The West Midlands needs to address its dismal employment rates

Birmingham looking festive. Image: Getty.

With the Midlands Engine policy, Joseph Chamberlain’s legacy being back in vogue and – perhaps most notably – CityMetric’s recent tour around the area, the West Midlands is finally getting the attention it deserves. Over the next few months, the run-up to the election of a metro mayor in the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) should mean even more thought is given to what’s needed to help the region thrive.

And top of that list should be turning around its dismal employment performance.

The West Midlands’ rusty jobs machine isn’t a new problem, as a report published this week by the Resolution Foundation highlights. In the years leading up to the financial crisis, the conurbation’s employment rate remained stubbornly low compared to other city regions.

And while the recovery has seen the proportion of people in work nationally rising to record levels, the West Midlands still hasn’t got back to where it was, with an employment rate of just 64.5 per cent compared to 71.6 per cent across all the city regions.

The WMCA is made up of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton – diverse areas with different histories and populations. But bar Solihull, each of those local authorities has an employment rate below the average across the UK’s other city regions. A cross-city plan is needed.

The big challenge for the new mayor, along with other local leaders and central government, is helping people from groups that have traditionally been disadvantaged in the labour market to find work. That doesn’t mean that we should expect, say, people with disabilities to have identical employment rates to the rest of the country. But the gap between the kinds of workers who tend to be in employment whatever the economic weather – in their thirties or forties, highly-educated – and these disadvantaged groups is significantly larger in the WMCA than in other city regions. Targeted support designed to help some of those groups that fare worst in the the region – younger workers, those with low qualifications and people from BAME backgrounds – could make a meaningful contribution.

Of course, it’s not enough to just think about potential employees: the kinds of jobs and sectors setting up in the city region are crucial too. The WMCA can be rightly proud of its industrial heritage, still evident today with companies like Jaguar Land Rover. And while a higher share of the WMCA’s workforce are employed in manufacturing, it’s still only 13 per cent. The city region should also look to expand into more “jobs-rich” areas such as the high value services sector. When it comes to industrial strategy, it should be proud of, but not constrained by, its past.


And hand in hand with attracting those sorts of jobs is having workers with the right skills. Qualification levels in the WMCA are below average. Despite having one of the highest proportions of students among city regions, it has trouble retaining them once they graduate, with fewer staying on than in Bristol or Manchester. More high-skilled jobs would help – but it’s worth thinking too about what those other “stickier” cities offer and how the WMCA can mark itself out and tap into the asset of its large student population.

While the mayor will have powers that can make a real difference, a shared focus with central government and other leaders in the West Midlands will be needed to boost employment. But with a targeted, ambitious plan that puts jobs growth at its heart, there’s every reason to hope that the West Midlands will be talked about for all the right reasons for years to come.

Conor D'arcy is a policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation.

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Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

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