Black Country Chamber of Commerce members and local authority leaders were recently hosted by Andy Street at Wolverhampton University to discuss local business issues with Andrew Jones MP. Considering that time was of the essence during a busy visiting schedule for Minister Andrew Jones, the discussions were lively, passionate and positive, outlining the hunger of local authority and business leaders to resolve the issues facing the Black Country. The agenda focused on the following issues: skills, transport infrastructure, Brexit uncertainty, and digital infrastructure, as well as the reliability and cost of power.

With Chancellor Philip Hammond’s budget announcement being prepared for 22nd November, this was a genuine opportunity for Black Country businesses to outline their key issues. Particularly, as Andrew Jones is Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, this discussion was a fantastic way for the Black Country to voice its concerns as well as outlining its achievements ahead of such a crucial fiscal announcement.

On the issue of transport infrastructure, talks centred around Dudley, and the improved connectivity offered by the Midlands Metro extension. Present at the roundtable were intu Merry Hill and the Black Country Living Museum, two of the many businesses who would benefit from the extension of the metro link. Whilst discussing skills gaps and shortages which hamper Black Country business, it was made clear to the Minister that firms were struggling to understand, and in turn adapt to the apprenticeship levy, as well as being confused about other policy changes across the technical education landscape.

Attendees also spoke about the impact of Brexit on the Black Country. Again, it was stressed by local manufacturers that clarity was key, and the longer businesses are kept in the dark over new trade agreements and access to EU labour, the less forward-planning can be undertaken. On a positive note, around digital infrastructure, Andy Street outlined to Andrew Jones MP that the Black Country is a nationwide leader on laying digital infrastructure, having once been ranked as the lowest performing region.

Corin Crane, Chief Executive of the Black Country Chamber of Commerce, commented: “Ahead of such an important budget announcement it is great to see government commitment to Black Country businesses. It was no surprise to hear the long-standing issues continue to be priorities for businesses, including skills and poor transport infrastructure. Our local businesses are hopeful of big announcements surrounding the Midlands Metro extension and the devolution of skills budgets and the wider skills agenda.”

Andrew Lovett, Chief Executive of the Black Country Living Museum, added: “The strength of the Black Country is its ability to adapt, and the Black Country community aren’t the sort of people who look for handouts. However, we do require investment to fulfil our potential for the good of the region and the whole of the UK. Investment is a two-way transaction and we’ll all want to deliver on the faith that is put in us through the use of tax-payer’s money.”