Shortly before the financial crash in 2007, when apparently the UK was experiencing a boom period, jobs were still being lost in the West Midlands. ‘It was not a boom period here’, says Andy Street. ‘There has been a real sense among communities of missing out.’
The former John Lewis boss never thought himself a politician. He arguably now holds one of the most powerful political offices in the country as mayor of the West Midlands.
He ran as the Tory candidate in a region that is ‘not historically a Conservative area’, winning on the promise of turning around a foundered economy, upskilling the population and attracting businesses, jobs and investment.
‘Ultimately it is about results and performance. I wanted to move us from an area that has historically been a weak link in terms of outcomes to a leading region. That’s what this is all about: restoring leadership and pride in the region of the West Midlands.’
And if you ask him, the turnaround has already begun. ‘The story here is we are seeing a wonderful economic revival’, Mayor Street says, spewing a string of accolades for the region: Fastest growing, most start-ups, best for inward investment, best performing postcode, £1bn investment in Wolverhampton, Coventry City of Culture, and so on.
But beneath the surface, he says, there is a greater problem. Unemployment has been down to a ‘base level’ in the areas surrounding the conurbation, while communities in inner city areas are not benefitting from the economic success. ‘The big challenge is how we make sure the success we are seeing is shared with those communities,’ Mayor Street says. ‘There is absolutely no question the overriding issue is a lack of social mobility and that is down to the skills qualification level.
However, if Mayor Street is going to be able to make a difference here, he says he needs further help from the Government – in particular the Department for Education (DfE).
At the moment, he says regions are ‘simply implementing a centrally-led model’, which does not reflect the changing local economies around the country. ‘[The Government] cannot say the Industrial Strategy is place-based and that skills are a critical part of it and then not give the responsibility for developing that with a different approach in each area. You have got to give more authority to the locally elected representatives to develop that. Some of the national structures and controls need to change if we are to have a system that delivers.’
The combined authority mayors have publicly aired their frustrations at the DfE’s apparent lack of enthusiasm towards devolution, most notably because of the yearlong delay in devolving the adult education budget.
Mayor Street is keen to give the department credit where it is due, but says he has only had ‘limited success’. He stresses the region needs ‘further support from the DfE’, highlighting that his proposals to hand overspends on the apprenticeship levy to the combined authority was knocked back by the department.
‘One of the relationships that has to be really strong is my relationship with government departments. We, at a time when the Government has a packed agenda with Brexit, should be a natural source of delivery confidence for them. The structures are there, the delivery models are there. We have to be the natural extension whereby permanent secretaries think: “That’s where we are going to do it”.’
Asked whether he thought that was the current mindset in Whitehall, Mayor Street says: ‘It’s some and some isn’t it’ – pointing to the DfT, DWP, BEIS, DCMS, MHCLG and Treasury as departments that ‘get it’. The DfE, however, did not get a mention.
Much has been said about the Government’s waning interest in devolution. Mayor Street agreed the ‘trend towards devolution was evaporating’ but quickly clarifies: ‘The comparison has to be with how it was before 2016 when it was a philosophical move towards devolution. I think it’s much more now an outcome-based move – an emphasis on delivery.’
As such, Mayor Street says part of his role is to prove devolving powers is the right thing to do. ‘The previous model did not deliver outcomes. We underperformed the nation for decades. What we are showing now is that this new model is delivering better outcomes and I am very confident that in five years’ time, steadily we will have won more authority from Government.’
More power and responsibility, then, is on Mayor Street’s wish list.
However, he says he has ‘no desire for a Greater Manchester-style health model’, adding: ‘We are not chasing that. Certain elements we are definitely trying to step into, such as mental health. That is a good example of us taking elements of the health landscape and being really different. That is where we can add real difference and I hope there will be more of those, but I don’t believe at the moment we are going to step into the Manchester style health devolution.’
The region is looking to test ‘some form of local tax raising powers’ – largely reported as a levy on hotel rooms, which the mayor says is one option – in order to pay for the Commonwealth Games.
When pushed on what other powers Mayor Street is after, such as wider fiscal devolution, he becomes evasive, saying he does not want to ‘confuse’ the message about skills devolution. ‘I have said enough,’ he adds, refusing to elaborate.
Instead, Mayor Street stresses the importance of soft power in the mayor’s armoury. ‘I think for someone to be the focal point of the region, there is an opportunity to champion the region, to pull disparate strands together. Hard powers are one thing; the soft powers are actually where the real opportunities come from – the power to convene.’ He believes this ‘glue’ binding the myriad agencies in the region was missing beforehand.
Such convening capabilities require a certain kind of collaborative leadership, something Mayor Street believes he brings from his background in business. ‘When you are a business leader, you have to be the frontman – sometimes I call it the centre forward – for your organisation. You have to learn how to be representative and partly that’s what this job is about – championing the region.
But there is lots the private and public sectors can learn from one another, he says. The private sector offers a focus on outcomes, driving decisions out, making things happen and being competitive, he says. The public sector on the other hand is unique because it is ‘steeped in a real sense of social purpose and values’.
Mayor Street does not believe his office is a part of local government. ‘It is totally different. The whole logic of this was a new role that did different things that are appropriately done on a regional level. It is not about duplication of local government or taking some things from the centre and doing them. It’s about defining the things that are correctly done on a regional level, being big enough to be significant without being unclear in its focus.’
But while the mayor is not a part of local government, he has to be able to keep the region’s council leaders on his side.
He has already experienced some friction over his decision to try to push through a mayoral precept. In the end, under pressure, he scrapped the plans, thinking he would be missing out on several million pounds budgeted for regional infrastructure investment.
However, he says he will still be able to deliver his investment plan because of an unexpected business rates windfall – which he says came through after his decision to tear up the precept plan. If he’d known there was going to be a significant business rates uplift, he says he would still have applies for the precept.
But Mayor Street plays down the tiff with council leaders, saying ‘Team West Midlands’ would move on quickly. ‘There will constantly be political challenges,’ he says. ‘That’s the nature of things, but equally I think everybody gets the big picture.’