News Reporter Robbie Sweeten interviews Andy Street, the Conservative Party candidate for Mayor of the West Midlands
He is the incumbent mayor, having won a close-run race in 2017. Before entering politics, Street enjoyed a long career at John Lewis, ultimately serving as the partnership’s managing director between 2007 and 2016
The first question Redbrick put to the mayor centred on why he was running for a second term. He answered: ‘because the job is far from done.’
‘When I gave up my job in John Lewis nearly five years ago now, I said I was doing that in order to improve the lot for citizens and residents across the West Midlands. Lots has been achieved in four years, but then, of course, you had this horrible setback from the pandemic. So really, in a sense, it’s got to be done again.’
Turning next to students, Street was asked why this demographic should vote for him. ‘I think probably the single most important thing for students in the future is about having a good job, and whether they can fulfil their careers and dreams here’, he responded, before outlining the centrality of students to his post-pandemic recovery plan.
He continued: ‘Birmingham itself has welcomed 34,000 new jobs in the past three years in some of the sectors that your students [from the University of Birmingham] are particularly attuned to.’
‘But going forward now after the hit, the real question is who is going to deliver the jobs of the future. We’ve talked about 100,000 jobs in just two years – so that would easily be the most rapid expansion of jobs in the region. It’s in some of the areas where I think university students will make a great contribution.’
Emphasising the importance of ‘new green jobs’, he notes that the electrification of rail and the automotive industry – as well as HS2 – will all provide tens of thousands of new, local and sustainable roles. Street also points to opportunities within the construction sector, adding that he has a commitment to build 215,000 new homes by 2031.
Street then went on to highlight the extensive connections he has forged over the past four years with universities all over the region, saying: ‘we have actively worked with each of our universities on each of the big sectors where we succeed.’
‘If you look at the automotive industry, we work hand-in-glove with Warwick University. If you look at the creative sector, we work hand-in-glove with Birmingham City University. If you look at the whole life sciences medical, that’s Birmingham’s [University of Birmingham] real strength. If you look at energy, that’s Aston.’
‘If you look at what we did in Wolverhampton around Brownfield Redevelopment; a new faculty that’s come there. So what we’ve actually done is partnered with the universities for each of the strengths of our economies.’
Already touched upon in his answers, Redbrick probed further into the mayor’s post-pandemic recovery plan. Also ‘critical’ to this is a retraining scheme – or ‘boot camps’, as he calls them.
‘Some of the sectors that have been most hit are unlikely to come back in quite the same strength – take retail. So what we’re absolutely committed to is retraining people on a mass undertaking for jobs in new sectors, which are far more viable and likely to earn more than the jobs they might have been in before.’
Street went on to give examples where his retraining programmes have already yielded success, such as workers from retail being retrained for the digital sector. Moreover, he was keen to highlight the importance of the region’s 21 colleges to the scheme.
Each college, he said, has ‘chosen a sector-speciality where there will be new opportunities. A couple of really good examples include Wolverhampton, where we’re working with them on training up electric vehicle mechanics for the future. And the whole issue of ‘retro-fitting’ homes to make them more energy efficient, we’re working with Dudley College on that. It’s a very unsexy title, but we call these “sector-based academies”.’
On the issue of climate change, Street was asked how his economic and environmental plans can create a greener, more sustainable West Midlands going forward.
Discussing the existing #WM2041 plan, he outlined three ‘clear areas’ of CO2 emissions that ‘have to be dealt with’ – those from transport, industry and domestic sources.
On transport, Street said that already £1 billion of investment has been secured for green solutions – including in extending the metro, reopening railway lines, introducing rapid bus routes, and increasing the provisions for walking and cycling.
Regarding industry, the construction of the Gigafactory will be imperative. However, Street also outlined how existing industrial operations have already become greener. ‘There’s the work we’re doing in the Black Country,’ he continues, citing the ‘microgeneration of energy on-site [which occurs there] to make businesses sustainable.’
In terms of cutting domestic usage, Street is undertaking a ‘retro-fit revolution’ to reduce the carbon-footprint of older, less energy-efficient homes.
‘That’s everything from the practical things, like double-glazing, insulation, heat pumps. But also it’s about new forms of heating, whether it be hydrogen supplied through the gas system.’
Furthermore, Street promised that he will soon announce a partnership to provide zero-carbon homes. He also plans to continue the work of preserving the green belt, which he has been committed to for the past four years.
Next on the agenda was the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games. With regard to the Games’ legacy, the mayor noted that physical structures – such as the world-class athletics stadium and swimming facilities – will remain after the Games. He insisted that ‘we wouldn’t have those without the Games.’ There will also be improved public transport – including the new Perry Barr and University train stations.
In addition, a business promotion campaign for the region – called ‘The Road to Birmingham’ – will follow the Games. To be launched at the Dubai World Expo and funded especially by the government, ‘there’s no way we would have got this without the Commonwealth Games’, Street emphasised.
‘This will win contracts for West Midlands businesses – that’s a wonderful long-term legacy.’
On the jobs and skills front, Street’s aforementioned retraining programmes will be in full flow, helping to provide around 6,000 new jobs for the Games and afterwards too. These include event management, sports coaching, advanced hospitality – skills that Street assures will be useful long after the Games have passed.
‘And we’re also trying to give all our volunteers a basic skill and qualification, which London  did not do.’
In terms of local participation, Street is hopeful ‘that lots of our local clubs will host teams and get income from that [and that] we’ll see a much greater uptake of grass root sport and people will be fitter and more active as a result.’
‘But of course I haven’t mentioned the pride, the esteem and promotion of Birmingham and the region around the world. And that will be so, so special next year.’
Redbrick also asked Street about the economic inequalities which have plagued the West Midlands under his tenure as mayor, and specifically, why ethnic minority groups should trust and vote for him. He answered: ‘I’ve been 100% honest in calling it out.’
‘Traditional politicians, which I am not of course, I am a business person first and foremost, politician second, would in some way try to push it away, not acknowledge it.’
Street mentioned the Combined Authority’s Health of the Region Report, which he says contains a ‘brutally honest assessment of the inequalities that lay between the different health outcomes, and we called out the economic inequalities that contribute to that.’
‘If we’re 100% honest, it was far more brutal than the national report’, he continued, before adding that ‘we will now lean into’ the causes.
‘This is hard. Some of these things have taken 50 years to develop, and – whilst it’s not going to take 50 years – it’s going to take a really concentrated effort to turn it round. But, I have been the person to call it out in a completely straightforward way and to say, we will now lean into this.’
In a follow-up question on how Street seeks to address some of the existing economic inequalities, he insisted work has already started to this end.
‘If you look at the ‘Adult Education Budget’, it is actively focused on BME communities because that is an area where in some BME communities, particularly Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, the achievement is lower.’
‘If you look at some of our retraining schemes, we particularly make sure that some of the agencies we work with have a dedicated focus on BME communities. If you look at, say, our digital retraining, we’ve got groups that work just with black women, for example, because they don’t naturally have outcomes in those areas.’
To finish the interview, the mayor was asked how he would like to be remembered, regardless of whether or not he is re-elected.
‘I hope I’d be remembered as someone who did the job in a very non-partisan way. That’s particularly important to me. I don’t think this job is about representing one political party here, it’s about representing all the people of the West Midlands.’
‘But there’s another thing I hope I’m remembered for – that the region started to win again. Yes, we’ve got these economic challenges, but if we had been having this debate 12 months ago, we’d have said we won city of culture; we won the Commonwealth Games; we persuaded the government to invest in HS2; we got this 5G Testbed – which is so important for technology; we got government departments relocated here; we’ve increased our investment in transport seven times over; and we’ve done all the housing numbers. We began to win again.’
‘We lost that confidence that we could win. And what I hope I’ve done is actually given this place a bit of self-belief and confidence that it will win again. We now expect to win. And that’s something that will leave benefits for years to come.’
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