The new minister for the West Midlands yesterday told a regeneration conference that tackling the skills shortage was the key to the region’s long term success.

Ian Austin was one of a number of keynote speakers at the West Midlands Regeneration Convention, hosted by RegenWM at the ICC in Birmingham, which saw contributions from Jonathon Porritt, founder director of Forum for the Future, Dermot Finch, from Centre for Cities, and Advantage West Midlands chief executive Mick Laverty.

In a wide ranging speech, Mr Austin said the region could only compete if sufficient investment had been made in the workforce.

“We have too many people of working age with no qualifications,” he said. “And whilst it’s crucial we invest in the education and training of our young people, it’s adult workforce skills that will be the key to economic success. We’ve got no choice about this. We all of us know the only way we will persuade people to invest here is if we’ve got the skills they need and the only way we’ll compete in the future is with a highly-skilled workforce so the businesses they work for can innovate more, exploit new technologies and capitalise on new ways of working to boost productivity, open up new markets and win new customers.

“And we all know too, if we don’t adopt this approach, we will be more and more vulnerable to competition from businesses, countries and economies which do. And we’ll find it impossible to not only close the gap between our region and the national average, but we’ll find that gap widening. I want us all to think harder than ever before about how we can put boosting skills at the heart of everything we do, whether in construction skills in the developments you are delivering, getting tenants back to work or by, as I am so keen to see in my own constituency in Dudley, putting ambitious plans to redevelop colleges at the heart of plans to transform the town.”

Mr Austin highlighted a number of regeneration projects across the Midlands that were not only focused on the built environment but upskilling the local community.

He said: “We can see an example of this in Stoke where two weeks ago, I was able to help announce £36million to kick-start a major redevelopment of the University Quarter and City Centre – which will include new business, retail, leisure and cultural initiatives with some amazing waterside residential areas. A couple of weeks ago, I met partners in Hereford to hear about plans for the Edgar Street Project – to revitalise Hereford City Centre, boost education and training, retain young people in the county, and make a contribution to housing growth. This project is also being taken forward by a public/private sector partnership with substantial funding from Herefordshire Council and Advantage West Midlands.

“I want to ensure despite the financial climate, short term confidence is maintained to support the partnership, to enable crucial private sector partners to maintain investment and retain construction skills.

“I am meeting with public and private sector partners in Coventry to explore the prospects for using public sector funds to ensure one of the key regeneration areas in the city continues to be delivered despite the impact of the downturn. There is a strong public/private sector partnership already in place, with plans to transform the living conditions of local communities through a multi-million-pound joint investment venture. This will include 3,500 new homes, a third of which will be affordable homes, and refurbishing a further 1,000.

“I will be following this with similar meetings to explore how momentum can be maintained: in North Solihull, where regeneration is also expected to deliver thousands of much needed new homes, alongside other facilities.”