BY ANDY STREET, MAYOR OF THE WEST MIDLANDS
Less than a mile away from HSBC UK’s new headquarters is a large patch of scrubby concrete in Birmingham. Icknield Port Loop was once a bustling business centre, with canal workers loading and unloading raw materials to fuel the most advanced factories in the world. It was the Guangzhou of the 1760s. Yet over the decades, the railways came, technology changed and businesses moved away.
The West Midlands today is seeing an economic renaissance, with wages growing faster than any other region. House prices in Ladywood, the area around Icknield, rose 17 per cent last year, faster than any other post code in the country, according to Barclays.
The engineers who work for Jaguar Land Rover, the financiers at HSBC and the creatives at BBC 3 are re-balancing the UK economy one day at a time.
But with this renaissance well underway, why is it still so difficult to get these 1,150 new homes built in a prime canalside location like Icknield?
For former industrial sites, it is tough to make the numbers stack up through the private sector alone. The cost of digging up all that concrete, removing old industrial buildings, decontaminating whatever is underneath, means that building homes there is not a sure-fire way to make money.
If you are a developer looking for sites to build homes and make a profit, brownfield land looks tricky compared to some former school playing fields or a pristine plot of farmland.
So where the market fails, Government must step in. Indeed the Conservative Party manifesto committed to, “not just concentrating housing development in the south-east, but rebalancing housing growth across the country”.
Phillip Hammond and Sajid Javid have made a great start, amassing a £44 billion war-chest to help meet the UK’s housing needs.
But here again, we can come up against the numbers. Developments find it difficult to be considered “value for money” compared to sites in London and the South East, because the economic impact of any public funding is measured by looking at the potential for land values to increase. Even with its dynamic economy and HS2 arriving soon, the price of land in the West Midlands is no match for the commuter belt around London.
For us to re-balance the UK economy, we need to make sure we are looking at the right numbers. How many people will live in these new homes? How will these homes help to drive the Industrial Strategy?
How these homes support productivity growth and developing the businesses of the future? How can we create cutting-edge construction technologies while we build them? How can we make sure our young people have the skills to work in these high-tech housebuilding jobs?
It’s not just the West Midlands that has these ambitions. Today I am meeting with Mayors from around the around the country, Conservative and Labour, to make an offer to Government.
We all have brownfield sites which have been derelict for years, and we need the financial muscle of Government to get them moving. We stand ready to get the diggers fired up, and build the homes we desperately need. With the right teamwork, and a fresh look at the numbers, perhaps Icknield Port Loop will soon be buzzing once again.