This week The Economist carried an article and leader column focussing on the problems of Britain’s small cities including Wolverhampton. The argument is that cities like ours, propped up in the early 2000s by Government spending, are now in terminal decline and even that future policy should be focussed on helping people leave rather than doomed regeneration efforts.
The Economist is wrong to advocate giving up on cities like Wolverhampton. That is a counsel of despair. But we also need a hard headed response to some of the other things the magazine said.
The Economist argues that a number of smaller English cities including Wolverhampton are facing economic problems not shared by their bigger neighbours. That is true. Smaller cities which were dependent on manufacturing have often struggled to find new purpose as manufacturing declined as a proportion of national income. Such cities have fewer economic pieces on the board, fewer sources of new jobs to replace the old. Perhaps that is also why there is a temptation towards nostalgia. The past where the city reverberated to the sound of huge workplaces conferring proud economic identity can seem more appealing than a difficult economic present. There may be truth in that but it is the present we live in and the future we have to shape. History gives identity and should not be forgotten, but dreams and ambitions for the future should be as important as memories of the past. A greater focus on the future is needed.
Where the Economist is mistaken is to underestimate the degree of economic strength that still exists in Wolverhampton. The huge Jaguar Land Rover investment is mentioned in their article but its importance is underplayed. A £500m investment creating 1,400 new jobs and thousands more in the supply chain is not marginal. It is one of the biggest manufacturing investments in recent UK history. And it is happening right on our doorstep. It could be a massive boost for the city if we make the most of it.
Another strength is the city’s aerospace cluster, giving us an important place in a sector expected to grow internationally in the coming years. As the global middle class grows, and more people want to fly, more planes will be built. And crucial components for them are made in our city. Aerospace wasn’t even mentioned by the Economist.
The Economist points to the high unemployment rate in Wolverhampton and other cities. My constituency is consistently among the top 20 in the UK for unemployment. And it is also high in the league where people have no qualifications. 22% of the people in Wolverhampton have no qualifications against a national average of 9%. Education and employment are related. Central to any place’s ability to adapt to economic change is an ambition to have the highest educational standards possible, to let nothing stand in the way of giving local young people the best possible chance. The truth is our local school results have not always been good enough. There are some excellent schools and they deserve praise but there have also been too many running below national average results for year after year. And sometimes when this has been pointed out the reaction has been to defend the results rather than see them as a spur to do better. A passion for educational achievement is essential for the future of the city. Pointing out where it doesn’t exist or isn’t delivering is not disloyal – it is essential to spreading opportunity and enhancing social mobility.
So how should we respond to the picture painted by the Economist? Not by saying everything in the garden is rosy but instead with a resolve to do everything we can to meet the challenges.