After almost 20 years at the heart of Solihull political life, Caroline Spelman has been honoured with a Damehood.
The Conservative MP for Meriden was invested with the honorary title of ‘Dame Commander of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ – the second most senior grade of the British Orders of Chivalry – in a ceremony led by HRH The Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace.
Dame Caroline told InSolihull Magazine how honoured she is to be given the recognition and, in particular, receiving it from Prince Charles.
“I’m honoured to have been awarded this but I feel it’s an award for ‘us’ in the locality. If my constituents hadn’t returned me in five successive General Elections I wouldn’t even have been considered,” she said.
“Prince Charles gave me the award. He was very nice and said it gave him pleasure to present it to me because he knew I had worked hard on the environment; one of his passions.”
In addition to her work on environment and international development projects Dame Caroline believes strongly in ‘education-led regeneration’ and providing pathways for young people into well-paid jobs.
And with the first-ever West Midlands Mayor about to elected, the MP said skills and education should be at the top of the Mayoral ‘in-tray’.
“Mayors have constrained powers and it’s a shared responsibility with the leaders of the councils on the seven metropolitan authorities, but education and skills has to be at the top of the agenda,” she said.
“Our manufacturing industry has undergone a renaissance but is really short of the skilled labour it needs which is holding it back.
“Andy Street (Conservative candidate for West Midlands Mayor) is quite right to put this at the top of the agenda.
“It takes time to raise the aspiration and standards of youngsters coming through the education system.
“We need to have the skills that are relevant to employers today, and we’re making good progress with that here in Solihull.
“I’ve been pleased to see the attractiveness of things like the West Midlands Engineering Academy in Chelmsley Wood and how that provides young people with well-paid jobs.”
With the new Mayor comes widespread changes to West Midlands politics and Dame Caroline is delighted Solihull has been at the heart of the discussions for devolved powers from government.
“It’s Cllr Bob Sleigh, the Leader of Solihull Council, who has been in the chair and we should take some credit that one of the smallest local authorities has provided the acting chair of the West Midlands Combined Authority.
“Birmingham gave away the opportunity to act as chair because it recognises reassurance needs to be given to the other local authorities that even though Birmingham is the largest council it is not going to dictate terms,” said Dame Caroline, who wants to see equality spread across the West Midlands region.
“Each person sitting at that table has equal say and voting right so it doesn’t mean one authority is favoured over another,” she added.
“It is important we spread the benefits around the West Midlands; from the Black Country to Coventry, to make sure everybody benefits from the resources that are going to come to our region as a result of devolved power.”
One of those vast, but controversial, schemes is the multi-billion-pound HS2 rail project, which recently received Royal Assent meaning work can begin.
And Dame Caroline will know more than most the impact of HS2 as the proposed route passes through her Meriden constituency.
A new Birmingham Interchange HS2 station will be situated immediately east of the NEC and airport, bringing with it ‘pain, and then the gain’, according to the MP.
“HS2 will have a huge impact but unlike the Chilterns, for example, we will get the pain and then the gain,” she said.
“That’s the pain of construction and impact on the environment of a new railway line but we will then have the first parkway station outside London, which will act as an engine of growth.
“It is anticipated it could bring 100,000 jobs to our locality and it will make Solihull even better connected than it is today.”
After royal recognition for her two decades in local and national politics, what does Dame Caroline see as her proudest achievement?
“The most satisfying thing is solving individual surgery cases of constituents: people who have had difficult experiences and cannot get resolution
“We can’t solve them all, but we can definitely solve a significant number of these cases.
“I deal with around 1,000 cases per year, so over the past 20 years that’s a lot!
“People elect us to represent them and to fight their corner. That is the most rewarding thing.”