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Levelling Up Fund: Tipton and Wednesbury

Volume 729: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2023

I will call Shaun Bailey to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Tipton and Wednesbury and the Levelling Up Fund.

People across the Black Country, in Tipton and Wednesbury specifically—whether they live on the Tibby estate, the Lost City, Friar Park or the Woods estate—are proud of their communities and where they come from. I am proud to represent an area with a long tradition and a proud sense of community.

Our great Black Country towns of Tipton and Wednesbury have consistently felt like they have been left behind. When I was elected to this place three years ago, I made one simple pledge to them: I would ensure that they were never forgotten again. That has been at the forefront of the work I have done since I was elected as the Member of Parliament for West Bromwich West in 2019. Of course, we have to remember that in 2019, the current Government were elected on a manifesto to level up and invest in communities like those in Tipton and Wednesbury, and indeed across the Black Country.

We know that talent and genius are uniformly distributed throughout the country, but opportunity, wealth and standards of living are not. Unfortunately, in my area, we have acute issues and problems with standards of living and access to opportunity. It is vital that we close that gap. We know that as it widens, it will only compound the problems in communities such as the ones I represent. I want to talk about the importance of the levelling-up fund to the communities I represent, in particular the towns of Tipton and Wednesbury, and to tell the story of the process they have gone through on this journey, particularly in respect of the levelling-up fund.

First, we need to set the context. Look, for example, at employment opportunities. Sandwell Metropolitan Borough, the local authority area that contains my constituency, has an employment rate below that of the west midlands, and indeed Great Britain. In 2004, Sandwell’s unemployment rate was 8.7%, compared with 5.2% in the west midlands and 4.8% nationally; in 2009, that unemployment rate rose to 14.4%, compared with 8.5% and 6.8% respectively. In 2022, unemployment in Sandwell stood at 6.2%, while the national average was 3.8%. Sandwell’s labour market profile shows that the economically inactive rate in Sandwell is 10% higher than either the west midlands or the wider country.

Let us look at wages. In April 2022, median gross weekly wages in Sandwell were £470 for all employees, compared to £532.50 across the UK as a whole, and £549.80 for full-time employees, compared to £640 across the UK as a whole. On average, therefore, my constituents take home £90 a week less than the average person in the United Kingdom. Equally, we have to address education gaps. At early key stage 2, 55% of pupils attending state-funded schools in my local authority area achieve the expected standard, which is below the national average of 59% and the west midlands average of 57%. The gap continues to grow at GCSE level, where 61% of students attending state-funded schools in my area achieve a standard pass, which is below the national state-funded average of 69% and the west midlands average of 67%. It goes without saying that Sandwell is the eighth most deprived upper-tier local authority area in the country. One of my wards is, I think, the second most deprived in the west midlands region.

In setting the context of the importance of the levelling-up fund to my communities, we can see that the acute challenges and problems that I was sent to Parliament to address on behalf of my constituents and the communities of myself, my neighbours and friends are absolutely self-evident.

My hon. Friend is a true champion for his constituency. I find it rather sad that the Opposition Benches are absolutely empty today, even though we have MPs in this place from both major parties representing the west midlands. I rose to support my hon. Friend and to ask this: does he agree that the levelling up of opportunity is about not just his constituency, but all constituencies across the west midlands? We have strong local councillors in Walsall under the leadership of Mike Bird. They work with local MPs and our West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, who is doing a fantastic job and has secured the devolution deal that he just heard about in the Budget. That is how we make the huge strides that my hon. Friend has been seeking to secure in levelling up the west midlands, but the work continues.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. It is as if she is clairvoyant—that is the point that I was about to come to. She is right; strong, local leadership is key. Although central Government funding is an important part of the tapestry of levelling up and investing in communities, strong and accountable local leadership, such as what we have seen from our West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, is vital. He goes out there, bangs the drum and secures funding for our wider region.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s council leader, the legendary Mike Bird. Many of us active in the west midlands have known Mike for some time—he beats the drum for Walsall incredibly. I pay tribute to the Conservative group leader on Sandwell Council, David Fisher, who does that too.

I turn particularly to the need for the levelling-up fund in Tipton and Wednesbury. We found that, until recently, the Labour administration in Sandwell did not have a plan for how they were going to apply for the funds. It is vital that local authorities have a plan—whether they are red, blue or any colour in between, it is important that we take such opportunities. At a recent Sandwell Council meeting, certain councillors were carping about not getting central Government funding when they couldn’t even be bothered to apply for it, which is unacceptable. That is the hilarity of the situation.

One reason why I applied for this debate is that it is important for us to have a conversation about how to ensure that communities do not miss out on this funding through churlish party politics or sheer ineptitude—because people cannot be bothered or cannot manage multiple priorities. I acknowledge that this has got better recently, but at times my constituents have missed out not through failing any test or any central Government requirement, but because the council literally did not put in the application. That is just astounding. The fact is that our communities miss out.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) made the point that Opposition Members were not here. That is unfortunate because what I am talking about must be built across the political divide. Among the 28 Members of Parliament representing the West Midlands Combined Authority area, there is a 50-50 split. It astounds me that there is not one Labour MP in this Chamber.

I commend my hon. Friend for all his work. I know how hard he fights for his constituents. Even before we were elected to this place, he and I were both so passionate about the levelling up of the Black Country, and we were both elected on the hyper-local ticket of changing these communities. In Wolverhampton North East, we have seen Government investment into the city of Wolverhampton, and I welcome that.

I absolutely agree with him about the announcement of the devolution deal. Having Andy Street there to work with our Labour and Conservative authorities in the west midlands is key to the Government’s pledge to level up. I ask the Minister to look at Wolverhampton’s remaining levelling-up bid. Today’s funding has gone to one of our outstanding bids in Bilston. I welcome that, but I ask her to look kindly on the one in Wolverhampton North East, our green innovation corridor, which will unlock more jobs. I want to ask my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) if he will celebrate the devolution deal and admit that more has to be done to accelerate that. Our communities need the change very quickly.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her detailed intervention and I endorse her comments. She raises a point made by our right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills about the nuances of the west midlands; that is something I have found in my interactions on the levelling-fund in the context of the towns of Tipton and Wednesbury, which I am discussing today.

We cannot think that the West Midlands Combined Authority area is effectively one socioeconomic area. There are four sub-divisions: the Black Country, Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry, all of which have unique economic and social challenges. Of course, we have seen that in the roll-out of their own levelling-up opportunities in those areas. Indeed, in my conversations with the West Midlands Combined Authority—this is a point I pressed with the Mayor—I said we cannot have a strategy of levelling up in the west midlands based on the idea that if we level up Birmingham, it will spread everywhere else.

There is sometimes a risk in these conversations, and this is another issue my communities in Tipton and Wednesbury face, that people will think, “You can be part of the Greater Birmingham commuter belt zone.” Well, that does not work because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) will know, communities in Wednesfield or Wednesbury could be as far from Birmingham as we are right now.

My hon. Friend makes the passionate point that we need an equitable share of levelling up right across the region. We are talking about not just jobs and skills, but resources like the police, which is why I campaigned to keep my police station in Aldridge open, and transport. Having the city region sustainable transport settlement is equally important so that areas like my hon. Friend’s can level up transport to enable people to go to work or to enjoy leisure and social facilities. That is why—forgive my indulgence, Ms Elliott—I must give a big plug to my train station in Aldridge, which I hope the Minister will now be aware of, although it is not in her portfolio.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and to you, Ms Elliott, for your indulgence. The point my right hon. Friend makes is that we cannot take the levelling-up fund on its own. As I say, it forms part of a much wider patchwork of particularly capital investment into our area. She rightly references her active campaign to keep the Aldridge train station open. I have no doubt whatever, given her other successes such as the redevelopment of Ravens Court in Brownhills, that she will succeed. She has a record of delivery and a promise of more, as I am sure we have all seen on election leaflets.

I turn back to the importance of the levelling-up fund for Tipton and Wednesbury. The point about it being part of a broader patchwork is demonstrated. My local authority has been successful in securing other funding, such as £67 million from the towns fund. I secured £80,000 for flood defence in Tipton, £50,000 to deal with congestion on the A461 Black Country New Road, and £3 million for Wednesbury town centre as part of the heritage action zones. That all forms part of that tapestry with the levelling-up fund.

I say to the Minister that when we look at the levelling-up fund, and I know this was the case in the applications that went through, what I have mentioned should be considered as part of that process, but should not be to its detriment. I appreciate that with a lot of these bids there is a difficult balancing act. I know from interactions I have had with the Department that there has to be a balance between how we divvy out that part of the levelling-up fund, accepting that if areas have had significant funding, it can be difficult to give more and more when other areas have not had it. On Tipton and Wednesbury and the development in Tipton that was part of the recent bid, accepting the broader strategy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East alluded to, is important.

I turn to the specific bid for Tipton. In round 1 of the levelling-up fund, Sandwell Council—for some reason unbeknownst to anyone with logic—did not decide to submit a bid, but in round 2 we did. It had a focus on Tipton town centre. The rationale was based on the fact that Tipton town centre—Owen Street—was Tipton’s beating heart. Tipton itself is a post-industrial town that still has a strong sense of community, and that has been its historical centre. The bid itself looked at a variety of different ways to level up the town centre, whether through regenerating commercial and residential premises or ensuring we had a residential offering in town centres. We have talked a lot in this place about the balance between residential and commercial and how we can reinvigorate our town centres through a residential offering, and that was a key part of the submitted bid as well.

Broadly speaking, my view at the time was that it felt like a good strategic fit for the town. It respected the history of the area and fitted very much with the aims of the Government through the programme, ensuring the balance between commercial use and that we can truly see a return for the community on the investment put into these areas, and also complementing existing investment. I give Sandwell Council its dues—its engagement with me as part of that process was consistent and good, particularly given our recent challenges as a local authority with the introduction of commissioners at the council and a rejig of our senior leadership team. We could see how the changes from the fund could have an impact.

In winding up my remarks, I say to the Minister that the levelling-up fund presented a great opportunity. I was pleased by the Chancellor’s announcement today that we will hopefully now see some investment in Tipton. We must ensure we continue to press forward this levelling-up agenda; it is part of a broader tapestry of work. I thank the Minister for the work she does in this space and for continuing the engagement to ensure we truly maximise this and tackle the acute problems I addressed at the start of my comments.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) on securing this important debate on Tipton, Wednesbury and the levelling-up fund. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for their contributions—I will address them.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West is a committed champion for his area and, importantly, a committed advocate of levelling up. Debates such as the one we are having are excellent opportunities to not only talk about the levelling-up agenda but engage with Members such as my hon. Friend, who does so much for his constituency and wants the very best for his area.

Local leadership matters: that is what the levelling-up fund, at its core, is all about. It is about backing local projects and initiatives that restore people’s pride in the places they live and work and help to draw in new opportunities and investment. That is why the levelling-up fund is so over-subscribed. Round 2 was exceptionally competitive, with just under £9 billion of bids submitted for £2.1 billion of funding. That meant that we had a lot of high-quality shortlisted bids that we were unable to fund, including Sandwell’s Tipton town centre regeneration bid. It is also why my Department has identified just over £210 million of unallocated departmental budgets that we are using to fund 16 high-quality regeneration projects, including the Tipton town centre bid, announced in today’s Budget.

We have not touched on the regeneration of brownfield sites. Does the Minister agree that, particularly in the broader west midlands and Black Country, the levelling-up fund’s use of regeneration funds for brownfield remediation and regeneration is crucial so that we can protect our green belt and build the precious homes that we all want?

As my right hon. Friend alluded to, that is outside my portfolio, but I believe passionately in regeneration and the importance of prioritising brownfield land.

The £210 million that we announced at the Budget today is part of a much wider levelling-up package, which will further level up growth across the UK and spread opportunity everywhere. Other key levelling-up announcements include greater responsibility for local leaders to grow their local economies; over £400 million for new levelling-up partnerships for the 20 areas in England most in need of levelling up; a business rate retention expansion to more areas in the next Parliament; trailblazer devolution deals for the west midlands and Greater Manchester combined authorities, which include single multi-year settlements for the next spending review, alongside a commitment to negotiate further devolution deals in England; 12 investment zones across the UK, including in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and £8.8 billion over the next five-year funding period for a second round of the city region sustainable transport settlements.

The Government are investing a lot more funding in West Bromwich, to which my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West alluded, specifically in Tipton and Wednesbury. The Black Country region benefited from over £217 million of local growth funding between 2014 and 2021. A few projects in my hon. Friend’s constituency received direct funding, including the Opus Blueprint project in Wednesbury, which received £2.5 million.

Today, funding was announced for the £20 million Tipton town centre regeneration project, which will be a huge boost to the town. I thank my hon. Friend for his work on that. Meanwhile, West Bromwich, which sits within Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, has received towns fund deals for three towns, totalling £67.5 million—£25 million for West Bromwich, £23.5 million for Smethwick and £19 million for Rowley Regis. Beyond West Bromwich, levelling-up funds have been awarded for towns fund and future high street deals in Dudley, Wolverhampton and Walsall.

We recognise the need to improve connectivity in West Bromwich and the wider Black Country, and the £54 million for the reopening of two train stations at Darlaston and Willenhall will do just that. We have also allocated £25.9 million of capital funding to the West Midlands Combined Authority, including £13.6 million towards the Dudley-Brierley Hill metro extension. We recognise the importance that it will have in enabling faster access to the wider region.

Beyond Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities funds, Historic England has partnered with Sandwell to deliver an up to £3.6 million heritage regeneration scheme in Wednesbury, which will bring funding and opportunities to a large number of local shop owners, organisations and visitors. Today, the Department announced a new partnership programme, which will work with places in England that are in need of levelling up. I am pleased to say that Sandwell is among the places we will work with. That will involve extensive local engagement, data gathering and focus groups to form a picture of a place and its challenges and opportunities. Through that process of engagement and analysis, obstacles to levelling up will be identified. That will be used to develop policy interventions to tackle those obstacles.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills talked about the trailblazer deal, and I want to spend a few moments on that, because I think it is significant. I am delighted to highlight the earlier announcement that the Government and the West Midlands Combined Authority have concluded negotiations on the trailblazer, deeper devolution deal, transferring more control and influence over the levers of economic growth and levelling up. The deal equips the Mayor and the combined authority with additional tools to realise their goal for their residents and businesses, and demonstrates levelling up in action.

For the first time outside of London, decisions about the affordable homes programme will be devolved, boosting housing supply, complemented by the devolution of £150 million for regeneration developments on brownfield land. The commitments in the deal will help to harness the commercial potential of public land in areas such as Tipton, Wednesbury, through to Brierley Hill and across the west midlands. The deal will also support wider levelling up through its business-retention and skills budget agreements.

Before I sum up, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East asked specifically about her proposal for the levelling-up fund round 2. I am afraid that, today, I cannot get into the specifics of individual bids, as she will understand, but I am happy to sit down with her and the relevant Minister.

Taken together, I believe that the policies and the political will are there to make levelling up a reality in every single part of the country, including, clearly, Tipton and Wednesbury. I want to work with Members across this House so that we can continue to press forward with this agenda. That is why I am glad to be the Minister at this debate.

The Government are committed to our levelling-up mission on local leadership, transferring more control and influence over the levers of economic growth and levelling up to local, empowered and accountable leaders, such as our Mayor Andy Street. The WMCA has also committed to greater scrutiny, including scrutiny by residents, by constituent councils, when requested, and by local MPs at regular sessions.

Together, we can transform the fortunes of places such as Tipton and Wednesbury. We can write overlooked towns and cities back into our national story, and we can shape a better, more prosperous future for our constituents across the country. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West for calling this important debate, and for all his work on behalf of his constituency.

Question put and agreed to.