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I totally agree with the Foreign Secretary that today—at this moment—we are presented with a massive opportunity to create a new form of global Britain. I particularly agree with his points about Britain’s soft power. Just to clarify the point about the British Council, the figures actually show that there will be a 43% rise in FCO funding by 2020, reflecting the seriousness with which we take the opportunities for Britain’s soft power.
The opportunities for global Britain are of particular importance to my constituents and to people in the Black country part of the west midlands. The announcement of the midlands engine strategy in the Budget is a significant moment for the people of the Black country. The Budget sets aside £55 million of new investment for the area, building on the significant investment made in the previous Parliament when, through the city deals, £1 million was invested in an advanced science, technology and engineering centre at Halesowen College. Significant progress has already been made in investment in the Black country, and the area is one of the UK’s fastest growing sub-regions, with more jobs and better skills, but we need to do more.
As we build the global Britain that the Foreign Secretary talked about, areas such as the Black country face five key challenges. The first is skills. Even though the number of young people not in education or training in the Black country is below the national average—we have made significant progress—skills gaps still exist in the area that I represent. I welcome the £7 million of new capital investment for further education that was announced in the Budget as part of the midlands engine strategy, but more is needed for investment in technical skills and to tackle historical levels of educational underperformance in the Black country and the wider west midlands. Skills gaps hold the Black country back as we seek to develop this global Britain.
The second challenge is transport and infrastructure, where historical under-investment is also holding the west midlands back. I welcome the announcement of £25 million to tackle congestion as part of the midlands engine, and we need a longer-term focus on the potential benefits of HS2, the development of Birmingham airport, and our rail and road network across the Black country and the west midlands.
The third big challenge addressed in the Budget, and one that we need to consider in the long term, is innovation rates. The Black country is becoming a world leader in, for example, the automotive, aerospace and advanced manufacturing sectors, with products such as Bugatti brakes and even the chairs used on “Match of the Day” being produced in the area, which is developing a worldwide reputation for design and product manufacturing.
The fourth challenge, which is a cumulative impact of the others, is relatively low productivity. It is a puzzle that we are yet to solve, and we need to tackle it by approaching it from all angles: improving skills, improving education at primary and secondary levels, and investing in transport infrastructure and the wider social realm.
The fifth challenge for the Black country is exporting, inward investment, and the potential opportunities of Brexit. With a 49% increase in exports since 2010, the west midlands’ export performance has been excellent in recent times and better than many other UK regions. We must be positive about the future and position the west midlands front and centre in our global trade plans to take advantage of the opportunities presented by Brexit. That is why I welcome, as part of the midlands engine strategy, the move towards the creation of a midlands trade and investment programme to develop markets to which the west midlands does not currently export. It has a good record in China and the United States, but we have the opportunity to open up and exploit new markets in many other countries.