In today’s debate on coal, we need to look not just at the substance itself, but at the economic and social factors that surround coal for the communities that have relied on it in the past and the potential we need to unleash as we go through this transition now. That is key to the comments we have heard today. The Black Country has a rich history of coal. At our peak, we had 441 pits, 181 blast furnaces, 189 works, 79 rolling mills and 1,500 puddling furnaces, all linked to coal. We have a proud industrial history. Our flag, designed in 2012 by Gracie Sheppard, reflects that and reflects the comments of the American diplomat Elihu Burrit that the Black Country is
“black by day and red by night”.
I am proud to wear this band here every day to remind me of the communities I was sent to here to serve and that interlink together in that history and in that fight.
Our last pit closed in 1968 and since then industrial decline has hit my communities in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton the hardest. The Black Country employs about 500,00 people, but since 1970 we have lost about 200,000 jobs in heavy industry, particularly since the decline of our coal industry. We have seen an additional 95,000 jobs created, but that still leaves us with a net shortfall of some 100,000 jobs in our area. That is where the potential of the transition comes in for areas such as mine. We have a real opportunity to ensure that as we come through and start to look at transitioning to net zero and being as carbon neutral as we can be we, areas such as the Black Country and my local communities can benefit. For example, we can ensure that our output gap, which currently stands at £2.6 billion, is closed. We can make sure that the unemployment rates, skills rate and low rates of starting businesses are all bridged by utilising the opportunities presented.
I wish clearly to make this point: as we go through this, the midlands is its own area and cannot be pigeonholed into other areas. We have our own socioeconomic issues. I stand in solidarity with my colleagues from other areas, but we need to be sure that as we seize these opportunities we focus them down. Let me say: wim the Black Country, we are not Birmingham. As we take advantage of this, that needs to be understood as well, because we cannot be pigeonholed as we look at seizing these opportunities.
I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a £1 billion carbon capture and storage infrastructure fund, which will be crucial as we ensure that we take advantage of coal during the transition. This is about ensuring we can invest in low-carbon energy production, but, as right hon. and hon. Members have said today, that links to ensuring that the coal we still have here, which is not just going to be eradicated, is utilised. We have still got to ensure that the technology is there to be used in a way that aligns with our ambitions.
The midlands and the Black Country are ready for that challenge as we go through that transition. We have the universities in the area that specialise in green technology and green innovation. We have a fantastic Mayor in Andy Street who is passionate about ensuring that we get this right. We have companies such as Thomas Dudley in Tipton, which I know the Minister has had roundtables with, that are equally passionate about this. We have an energy waste plant in Dudley that is using exactly this type of technology to ensure that can use coal cleanly and focus on our carbon dioxide storage capability. In closing, let me say that we have the economic appetite, skills base, technology and drive. The challenge is there and the Black Country is ready to meet it.