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Budget | Midlands Engine strategy unveiled

curzon hs2
  • Midlands Engine strategy launched with extra cash for roads in the region
  • Midlands Engine will support region to maximise benefits of HS2
  • Money UK wide to relieve roads pinch points
  • Extra cash to develop robotics and AI for use in energy
  • T-levels to streamline engineering qualifications

Chancellor Philip Hammond has today announced the Midlands Engine Strategy, aiming to give the region a similar uplift to that given to the Northern Powerhouse.

It includes funding worth £17M which will help develop proposals in the strategy, also launched today, of regional transport body Midlands Connect.  The new funding is on top of significant transport developments already in the pipeline including High Speed 2 (HS2).

Some of the money is to support the High Speed 2 (HS2) development. This includes £250,000 for a West Midlands Integrated Command Hub which will help manage local transport to minimise disruption during the construction of HS2, while managing the network in general. Smart ticketing will be rolled out across the region by 2018 and the government and local authorities have pledged to maximise the benefits of the Curzon Street, Birmingham Interchange and Toton HS2 stations.

Yesterday Hammond used his Spring Budget to announce that the Local Growth Fund will be used to make further transport upgrades in the Midlands. There will be a focus on improving east to west connections. The funding includes £25M for transport upgrades in Coventry and Warwickshire, £12M to upgrade transport connections around Loughborough, including the A512 and improvements to Junction 23 of the M1.

Another £25M will go to the Black Country to tackle congestion and reduce journey times on key routes. The A38 at Bromsgrove will get £7.5M for an upgrade. Other cash includes £10M to improve University Station in Birmingham, £8.5M for a first phase of improvements to the Hanley-Bentilee link road in Stoke and Staffordshire, and there is £5M for development of the Pershore Northern Link Road in Worcestershire.

Hammond said: ”The Midlands Engine Strategy is an important milestone, setting out the concrete actions we are taking, where we are not only investing in what it does well but also tackling some of the long standing productivity barriers in the region including skills and connectivity.”

As well as support for the Midlands, the chancellor also made several other Budget announcements which will affect the civil engineering sector.

Transport

Following the £23bn for the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) announced in the autumn, the Spring Budget gave a breakdown of where that money will go.

A £220M fund for national road pinch-points was broken down by region, with £90M going to the North as well as the £23M to the Midlands.

A further £690M was announced for local authorities to tackle urban congestion. This will be competitively allocated by central government. Of that, £490M will be available by early autumn.

Meanwhile in a Memorandum of Understanding on further London devolution, it was announced that the Greater London Authority will commission an independent study with Transport for London to identify the key causes of increased road congestion in central London over the last five years. It will focus on bottlenecks in particular, and will identify ways to improve journey times.

Innovation and technology

Outlining the importance of staying ahead of the technology curve post-Brexit, the chancellor announced £270M for a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) to “keep the UK at the forefront of disruptive technologies like biotech, robotic systems and driverless vehicles”.

Artificial intelligence and robotic technologies which can work in extreme and dangerous conditions will be top of the list. These have with potential uses in off-shore energy, nuclear energy, space and deep mining.

The ISCF will also fund battery research to develop electric vehicles, helping to cut pollution.

Around £740M of funding will go to digital infrastructure, including a new National 5G Innovation Network with £16M for a cutting edge 5G technology hub. Access to 5G on Britain’s railways and roads will be developed.

A further £300M will go to funding for talented researchers, including £90M to fund 1,000 PhDs and fellowships focusing mostly on science, technology, engineering and maths subjects.

T-levels and schools

With the government keen to make sure the nation’s skills are up to scratch ahead of Brexit, the eye-catching education announcement was the introduction of T-levels.

These qualifications will be the technical equivalent to A Levels when they are rolled out from 2019-2020. Just 15 standardised courses will replace around 13,000 qualifications, reducing confusion and making technical standards more robust.

Following recommendations from a panel on technical education headed by Lord Sainsbury, students will take two-year courses which will include more than 50% more teaching time, up to 900 teaching hours per year. The first year will cover a core curriculum, with the second year dedicated to a specialism.

Students will also be required to take a three month work placement to make sure they have the right skills for work once they complete the course.

Once the courses are up and running in 2020 the government will provide an extra £500M of funding each year.

Hammond also announced the establishment 110 new free schools which will include specialist maths schools. There will also be another £216M in maintenance investment for existing schools.

Industry reactions

While T-levels and transport funding were welcomed, there was concern about Brexit uncertainty in the months and years ahead.

“Productivity and prudence as expected. With uncertainty over Brexit we were never expecting a spending splurge but we did get some quick wins in technology and local transport improvements,” said WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff UK head of infrastructure planning Adrian Hames.

“However, we can’t afford to lose sight of infrastructure’s longer term importance in boosting productivity by connecting to new schools, to the digital economy and crucially to spurring the housing market in a period of increased uncertainty. The pressure has been put back on the industry to make this case in the housing and industrial strategy papers.”

Aecom director and head of government and public John Hicks highlighted the Brexit influence on the Budget, along with the role played by the private sector in developing T-levels.

“Brexit clearly influenced many of the measures outlined by the chancellor today, which were peppered with announcements designed to offset any potential consequences of a hard exit from the EU,” he said.

“One such measure is the focus on technical education and the introduction of T-Levels to address the productivity gap between the UK and our international competitors. This may help to insure against potential difficulties in accessing skilled labour from within Europe in the future. The private sector will have a vital role to play in the successful development of these qualifications and ensuring they reflect industry need.”

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