PROSPER MAGAZINE: ISSUE 01 | COVER STORY
AN INTERVIEW WITH MAYOR OF THE WEST MIDLANDS: ANDY STREET
PROSPER CATCHES UP WITH THE MAYOR OF THE WEST MIDLANDS, ANDY STREET TO DISCUSS BREXIT, REGIONAL GROWTH AND HIS FIRST TWO YEARS IN OFFICE
Andy Street is in upbeat mood. Prosper spoke to him after his two years in the role of elected Mayor of the West Midlands, and just as the region passed an economic milestone.
“We’ve performed well over the last 3-4 years,” Andy said. “If you look at data for the last period it’s all very positive. We saw a growth of 3.6%, with 38,000 jobs created in the last year.
“But crucially, if you look at the latest three-year period for which we have the data, (2014 to 2017), the West Midlands economy actually grew faster than any other region in the country - including London. That’s very significant; because, since the upturn started in 2010, London has always enjoyed the strongest performance, the West Midlands has always been second. Now we’re in number one position, which is a first!”
Andy heads up the West Midlands Combined Authority, bringing together the councils of Wolverhampton, Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall, Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull as a metro-style mayor, providing a figurehead for the region as Sadiq Khan does in London, and Andy Burnham does in Manchester.
That regional overview means that he understands the challenges facing the Black Country – but he says that even at the sub-regional level, economic signs are positive here, too.
“The Black Country has performed really well,” Andy told Prosper. “In the latest job numbers, the Black Country had the best results of the three areas of the West Midlands, and in terms of growth performance; the Black Country LEP has moved up into the top ten in the country, which is very encouraging.
“The biggest challenge we face in the Black Country has been the poor qualification levels of the workforce. There are some brilliantly skilled people here, but we’ve also had the highest proportion of people with no skills anywhere in the country – with far too many people leaving school with no qualifications.
“This has the potential of holding the area back, so one of the most encouraging things of all is the way the Black Country has made the most rapid progress in terms of reducing the proportion of people with no qualifications. There are great strides being made here in terms of the skills gap.”
In 2007, 20% of young people in the West Midlands left school with no qualifications, a figure that has been brought down to 11%. This has been achieved through lots of hard work including retraining in areas like digital and construction, and growth in modern apprenticeships – particularly in the Black Country.
“We’re seeing apprenticeships at all levels now, including degree-level apprentices, and Black Country firms are leading the way”
“That’s being helped by a unique feature in the West Midlands - the Apprenticeship Levy Transfer Scheme, which allows us to spend the unused apprenticeship levy paid by big firms more sensibly.
“This means that if you are a big company that is paying the levy but not using all of the money, rather than being left in a pot in London that money comes back to us, and we then use it to help smaller firms take on apprentices.
“The unspent levy from just two firms – HSBC and Lloyds – is paying for 800 apprentices at smaller firms. So, my plea to Prosper readers is if you’re a big apprenticeship levy-paying company and you’re not using all of it - then get in touch, because we can put it to good use!”
It is this level of business detail which appealed to voters when Andy was elected. Many politicians claim business credentials, but few can claim the commercial background that prepared Andy, who was a highly successful and respected business and civic leader before he turned to politics and his pursuit of the role as West Midlands Mayor. In thirty years working for John Lewis, he rose from trainee to Managing Director, turning the retailer into one of the nation’s best-loved brands and overseeing huge growth.
As a leader and proud West Midlander, this commercial grounding explains his business-like approach, encouraging the region’s different communities into working as a team, putting aside old local rivalries and party loyalties. He makes plans, he sets goals and enthuses those around him to join the regional renaissance that devolution has kickstarted and build on wins such as securing the City of Culture and Commonwealth games for the region.
But it also makes him a realist, and he sees two urgent clouds on the horizon for the West Midlands.
“Firstly, there is the uncertainty over HS2,” he said. “There is no question that the property sector of the West Midlands has performed really well, helped hugely by the prospect of HS2. If it does not go ahead, that would be a big risk to the property sector.
“Secondly, of course, there is uncertainty over Brexit. It is a fact that business investment in the West Midlands has been held off while people await the outcome of Brexit. Now, I’m unequivocal that we must go ahead with Brexit – the electorate voted for it, particularly in the Black Country.
“But I am also clear that a ‘no deal’ would be damaging because of our dependence on manufacturing and exports. We are the export capital of the UK, 25% of our GDP comes from the export of goods. In London, it’s just 8%.
“So, we need to get Brexit done, and honour the result of the referendum – however, the focus has to be on trying to get a deal. Let’s also be clear: while there were issues with some parts of Theresa May’s deal, it did address the West Midlands’ needs in terms of export and supply chains.
“So I would hope that, regardless of what happens with the Irish backstop and other areas of concern, the new Government will take the parts of the deal that really matter to us and continue to secure what was agreed, to enable us to export to Europe in the same easy way. It is so important to our businesses, more important here than anywhere else in the UK.”
If there is one sector that is key to the region’s economy, it’s automotive, providing tens of thousands of jobs and even more across an ecosystem of supply chains and support businesses.
“We have a recognised automotive cluster here, with the highest concentration of jobs in any region,” Andy said. “An incredible 50% of all of the UK’s automotive R&D is done within 25 miles of Birmingham. But it’s a sector facing huge change as we head towards electrification.
“The announcement last month of a major investment by JLR in electric vehicle production at their Castle Bromwich site was great news,” Andy said, “but it’s also about the electric drive units being made in Wolverhampton, and the batteries being assembled in Hams Hall.
“So, the next big thing we’ve got to do is achieve battery manufacturing here too. I want to see a Gigafactory built in the West Midlands, mass-producing the batteries for the new era. This is the outcome I’ll be battling for.
“If we can ensure that the infrastructure of the UK’s electric vehicle revolution is located here, then we’ll be able to reclaim that title of ‘Motor City’ and all the growth and innovation that comes with it.”
Improving transport infrastructure has been a central pillar of Andy’s work as Mayor, whether it’s winning the £250million needed to extend the Metro across the Black Country, or millions to reopen railway stations that last welcomed passengers in the mid-Sixties.
“Transport infrastructure is really important,” Andy said, “So that skilled people can travel to areas where jobs are being created, and so that businesses can be encouraged to open up in areas they previously couldn’t access.
“If a community is isolated by bad transport connections, it prevents social mobility and blocks people from opportunity. By winning huge investment in the Metro, the trains and the roads we are getting the region moving again.”
Andy also told Prosper that the Black Country is leading the way in the reclamation of derelict land – so-called ‘brownfield sites’ – for housing and commercial use.
“The thing I am most pleased with is we are making more progress than any other region in accelerating the number of houses being built,” he said. “So, last year we built 14,500 homes, up by 20% on the previous year, when the national average was 1%.
“The way this is happening is through the WMCA using a relatively small amount of Government money for cleaning up brownfield sites, that then become commercially viable for developers.
“Good examples would be Goscote Lane in Walsall, or Cable Street and Dixon Street in Wolverhampton and the old Friars Park site in Sandwell. But the mega one is the Phoenix 10 site, which was an icon of stagnation adjacent to the motorway, which has been cleaned up and will now come back into commercial use.
“This idea of reclaiming brownfield sites is an opportunity for the Black Country to make better use of areas that in the past have been an eyesore, while at the same time protecting our green belt. It’s also about kickstarting the construction industry in the Black Country which has always been such an important part of our economy.”
So, after two years as the region’s first elected mayor, does he feel the role has been accepted by the people of the West Midlands?
“Well, two years ago the role seemed like an experiment,” he said, “Nobody knew whether it would work or not. I hope people would say that we are beginning to make real progress.
“Despite being a very diverse region, we’re playing as a team, working together and the mayor’s job has been to be the glue that binds all that together.
“It’s still a new thing – we have had an elected mayor for two years, while London has had one for 20 – but I hope people are beginning to understand how the role can be a catalyst for change, particularly in the business community.
“But it’s not just about investment and infrastructure, it’s about leadership. As the representative of the region, I think you should have a view on every important issue and be willing to express it.
“So, for example, take the attacks on the mosques in Birmingham or the issues with the LGBT schools protests. Even though these things aren’t necessarily the regional mayor’s responsibility, you are frequently asked your view on them. I think that’s right.
“It’s also clear that West Midlands people don’t just want the mayor to be a mouthpiece of a political party, they expect your first loyalty to be the region, and that is exactly how I’ve tried to act.
“If that means challenging your own party, as I did recently on the impact of housing benefits on homelessness in the West Midlands, then so be it. That’s what my job is.”
Andy now faces re-election in May next year and is determined to carry on the work he has started. “We’re making real progress but, after 40 years of relative decline in the region, I have this sense of enormous distance still to go,” he says.
“So, in May I shall be saying ‘stick with us, the plan is working’. We can see the evidence of that, but we need at least another four years to continue building on everything that we’ve begun.”
Finally, given his lengthy business background, what advice can Andy offer Prosper readers as they navigate the uncertainty of Brexit?
“My lesson from John Lewis is that actually it’s in times of uncertainty that the best businesses can make the most decisive investments,” he said.
“There will be good value opportunities at the moment in business and, if you are prepared to take a risk, the likelihood is that you could get ahead of the market.
“At John Lewis, we did that with the move to online - we started our huge digital investment in the teeth of the 2008 crash after we sat down and said ‘there must be a new opportunity to be had here, however difficult the market is.
“So, my nudge to businesses would be in these uncertain times, identify the new areas and opportunities in the market, get behind them and exploit the moment.
“After all, it’s that spirit of innovation and invention that made the Black Country, and the West Midlands, what we are today.”
WM COMBINED AUTHORITY