Dr Abigail Taylor provides an economic snapshot of the Black Country LEP area following the five foundations of the Industrial Strategy: Ideas, People, Infrastructure, Business Environment and Place.
As part of the Midlands Engine Economic Observatory work, WM REDI and the Black Country Consortium Economic Intelligence Unit developed Local Economic Partnership (LEP) level profiles. We have reviewed and updated these profiles and assessed the risks in light of Covid-19 in the State of the Region report.
The Black Country LEP area currently performs modestly on innovation indicators compared to other Midlands Engine LEPs in terms of business innovation funding secured and the value of research funding received. However, analysis by the Smart Specialisation Hub suggests it performs above average for Higher Education Spending on R&D (Smart Specialisation Hub, 2018).
Over 2m Euros worth of Horizon 2020 projects was secured between 2014 and 2018. The University of Wolverhampton provides a focal point for Black Country research, innovation and the development of ideas. The university contributes world-leading research, strong business links and state-of-the-art facilities, including:
- A large and diverse Science Park including a Technology Centre, a Creative Industries Centre and the new Science and Prototyping Centre
- The Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group, one of the UK’s leading centres for research on software methods to exploit web-based sources for social sciences research.
- The Research Institute in Healthcare Science, providing a platform for the development and promotion of healthcare science research activities.
- Brownfield Research and Innovation Centre (BRIC), developing cost-effective and sustainable solutions to brownfield developments
The Black Country has a cluster of innovative firms delivering cutting-edge solutions to everyday problems, utilising technology to drive progress. Dudley-based Westfield Technology Group is one of the UK’s leading autonomous vehicle providers. The Westfield POD, developed in partnership with Heathrow, is the UK’s first fully autonomous vehicle for first mile – last-mile transportation.
The Black Country performs very well in terms of the proportion of firms introducing new methods of work organisation. Roper and Bonner (2019) rank it 1st of 39 LEP areas for this indicator. It also performs strongly in relation to the proportion of firms collaborating for innovation.
Future opportunities to build on technological developments exist. This includes the current redevelopment of the former Springfield brewery in Wolverhampton into Europe’s largest specialist construction and built environment campus. The site is set to be home to a School of Architecture and Built Environment, a National Institute for Brownfield Land and a National Centre for Construction Excellence, providing an environment for innovation to flourish in construction. A Very Light Rail (VLR) Innovation Centre and Test Track is being developed in Dudley. This will help Dudley to revolutionise VLR technology.
A long-standing skills challenge exists in the Black Country LEP area, with too many people having no qualifications and not enough holding higher qualifications. This leads to sustained weaker employment and lower earnings. However, recent data has shown that the percentage of Black Country residents with NVQ4+ qualifications is increasing. The percentage of those with no formal qualifications fell by over 30% between 2007 and 2019 but increased by 6.4% in 2018-2019. Whilst employment and earnings in the Black Country have remained below the national and regional average, the gap has closed recently. In line with national trends, the number of apprentices has decreased. Key skills assets include:
- Black Country Colleges, who have been instrumental in providing businesses with people that have the right skills. In 2019, the creation of an Institute of Technology (IoT) was approved by the government. The new IoT will focus its provision on advanced manufacturing, modern construction methodologies and medical engineering, all of which are critical transformational sectors for the regional economy.
- The University of Wolverhampton, including the Thomas Telford UTC and a range of diverse services that underpin higher skills development in the Black Country.
- Black Country Skills Factory, brokering industry-led skills support in key sectors.
- The Elite Centre for Manufacturing Skills, a new flagship £12.4m employer-led training facility designed to improve productivity and growth in advanced manufacturing.
- The Black Country Careers Hubs.
The number of homes in the Black Country has increased substantially since 2007 and the house price to income ratio is now the lowest among the West Midlands LEP areas. The percentage of premises with Superfast Broadband and Ultrafast Broadband is higher than in Greater Birmingham and Solihull and Coventry and Warwickshire. The area has a key set of programmes and assets across the full range of infrastructure themes that underpin local strategy. Specifically, these include:
- Land, e.g. Brownfield Research and Innovation Centre, Dudley Brownfield Land programme
- Transport, e.g. Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro extension, Wolverhampton Interchange
- Housing, e.g. Black Country Garden City, Goscote Lane corridor
- Energy, e.g. Working within Energy Capital partnership in developing Energy Innovation Zones
- Environment, e.g. Black Country Blue Network, Natural Capital Roundtable
- Digital, e.g. Black Country Broadband project, 5G developments.
Various infrastructure investments and developments planned regionally provide opportunities to support economic growth. For example, the Midland Metro expansion from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill will improve regional connectedness for residents and businesses. Plans for new rail stations at Willenhall and Darlaston could similarly boost connectivity.
The Black Country business base features a mix of firms in the high-productivity “frontier” and low productivity “long tail.” Evidence indicates business stock performance in recent years has been strong with more businesses existing than ever before in the Black Country and business births growth being faster than the national average. The Black Country performs comparatively well against Coventry and Warwickshire and Greater Birmingham and Solihull for start-ups generating £1m+ turnover within three years. At £47,098 in 2019, GVA per employee is lower though than in Greater Birmingham and Solihull and Coventry and Warwickshire.
Sectors have been and continue to be a large part of strategy development in the Black Country. Through the West Midlands Local Industrial Strategy, Black Country LEP is leading on the development of four sector action plans for the region: aerospace, rail, metals & materials and construction.
The Black Country is home to distinctive ‘places’ and assets. It includes the city of Wolverhampton – and the industrial supply chains and social and geological heritage of Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall. Within these, a strategic growth network of centres and corridors have been identified by the LEP as providing a spatial focus to local ambitions. Covering 356 square kilometres and located in the heart of England, the Black Country has excellent national transport links, in particular to the M6, M5 and M54 motorways.
A unique mix of urban centres and geological heritage exists:
- Strategic urban centres have an important role to play in making the Black Country a good place in which to live, work, visit and invest. Each has a distinctive offer – e.g. the cultural and creative economy in Wolverhampton and the visitor attractions around Dudley Castle Hill.
- The emerging Black Country Geopark celebrates the area’s geological heritage and provides a boost to the tourism sector.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.
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