Ian Austin delivered an upbeat all-hands-to-the-pumps plea yesterday in his first speech since being appointed West Midlands Minister.
But what other option did he have? There is little point, in the midst of the worst economic crisis to hit this country for decades, in announcing that this region is particularly poorly placed to cope with the unemployment and business failures that are inevitably coming our way.
This much we know, and have known for several years.
The launch of the 2008 Regional Observatory statistical analysis makes for the usual depressing reading, save for one important change. The West Midlands no longer has the least skilled workforce anywhere in England, having risen to third from the bottom out of nine regions.
But the other usual suspects are still there. This region has the highest proportion of people with no qualifications anywhere in the country; economic output is £10 billion below the national average; a north-south divide is developing between wealthy Solihull and south Warwickshire and poorer Staffordshire and Stoke with Birmingham somewhere in the middle; output per employee is lower than in most of the country; business innovation is below par; participation in cultural activities and sport is low.
It is a challenging agenda made even more difficult by the severe economic downturn. And when Mr Austin speaks, as he did yesterday, of construction firms preaching a “counsel of despair” by claiming that they cannot meet house building targets, he must presumably have had his tongue firmly in his cheek. The recession will put paid to any hope, at least in the short term, of delivering upwards of 400,000 new homes in the West Midlands by 2026, as the Government must privately have concluded many weeks ago.
Mr Austin’s enthusiasm for the task ahead cannot be doubted. He is a West Midlands man in tune with the region’s strengths and weaknesses who has spoken frankly about the difficulties that lie ahead. Even to become an averagely performing region, tens of thousands more people have to be helped to find new skills, qualifications, jobs and houses. Businesses need additional support to diversify from manufacturing and take advantages of new industries, while co-operation between universities, councils and the regional development agency must be hugely improved.
Mr Austin is this region’s representative with a direct line to the Prime Minister. He has much to do but we wish him well and will offer our support whenever it is right to do so.