What does the future look like for the West Midlands as we start building towards life post Covid-19?

The West Midlands will reinvent itself post Covid-19 29 June 2020 / By Wayne Flannery

Pre-Covid-19, Birmingham was one of the fastest developing cities in the UK with large-scale investment taking place across the region and regeneration high on the West Midlands priority list. 

But what now? Research suggests the West Midlands’ economy could be one of the hardest hit by the pandemic in the UK – so what does the future look like for the region as we embark on a redefined normality and start building towards life post Covid-19? 

Last week we brought together some of the region’s most influential individuals who will be key in its rebirth to discuss the challenges for the West Midlands in entering a post Covid-19 world, and what needs to be done to ensure that it emerges from the other side in a position of strength to rebuild, and eventually flourish into the future. 

The scale of the recovery challenge facing our region is vast. Manufacturing, business tourism and higher education constitute three big slices of the economic pie, all of which have seen a major drop off since the start of the pandemic, and there are fears that the West Midlands’ unemployment progress could be heavily impacted. 

In terms of rebuilding the West Midlands economy – and more widely, that of the UK – one thing’s for certain, construction has a crucial role to play. It will require a concerted effort between the public and private sectors, and our industry, to work together to ensure the regeneration progress made over the last few years stays on track.

"We’ve built our way out of economic difficulties many times before, and now is our opportunity to do it again – that’s the story we want people to write about the West Midlands in the years to come."

As we saw during the financial crisis in 2008, construction has the power to be a real catalyst for stimulating economic growth. It was interesting to hear the views of Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority, who is optimistic about the West Midlands’ ability to reinvent itself and bounce back – he confirmed that construction was its best performing sector immediately prior to the outbreak of the virus, and that our industry would prove vital to the region’s prosperity as we emerge from the pandemic. 

Just this week, the mayor announced an ambitious £3.2 billion economic investment blueprint for the region – entitled Recharge the West Midlands, with a focus on stimulating the local economy through housebuilding, brownfield regeneration and retrofit. This is in addition to the billions of pounds that the government has committed to the region with the recent go ahead for phase one of HS2, and links into driving economic development around the two new HS2 stations that will be built in the West Midlands – for the region to recover, such investment and commitment to delivering major schemes is absolutely vital.

Ann Bentley, global board director for Rider Levett Bucknall, also shared that she is confident that construction’s ability to inspire wider economic growth holds the key for regional transformation. As an influential member of the Construction Leadership Council, Ann has been working alongside the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to kickstart construction activity and fast track government infrastructure investment to stimulate the economy. But there’s a quid quo pro here, and the construction industry also needs to step up and show that it can evolve, be more collaborative, embrace new ways of working and increase productivity.

An issue close to Argent regional director Rob Groves’ heart is ‘net zero’ in office construction, and he sees a major opportunity for the West Midlands to embrace sustainable construction practices and modern methods of construction (MMC) to drive economic growth. The manufacturing expertise and talent in the region – some of which will now be looking for a new home as a result of Covid-19 – should be targeted for recruitment by the industry and tasked with developing this strand of innovation. Later this year ISG will launch its inaugural sustainable buildings monitor to help everyone better understand how the built environment in their part of the country is performing on the journey towards net zero. If this survey can help focus minds on that 2050 date, or the earlier target of 2041 in the case of the West Midlands, then we can provide a sustainable stimulus to our economy for future generations.

Continuing the offices thread, rather than killing off the physical workspace it’s likely that the pandemic will lead to a transformation of our expectations of what this space will be used for in the future. With a very real fight for talent on our hands, employees are increasingly on the lookout for sustainable attributes and quality, well-designed spaces for collaborating and being productive.

This ‘power of place’ is something we value at ISG, and a factor we believe could be key in businesses achieving a genuine competitive advantage, particularly as we move into a post Covid-19 world. As we described in a recent ISG report, aspirational, innovative workspaces that embrace locality could well be a decisive factor in attracting the best talent to new, exciting cities – something which will be key as West Midlands businesses and, more widely, the region targets recovery.

"In terms of rebuilding the West Midlands economy – and more widely, that of the UK – one thing’s for certain, construction has a crucial role to play."

In this context, Ann believes that Birmingham has an ace up its sleeve. Research suggests that our attitudes towards travel have evolved during the Covid-19 lockdown, and with the increasing normalisation of home-working, employees are recognising the advantages that reduced office working can bring. Increasing workplace flexibility means people are happy to travel further to work to live in a more favourable location, if that means only working two or three days a week in the office. Perversely, the research suggests that although they are prepared to travel for longer distances on public transport, people are disinclined to switch modes of transport or walk – so Birmingham’s highly connected transport status, which is only set to heighten with HS2, should prove influential for HR departments driving the search for ideal corporate office locations.

Early indications from the housing market show an increasing trend in searches for homes with greater outdoor space amenity – perhaps a marker that the crisis will act as the catalyst for the pull of our regional towns and cities. With more cost-effective real estate and quality of life considerations focusing minds, key regional towns and cities could directly benefit if this sentiment and change in behaviours and outlook persists.

Looking ahead to the future of the West Midlands, the prospect of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham has taken on even greater significance in such challenging times. The Games will see £1 billion in public sector investment in the West Midlands region, but beyond the infrastructure legacy there will be huge societal benefits. Not only are the Commonwealth Games crucial in terms of that massive financial outlay, but also for the knock-on opportunities they will create for the young people in the region who are currently impacted by unemployment.

It was reassuring to listen to Andy’s enthusiasm about the potential of the Games to showcase the very best of the region, and to hear that there are big plans to ensure those disadvantaged by coronavirus get the opportunity to learn new skills and benefit from a major sporting spectacle.

Thinking back to the legacies secured by the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, the 2012 Olympic Games in London and 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow for their individual cities, these games, and the package that comes with them, have the potential to be a major player in bringing the good times back to our beloved region.

The Commonwealth Games can help the West Midlands take steps towards getting back to former glories, but we also have a real opportunity to define the future of our region by working together and working innovatively to bounce back. Whilst stopping short of stating that the West Midlands will build its way out of the economic malaise caused by Covid-19, it’s clear that the construction industry will be fundamental to how the region reinvents itself as a high-skilled, technology-led and reinvented economic powerhouse.

We’ve built our way out of economic difficulties many times before, and now is our opportunity to do it again – that’s the story we want people to write about the West Midlands in the years to come.

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