In his first article for the Centre for the New Midlands, Andy Street (Mayor of the West Midlands) considers how the ‘reclamation of Longbridge’ has the potential to be the tangible reminder that the West Midlands region has bounced back before – and will do so again.

Andy Street CBE

“A New Year brings a sense of renewal which, with the arrival of 2021, will be keenly felt by us all. As we turn the page on a difficult year, we face real challenges ahead; to defeat coronavirus and rebuild our region’s economy to the heights it had reached before the pandemic struck.

As I write, despite huge efforts to live within social distancing guidelines, the region has been placed into Tier 4 in response to the growing number of infections. This has been necessary to bring the spread under control and protect the NHS. However, to the many people who are worried about their livelihoods and desperately want to see their love ones, the news will be hard to take.

The mass roll-out of vaccines – and in particular the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab – brings real hope for 2021. There is no doubt that the vaccines developed by scientists across the world provide genuine light at the end of the tunnel. Right now, medics are beginning an unprecedented vaccination programme while, supported by the military, our schools will be ramping up testing in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, huge investments are being made into key projects which will help kickstart our economy. In this column, I want to write about one particular project, as I believe it reflects that sense of renewal while communicating a profound message about our ability as a region to bounce back.

Just before Christmas, the Government announced £24 million to fund Brownfield regeneration across the West Midlands, in a successful bid to the Urban Transformation Fund.

Although the detailed allocation of the £24million now needs to be formally agreed by the West Midlands Combined Authority, at the centre of this bid lies the redevelopment of the former MG Rover ‘West Works’ in Longbridge, Birmingham.

This huge site – which has been derelict since the car maker’s collapse 15 years ago – should become the centrepiece of a new wave of Brownfield projects here, where former industrial sites are cleaned up for housing and commercial use.

As someone who grew up in Northfield, just down the road from Longbridge, I understand what a massive blow the loss of Rover was and what a huge wound it has left.

It’s why I’ve been determined as Mayor to get the whole site redeveloped and generating decent jobs again. This funding success is a great example of how we are able to work together – local campaigning, regional backing, Government support and private sector investment. We are bringing this approach to projects across the region, but this is a really important one to me personally.

Over the past decade, the £1 billion regeneration of Longbridge has been spearheaded by St Modwen, with the aim to provide 9000 new jobs and 4000 new homes. So far, Longbridge’s rebirth has included a £70 million town centre, over a million square feet of commercial floor space and more than 1,450 homes.

The site of MG Rover’s old home also houses medical accommodation for the Ministry of Defence, and a 260-apartment retirement village, the 60,000 sq ft Longbridge Technology Park and the £66 million Bournville College. It has been a remarkable transformation.

Yet every time I pass Longbridge, my eye has been drawn to the parts that remain derelict and the wasted potential in terms of housing and jobs. By healing the scars left by a previous economic impact, the completion of the West Works site resonates as evidence of our region’s ability to reinvent itself – just as we face another challenge to rebuild after the pandemic.

The land reclamation technology being pioneered here is perhaps the most literal example of that reinvention, by cleaning up derelict eyesores like Longbridge and helping us build new homes at record numbers, through our ‘brownfield first’ policy.

The exciting investment in the National Brownfield Institute at Wolverhampton will cement our position as a national leader in remediation and construction technology. I believe that by awarding our region £24 million pounds from the Urban Transformation Fund – more than half the £40 million available nationally – the Government has sent a huge vote of confidence in this latest West Midlands innovation.

Of course, the renewal of Longbridge also resonates because it was for so many generations part of the bedrock of the West Midlands automotive industry, a sector which is still vital to our economic wellbeing, but which faces huge challenges.

With electrification, the car making sector is going through a revolution, illustrated by the Government’s ambitious decision to stop the production of petrol and diesel cars in 2030.

In the year ahead, it is my hope that as the reclamation of the old MG Rover site at Longbridge closes one chapter in West Midlands car making, we can open a new one with the building of a Gigafactory in our region, to manufacture the batteries needed for a new era of motoring.

As the first weeks of 2021 unfold, our efforts must be concentrated on defeating coronavirus and rolling out vaccinations. There is still much work to be done. But as we look to the find glimmers of hope at the end of the tunnel, the reclamation of Longbridge can be a shining light that reminds us that our region has bounced back before – and will do again.”

About Andy Street CBE

Andy Street was elected as the first Mayor of the West Midlands on May 4 2017. The primary function of the role is to chair the West Midlands Combined Authority and brings with it significant powers over transport, housing, skills and jobs.

Before becoming Mayor, Andy combined a career with John Lewis, Britain’s most successful workers’ co-operative, with a host of high-profile economic development roles, working with local and national government.  Starting on the John Lewis graduate scheme, Andy rose through the ranks to become Managing Director, overseeing one of the most successful periods in the company’s history. He was the Chair of the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership between 2011 and 2016, helping to build the relationships that have underpinned the economic growth of the region. Additionally, he has been lead non-executive director for the Department for Communities and Local Government as well as a member of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group.

Outside of work, Andy is passionate about the arts, particularly in the West Midlands, having previously served as Vice Chairman of Performances Birmingham Limited, which is responsible for running the City’s Symphony and Town Halls.

In June 2015, Andy was awarded the CBE for services to the national economy. He was named the ‘Most Admired Leader’ of the year by business magazine, Management Today in 2014. He received the ‘President’s award’ from the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce in for his work in the region. He holds three honorary degrees, from Birmingham City University, Aston University and the University of Birmingham.

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