2 and the redeveloping of our city centres.  It’s also the home of UK building product manufacture and distribution, an essential prerequisite to the delivery of a better built environment.

The Centre for Future Homes at Birmingham City University is the UK’ s leading primary housing research facility providing the data and insights to allow policy makers to make informed evidenced based decisions.  Having the best possible built environment is critical in order that society enjoys maximum utility and enjoyment of homes, health, work, recreation, and transport.

The West Midlands should capitalise on the ‘multiplier effect’ of investment in UK construction to underpin economic growth and prosperity, create employment, as well as rebalancing and ‘levelling-up’ of regions across the country.  Instead of importing timber and steel, domestically produced masonry would assist in reducing the UK’s £10.8 billion building materials trading deficit.  It’s crucial to that we support investment in the UK’s building materials manufacturing capacity.

As we transition away from fossil fuels, it’s crucial the government acts now to ensure gas boilers, made in the UK, are not replaced with imported heat pumps.

Project 80, is a development by Midland Heart of 24 houses in Birmingham, constructed to meet the Future Homes standard. This is the first such demonstrator in the UK, and the homes are now being lived in. The homes, built using bricks and blocks produced locally, are already successfully delivering an 80% reduction in carbon.  Depending on operation and lifestyle, these homes can deliver significantly lower operating costs for the social housing tenants, who, despite recent price reductions, will for the foreseeable future, continue to experience a squeeze on their incomes because of energy and food costs that are considerably higher than two years ago.

Notably, primarily because of local sourcing of materials and skilled workers, it’s estimated Project 80 will have delivered around £6 million of social value to the local community.  As we experience climate change, it’s essential we ensure all new buildings are built to  last 150 years are adaptable and have sufficient thermal mass to keep warm in winter, and equally importantly, remain cool in Summer.  We need to prepare for the increasing likelihood of severe weather events including overheating, droughts, floods, strong winds and wildfires.  Thermal mass and well-designed ventilation, reduces overheating and enhances indoor air quality.  Appropriate interventions made now, will avoid an increase in the use of air conditioning which, of course, will militate against achieving the 2050 carbon target.

A successful transition to net zero requires significant occupier engagement.  Research undertaken by the Centre for Future Home, as part of Project 80, demonstrates the way people interact with technology in their homes can have a profound impact on the real-life performance.  Private landlords across the West Midlands, require financial incentives to ensure homes are compliant with EPC level C as well as a range of easy-to-access measures offered to owner occupiers to incorporate carbon reduction improvements measures.

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower, which resulted in 72 fatalities, provides a stark reminder of how critical the integrity and safety of construction components.  Avoidance of major loss of life and property through fire must be regarded as non-negotiable. The Fire Safety Act and the Building Safety Act require the use of non-combustible building materials in high-risk buildings. Given our fast-changing climate, all buildings in which there’s a ‘sleep risk’ or vulnerable people are likely to be present, should be constructed, where practical, using non-combustible materials.  Replacing unsafe cladding must be a priority for our new Mayor.

Seven years after Grenfell, and ahead of the publication of the Grenfell Inquiry report on September 4th, it’s a crushing indictment that so many leaseholders of affected apartment blocks, continue to have their lives blighted and living in constant fear, facing massive bills and unable to sell their homes and move on.  The West Midlands should lead the UK in ending our cladding scandal.

Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) constitute the overwhelming majority of firms in the West Midlands construction sector and are absolutely critical in recruiting and developing skilled workers urgently required to deliver a high-quality built environment.  The number of new homes built by small and medium sized developers has declined dramatically in the last two decades. This trend should be reversed with an innovative approach to supporting SME’s to build in the region.

SME builders are also essential in order that we can deal with the urgent challenge of retrofitting millions of homes and other buildings across the region. This is the only route to achieve legally binding climate change obligations by 2050 and provided we use, wherever possible, local products and skilled labour, will provide a massive social economic boost to the West Midlands.  Assistance with employment and training costs, improved and simplified access to publicly funded projects, and prompt payment, will unlock additional capacity and assist in rebalancing the UK economy.

Energy resilience and the ability to cope with future shocks should be a key priority. As we’ve witnessed, world events and natural disasters can impact on every UK citizen with worryingly devastating consequences for their health and wellbeing.  We must invest, at scale, in transport, water and in energy security.  This should include the West Midlands’ investment in modular nuclear and, importantly, hydrogen to provide a low carbon supply of power to support the transition to net zero in energy intensive industries, transportation and the heating of homes and other buildings.

Like the rest of the country, the West Midlands is in the midst of a skills crisis.  This includes construction which relies on a steady supply of skilled workers and apprentices who will carry out work in the future.  It’s vital that politicians act with urgency to address youth unemployment with an effort similar to a  ‘wartime’ situation by identifying gaps and attracting recruits into the industry and in mobilising the education system at colleges and universities to provide contemporary knowledge and skills as well as enhancing their ability to cope with change in the future.

Training should be delivered seven days a week, including night school and summer schools, with a focus on traditional skills as well as the way that the installation of heat pumps and their effective functioning should occur, as well as functional and soft skills essential in delivering the enormity of the retrofit programme needed in all existing buildings.  We need a trade and higher-level degree apprenticeship revolution, starting here in the West Midlands.  The new government should change the rules applying to the apprentice levy and allow for part of apprentices’ salaries to be covered for the first 12 months.

So, in conclusion, the scene is set.

A new Labour Mayor and the strong likelihood of a Labour Government combined with a clamour for change.

Now is the time for the West Midlands to lead the charge and Get Britain Building!



The views reflected within this article of those of the authors.


Mike Leonard is CEO of Building Alliance CIC and also a Visiting Professor, Manufacturing and the Built Environment, Birmingham City University.

Mike is currently driving many initiatives to achieve our climate change objectives, whilst ensuring resilience in the built environment. A strong believer in the power of collaboration he has built an extensive industry and academic network, identifying, and acting on common goals.

He is the founder of the Futures Group, the UK cross-industry, and highly influential new homes “think tank”. Mike is currently involved in research aimed at improving the quality in building. This includes Future Homes Standard Demonstrators, preventing overheating, enhancing indoor air quality, addressing the fire risk, reducing the use of single life plastics, decarbonising the built environment, and embracing the skills gap.


Dr Steve McCabe is Associate Professor at the Institute for Design, Economic Acceleration & Sustainability (IDEAS) and Senior Fellow within the Centre for Brexit Studies, both of which are based at Birmingham City University. Steve is a long-standing academic and has written extensively on issues of management, business and politics.

In the last two years, as well as writing a number of chapters dealing with Brexit, inequality and the pandemic, he has co-edited Brexit and Northern Ireland, Bordering on Confusion (published by Bite-Sized Books, ISBN-13:978-1694447807) and English Regions After Brexit: Examining Potential Change through Devolved Power (ISBN-13: 979-8666953099) and Exploring the Green Economy: Issues, Challenges and Benefits (ISBN-13:‎ 979-8532032347) both also published by Bite-Sized Books. He has researched and written extensively on the way in which British housebuilding developed in the past century and may be improved through economic intervention and technological innovation.



Both Mike and Steve are members of CNM’s Housing and Communities Leadership Board.