Street sets the tone with one eye on “tantalising prizes” for the region
Andy Street has been through some incarnations – as John Lewis boss, as chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, as the almost apolitical Conservative candidate for the Mayor, and now as the first Mayor of the West Midlands.
The businessman-turned-politician admits he doesn’t really feel like a politician yet, after his first 100 days in office.
“I still think I have a very business-like approach to it, he said. “Some people have said I’ve got a very managerial approach to it.
“It’s probably just in my DNA. It’s probably not changeable really.”
One thing that has changed is the speed at which he speaks, choosing his words with great care, as if wary of accidentally straying into troubled waters. He is the first interviewee where I have transcribed the interview by playing the audio back at faster than real speed.
But the speed of action inside the Mayor’s office – described by one member of his team as “relentless” – has seen Street tick off the 10 tasks he set out in his manifesto to be achieved in his first 100 days, plus the promise of a second devolution deal from the Government.
“If you said to me ‘what’s the most important thing to do in the 100 days?’ it would be make sure you lay the foundations for the next period,” said Street.
“Of course the whole dilemma here is that doesn’t sell news copy and no-one is remotely interested in it.
“If we can put in a bid for the devolution deal to win funding for far more housing development, that’s far more important than making any list in the 100 days.”
He is most proud of having created “a tone” for his mayoralty, and building on the collaborative working that has seen the West Midlands improve in recent years.
Collaboration is more important to Street than to the man he defeated in May’s election, Labour’s Sion Simon, given that only one of the seven local authorities in the West Midlands Combined Authority – Solihull – is led by Street’s Conservative Party.
He said: “I did know that the mayor moving in as a political appointment was a slightly risky thing around that teamwork piece. But I think we have navigated it well and I think that sets us in really good stead.
“A few examples of where that puts us in good stead – the most obvious is that we have got the Government to commit to a second devolution deal.
“We don’t yet know what’s going to be negotiated, the negotiation really gets started in September. It is a significant achievement given that government is obviously tricky in itself at the moment.
“Perhaps an even more practical one – the Channel 4 bid – we went off to see the board of Channel 4, other regions perhaps didn’t even get themselves invited in.
“We did it, with me leading it with the leaders of Birmingham, Solihull, Dudley and the CEO of Coventry. All of us there as a regional team, and I think that is really registering in all sorts of ways in London.”
Birmingham is involved in two races currently being run by regional cities. The first, against Liverpool, is to become the UK selection to bid for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, while a whole host of cities from around the UK are wanting to attract Channel 4, should the broadcaster choose, or be told by Government, to relocate from London.
Street described them as “tantalising prizes”, and a successful outcome in either or both would be expected to give a significant boost to the region – as well as his 2020 re-election campaign.
Although he is keen to talk about his connections – “I only talked to the Prime Minister last week,” he said at one point – he rejects the idea that being a Conservative Mayor gives Birmingham an advantage when Government is making its choices.
Street described the Commonwealth Games bidding as “a very, very tight competition” with the city up against an “impressive” bid from Liverpool.
He added: “We have got to make sure our bid is outstanding. I’m very confident that the quality of the venues, our proven ability to run big sporting events, the fact that there is regional support, the proposal for the athletes’ village is very strong, the proposal for the expo is very strong. They all count for us.
“I absolutely believe it will be a tough battle.”
While a decision will be made by the UK this autumn, and the Commonwealth Games organisers shortly afterwards, the race to become home to Channel 4 will be much longer.
As Mayor, Street has already been to Channel 4’s London headquarters to pitch the attractions of a move to the West Midlands.
He said: “I am the person that fronted this with the board of Channel 4. They have got to be persuaded.
“Then there’s also – and I think this is what you’re fishing for – there’s also an opportunity for me to have a discussion with ministers as well, both to encourage them to take the decision to relocate and then when it comes to a bid to influence that.
“I’ll be very straight with you though. I have talked to ministers about that but they have not yet made their decision as to whether they will look for a full relocation.”
He is conscious of the need to balance the attractions of the headline-grabbing announcements with the work required to deliver on his 2020 aims, which include having the fastest-growing regional economy and eliminating youth unemployment.
“I know they have to be balanced, both are required. The media certainly require both,” he said.
“If you said to me ‘what are the most important?’ I haven’t actually changed my view that the three most important things to do of all are make sure the transport investment happens – because that drives productivity – make sure jobs being created can actually be taken by people in less-connected areas, and deal with the provision of housing.”