Business leaders in the West Midlands have been reacting to the Chancellor’s 2020 Spending Review, a key aspect of which was a £4billion ‘levelling up fund’.
This will be used to pay for projects chosen by local areas around the country in order to “fund the infrastructure of everyday life” such as road schemes, railway station upgrades, regenerating eyesores and upgrading town centres.
New support for housing and an increase in the minimum wage was also outlined by Chancellor Rishi Sunak while a lengthy National Infrastructure Strategy has also been published outlining investment in areas such as transport, digital, energy and utility networks.
Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce chief executive Paul Faulkner welcomed the commitment to investing in infrastructure and retraining unemployed workers but called for a commitment to deliver HS2 in full.
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“The Chancellor laid bare the stark realities facing the country as we attempt to overcome the damage caused by coronavirus,” he said.
“Record levels of borrowing and unprecedented levels of unemployment will naturally undermine attempts at reviving our fragile economy over the next six to 12 months.
“With an unemployment crisis on the horizon, it was pleasing to see a substantial commitment to retraining unemployed workers, sharpening the effectiveness of the apprentice system and upgrading colleges – all vital elements in helping young people develop the skills they need to secure work in such an unstable environment.
“Beyond a vague reference to the Shared Prosperity Fund, there was very little information on how the Government will help businesses transition to a post Brexit landscape.
“The concept of a levelling up fund also sounds promising but, for it to be truly effective, party political differences will need to be put aside in order to attract much-needed investment across parts of our region.”
Maria Machancoses, director of sub-national transport body Midlands Connect, said: “The Chancellor’s statement gives a much-needed boost to the levelling-up agenda.
“It’s great to see the publication of a National Infrastructure Strategy that focuses on speeding up the delivery of improvements, supporting our recovery from Covid-19.
“Now is the perfect time to invest in our roads, railways and the green technology central to our carbon-neutral future.
“We’re committed to working with our partners and government to ensure the improvements mentioned are implemented as soon as possible and to ensure we secure the best possible transport deal for the Midlands.”
Amanda Dorel, regional director for the West Midlands at Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking, said: “It’s promising to see the Government putting money behind its commitment to invest in infrastructure at a local level as part of the levelling-up agenda.
“This will provide a much-needed boost to the West Midlands following what’s been a particularly difficult year.
“As the manufacturing heartland of the UK, a number of businesses across the region could benefit from investment or support to ‘build back better’ following the pandemic.
“We will remain by the side of the business community across the region to help them make the most of the opportunities that come their way.”
Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire LEP chairman Alun Rogers said: “Our LEP needs a commitment from the Government of a long-term funding settlement which will enable us to pursue the projects we have set out to grow our economy as we come out of the pandemic period.
“We therefore welcome the announcement from the Chancellor that the Shared Prosperity Fund will be allocated £1.5 billion for the next year. We do need the detail on how the SPF will be distributed across the regions as soon as possible.
“All of the partners involved in our LEP have pulled together to outline our priorities and curated a list of projects which have been analysed by our sub-groups. These total in the region of £150 million.
“We have done the hard work and are poised to lead on Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire’s economic recovery post-pandemic. We look forward to further information from the Government so that we can work together to deliver on our priorities imminently.”
Karl Edge, Midlands regional chairman at KPMG, said: “A levelling up fund, particularly one that takes a broad place-based approach, is to be welcomed, though businesses across the Midlands will be wondering how this relates to the regional devolution agenda and leadership on the ground to ensure successful bids contribute to real regional economic transformation.
“The automotive, aerospace and manufacturing industries play a key part in our region’s economic success so investment in electric vehicle battery production and associated supply chains has great potential to give the Midlands a much needed boost.
“However, clarity on how and where the investment will be divvied up is crucial so that businesses can plan effectively, particularly during such an uncertain time.
“Whilst the settlement announced for events including the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022, is encouraging, the importance of collaboration between government, businesses and communities is critical to ensure that Birmingham, its residents and those in surrounding towns and cities can equally reap the benefits the games will bring.”
Chris Luty, managing director of Black Country-based training provider BCTG, said: “While we welcome the fact the Chancellor has extended employer incentives to recruit apprentices until March 31, 2021, with up to £3,000 available, we believe the real challenge is how we invest long term in the skills our economy needs.
“It’s not simply about levelling up, it’s about making sure we have the skilled labour to rebuild and actually benefit from major infrastructure projects.
“The answer is more than just short-term incentives. We need to relook at the reasons for this sustained decline.
“We know that rules around off-the-job training are major factor that puts employers off, especially SMEs. They need more flexibility so this is a real opportunity for the Government to act now to address this.”