There are not many who work in Whitehall and the upper echelons of the Treasury who then decide to further their careers in local government. There are even fewer who do that by moving to the north-east, but that is exactly what Andrew Lewis has done.
Now managing director of the Tees Valley CA, Mr Lewis sees himself as a “radical” who is attempting to push the boundaries of public sector working through devolution.
Since Ben Houchen created, in the Conservative candidate’s own words, a “political earthquake” by winning last May’s mayoral election in a historically Labour-dominated area, the Tees Valley has risen from relative obscurity to political prominence – namechecks in the chancellor’s Budget and the business secretary’s industrial strategy are evidence of that.
Andrew Lewis: From the Treasury to Tees Valley ‘radical’
“I have always worked in areas where there is a high level of complexity and detail, but also where there is also a high level of political interest,” said Mr Lewis, who joined Tees Valley CA in July 2016.
“The focus of my career has been to bring those together and to have a good oversight of the detail that’s required in order to deliver these very technical challenges, but to do that in a way that relates to political leaders and works with them constructively to produce radical ideas.
“We have a great opportunity in the creation of the combined authority to do things differently, to change the local culture and the culture with government and I see my role as pushing those boundaries as far as we can go.”
Twenty-seven years ago Mr Lewis joined the Treasury and rose through the ranks to become a senior economist specialising in tax policy, international economics, financial regulation and employment policy.
Although he left the Treasury in 2004, Mr Lewis believes that experience has stood him, and the combined authority, in good stead.
“It’s always helpful to have people who have a good understanding of both local and central government and can bridge that divide, which can often feel like quite a substantial divide,” he said.
“There aren’t many of us who have worked at a senior level in central government and have then come out into the regions, particularly places like the north-east, and then build their career. But when that happens you’ve got a unique opportunity to see these issues from both sides of the fence – that allows us to win more arguments.”
Mr Lewis said negotiating devolution deals epitomised that as the locally developed proposals cannot be an “unachievable wish list”. He said: “The proposals need to be ambitious and pushing the boundaries but you also need to judge tactically what the right proposition is at the right time in order to unblock the Whitehall machine.
“Having people working in combined authorities who have a good understanding of central government is critical to being able to judge that correctly.”
In 2016, Centre for Cities described the Tees Valley as the “dark horse of devolution”. Since then it has built on its devolution deal and the prime minister launched the first mayoral development corporation outside of London on the former SSI steelworks site. That subsequently received £123m in the Budget.
Mr Lewis said: “That is probably one of the most radical regeneration programmes anywhere in the country at the moment and it’s dependent on the delivery of local leaders and not central government.”
However, Mr Lewis said the “big changes are ahead of us”. He added: “For the past 18 months we have spent a lot of time getting the basics right – the constitution, the investment plan, building partnerships, and ensuring the smooth election of the mayor. Having done that now we need to focus on exploiting that tremendous platform we have got to deliver some really radical changes.”
Prior to joining the Tees Valley, Mr Lewis was Newcastle City Council’s assistant chief executive.
He said working for a council is “good preparation” for making the step up into a more strategic role but added it is different with a requirement to be “immersed” in forging local partnerships.
“It’s not just part of the job, it is the job,” said Mr Lewis. “The whole point of a combined authority is you’re bringing together different organisations, public and private, around a common objective. People will only buy into that if they are a part of the creation of that strategy and feel they are securing a benefit themselves, and have a role in delivering it for the wider area.”
Mr Lewis said he was “very enthusiastic about the combined authority model” but added: “It’s probably not a model that works everywhere in the country and shouldn’t be imposed on a one-size-fits-all basis. But to have a statutory basis for local leadership to deliver economic development over a long period with the consistency and flexibility of finance and the scope for innovation is a very exciting place to be. I would encourage others thinking of going down that road to see this as a great opportunity.”