[To receive a presentation on themes and priorities for the City of Wolverhampton Town Fund.]
Rhian Davitt-Jones, CBRE delivered the Town Investment Plan Update presentation and highlighted salient points. The presentation provided an outline of the outcomes of discussions that had taken place with Board members and the themes and priorities that had been identified. It was noted that CBRE had undertaken a high-level appraisal of the Council’s project pipeline and made suggestions on where these existing projects might align with the Boards priorities.
It was noted that through engagement with Board Members, CBRE had compiled a list of challenges for Wolverhampton. Key challenges included negative external perceptions of the City and it was noted that work could be done to positively raise its profile, addressing the skills profile, increasing job and economic growth opportunities and realising opportunities presented by redeveloping existing vacant assets.
A map of the City highlighted areas of deprivation and unemployment and it was noted that work would be undertaken to ‘level up.’ The voice of the young people of Wolverhampton was also highlighted as a significant consideration.
It was noted that five themes had emerged and were identified as Enhancing Connectivity, Improving Vibrancy and Footfall, Changing Perceptions, Employment and Skills and Addressing Blight (unsightly buildings/land).
A number of projects had been identified under each of these themes and the Board were invited to agree the themes and the priorities moving forward. Once agreed, it was recommended that thematic focus groups be initiated to drive these projects forward.
It was noted that a number of mental health issues had arisen during the pandemic as a result of actual job losses, fear of job loss and concerns around businesses closing and a suggestion was put forward to establish a Social Enterprise Centre as a hub to support local businesses.
In response to a query around external consultations, it was reported that there had been consultations including the promotion of a campaign entitled ‘My Town’ where residents could join the conversation on social media platforms by making suggestions on how to improve their City. It was noted that the opportunity for consultation with residents and businesses was key.
Thanks were given for the breakdown of the £4.4bn that had been shared with Board members via email as requested at the last meeting. It was suggested that the Board consider whether any gaps or any shortfalls in funding had been identified. It was agreed that changing perceptions of Wolverhampton was a key element. It was clarified that the funding eligibility funding was primarily for capital expenditure; some of the projects identified were revenue projects but were noted for their importance in addressing the skills and employment gap in the City.
A query was raised in relation to the impact of the projects listed and if an evaluation had been carried out. It was echoed that the ‘Employment and Skills’ area was an area to focus on, including apprenticeships. It was noted that any providers of apprenticeship schemes had been delivering them remotely. There had been a reported deficit in essential skills such as maths, English and ICT and it was suggested that this deficit be addressed in an impactful way.
It was suggested to work towards aligning activity at a Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and combined authority level and that skills could be addressed as a region; it could be explored how the Town Deal Board could maximise this.
It was noted that challenges lay ahead in the impact of COVID-19 on the changing high street and examining what would drive consumer behaviour in the future. It was suggested that the full economic impact of the pandemic would not become apparent immediately and it was important to carefully evaluate the effects over time.
It was considered whether the private sector investment propositions may be affected by the effects of COVID-19 however it was agreed that it would be appropriate to proceed cautiously before any final decisions were reached.
It was suggested that the number of different projects be kept to a minimum to ensure focus was maintained, particularly in the Educations and Skills area which was emerging as an agreed area of focus. It was suggested that this theme be incorporated into capital projects to demonstrate that the funding has made a difference. It was also agreed that there was no quick resolution to the skills challenges particularly as additional short-term unemployment issues had been caused as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was noted that work was being undertaken at LEP and Combined Authority levels to access funding and it was suggested that updates on this work could be brought into the Board meetings.
Mal Cowgill, City of Wolverhampton College reported that, despite the pandemic, City of Wolverhampton College students had maintained engagement with their studies using virtual platforms, which was encouraging. It was also reported that interest in apprenticeships for 16-18-year olds had not waned and 454 applications had been received since 23 March 2020, however there was a short-term shortage of employers available. Mal Cowgill followed this up by offering the support of the College to the City of Wolverhampton Town Deal Board.
It was queried whether there would be any monetary advantage in Wolverhampton being amongst the first tranche of Town Investment Plan (TIP) applications. It was clarified that there would not and emphasis was placed on ensuring investment plans were robust, structured and evidence-based.
In addition, the effects of COVID-19 had altered the economic climate and the application guidance would need to be updated to require the inclusion of economic recovery strategies to investment plans. It was equally noted that there would be no disadvantage in waiting, although Ministers had been keen for the first cohort to come together quickly to provide proof of concept.
The point was raised that the concept had been launched in Wolverhampton and it may be beneficial that the flagship City was amongst the first cohort of applicants. It was suggested that a small number of the projects could be considered in the first round and others added later.
That the themes of Enhancing Connectivity, Improving Vibrancy and Footfall, Changing Perceptions, Employment and Skills and Addressing Blight (buildings/land) and associated priorities be approved to form the basis of the Town Investment Plan.