Many people thought Andy Street was crazy for giving up his role as managing director of John Lewis to stand for office as the first elected mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). However two years into his term, the 56-year-old who was raised in Solihull remains full of passion and enthusiasm for making a positive change across the region. Speaking to Birmingham Prestige, Andy discusses some of the major developments during his time in office such as HS2 as well as outlining why he believes this is an exciting time for the West Midlands.
Since taking office, what measures have you put into place to help attract investment, jobs, businesses and visitors to the region?
My role, and the role of the WMCA, is to first and foremost to improve lives of residents in collaboration with our partners across the region. Through new powers and cash from Government, we are heavily investing in housing, transport and skills in the region.
Our transport system is undergoing a revolution, with an improved bus, train and tram offering, while latest housing figures show we built more than 14,500 homes in 2017/18 – double the number built just five years previously.
Skills has traditionally been one of the weakest areas of the region, but we are in the process of turning that ship around. In 2004, 19% of our population had no qualifications. This is now at 11%, while at the same time the number of people with NVQ3+ qualifications has increased from 40% to more than 50%. We also have a record number of people in work.
What our improvements have done is make the region a more attractive prospect for investment – and I think the results speak for themselves. Major businesses, such as HSBC UK and Jaguar Land Rover, have either relocated or committed their future to the West Midlands, our economy is the fastest growing of any UK city or region, and more people relocated from London to our region than anywhere else in the country.
There are also the visible results. You only need to walk round cities like Birmingham and Coventry and you will see dozens of cranes in the sky.
Given your background in business, what can you tell us about the economic prospects of Birmingham and the West Midlands?
The West Midlands has everything in place to undergo a major economic renaissance, and that is exactly what it is doing. We are already the UK’s premier car manufacturer, we make up 25% of the UK’s aerospace sector, and we have the largest concentration of materials-related jobs in the UK. In the future do not be surprised to see us emerge as the global leader of state-of-the-art battery technology.
Another reason I know the region has a strong future is because we have shown ourselves to be proven winners. Working with our local government and private sector partners we have secured Coventry’s status of City of Culture in 2021, the Commonwealth Games is coming in 2022, we are the UK’s first 5G testing hub, and, through the Mayoralty, we have brought in more than £2 billion new funding since 2017.
New Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his transport advisor Andrew Gilligan have both previously been critical of HS2. What message would you give to your fellow Conservatives about the importance of the rail network to the region?
HS2 is a complete game-changer for the region, and we are already reaping the benefits. Thousands of jobs have already been created as a direct result of the project, while the promise of HS2 helped to convince HSBC UK to relocate its headquarters in the region and for many more businesses to invest further in the West Midlands.
On top of this the transport benefits are huge. As well as freeing up capacity on our full inter-city lines, the arrival of HS2 is also helping us to expand the Midland Metro tram network, bring in new rapid bus services, and introduce a revised train timetable offering more frequent evening trains. Better transport links to the north are also desperately needed and will be provided by this project.
HS2 is mission critical for the West Midlands, and I have made this point to the new Prime Minister personally.
How important will the Commonwealth Games be to showcasing Birmingham on a global stage?
The Commonwealth Games in 2022 will really help elevate our region to the next level. We are already a global player, boosted by the fact we are the only region to have a trade surplus with China and the US. We had some great exposure both during the Cricket World Cup and the start of the Ashes, and now we need to build on that for the Commonwealth Games and make sure the best of our region is showcased to the world. To get ready for the Commonwealth Games we are working on new and improved rail stations and the extension of the tram to Edgbaston. We are also supporting the creation of the Athlete’s village in Perry Barr – all improvements which will stay with residents long after the Games are over. It is important that the games leave a legacy for generations to come.
The West Midlands is very diverse, both socially and ethnically speaking. To what extent have you ensured that all people from across the region are duly represented?
One of the things that makes the West Midlands the best region in the world is its diversity, but this is not always represented, particularly at a business level. To tackle this, the West Midlands Combined Authority has launched the Inclusive Leadership Pledge. The pledge, which was formed as a result of recommendations from the WMCA-backed West Midlands Leadership Commission, asks business across the region to commit to promoting diversity and embedding inclusion. I would encourage all businesses to read and sign the pledge, which can be found by visiting www.wmca.org.uk/Pledge
What are the most important issues on your current agenda?
The two most important issues on my mind at the moment are homelessness and climate change. I pledged to tackle the former as part of my manifesto when I was elected in 2017, but so far it has proven to be extremely difficult. However, I have no intention of giving up, and I, alongside the WMCA’s homelessness task force, are redoubling our efforts to design out homelessness. We have seen some success, particularly with our Housing First programme, and so it is vital we build on that.
I have also called on the government to address the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) benefit – which forms part of Universal Credit. Due to a strong housing market and rising incomes in the region, private rents are increasing. This means that particularly those on the LHA are finding it more difficult to keep up with their rents, ultimately driving people to default and as a result get removed by landlords. The Government could end the freeze on the LHA to help those struggling to stay in their accommodation and not be forced onto the streets.
Climate change is another serious issue, and one that threatens the future for our younger generations. The WMCA declared a climate emergency in June and last month set a target of becoming carbon neutral by no later than 2041. This target is achievable, but it is going to take a lot of hard work to get it done. We are working on a plan on how we are going to achieve this target, which we hope to present to the public later this year.
Everyone is fed up of talking about it, but I cannot answer a question about important issues and not mention Brexit. No deal would be damaging to West Midlands businesses and our economy, and so it is vital that we leave the EU with a deal.
What has been your proudest achievement in office so far?
One of my proudest days was when Birmingham and the West Midlands was announced as the host of the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Everyone across the region really came together to make the case for the Commonwealth Games and it was a real win for collaborative working. It showed how we can put party politics aside and work together on what is best for the region.
Perhaps the thing I am most proud of over a longer period of time is the changes to our transport system. For decades, the West Midlands had suffered massively from under-investment, and our transport stood still. Now however, we have a state-of-the-art tram network undergoing major expansions, modern buses that are becoming cleaner and greener, and a new and improved train network that offers more frequent evening trains.
The most rewarding part of all this transport investment is that people are voting with their feet, with bus, metro and rail patronage all up over the past couple of years.