Securing economic success is key to obtaining more devolved powers and controls from central government, according to West Midlands’ mayor Andy Street.
In an exclusive interview with LGC two months into the role, Mr Street has outlined ambitions to secure greater fiscal powers from government, especially as proposals to let mayors raise a levy for infrastructure projects fell by the wayside when the Local Government Finance Bill was ditched at the end of the last parliament.
Plans to improve the West Midlands’ transport infrastructure, including opening new park and ride sites and reopening rail lines, formed a major part of Mr Street’s election manifesto.
Had the Department for Communities & Local Government not been “so consumed” with the Grenfell Tower fire response, Mr Street “would’ve wanted to have had a dialogue [by now]” about the implications of the lost infrastructure levy mechanism.
Mr Street said a lot of the proposals in the manifesto could be delivered through existing financing mechanisms, such as the region’s investment fund which is worth up to £1bn over 30 years. However, he added: “But yes, it is right that we have got to rework some of that on the basis of changed situation.”
He pointed to work already underway to extend the metro system in the Black Country as proof major infrastructure projects can still go ahead as planned.
However, Mr Street said the region needed to “find new sources of funding”.
“We have got to think more laterally about how we raise finance so there will be a West Midlands finance commission in a similar way to what has been done in London,” he added.
Before the election Mr Street told LGC he was confident of securing a second devolution deal. But over the last year, since George Osborne left the Treasury, the government’s commitment to devolution has been questioned.
Mr Street said civil servants in DCLG are “utter believers in devolution” and added communities secretary Sajid Javid “absolutely is” as well.
“In terms of the rest of government, Brexit makes it more important this is done actually,” he said.
Mr Street said he was “not concerned” about a lack of commitment to devolution because “what I am absolutely sure of is the government wants to support those areas of the country that really can deliver in terms of improved performance”.
He added: “That’s what the West Midlands has done over the last four years… and that is why the government will engage with us. I don’t see this as a politics question but as a business and economics question.”
The fact the West Midlands has “such a strong economy in non-financial areas, particularly in manufacturing, gives us a real ace card”, said Mr Street.
Mr Street was elected on the back of a self-proclaimed “rebirth of a new urban Conservative agenda” and became the Tories’ posterboy. Since then a snap general election has seen Theresa May’s majority reduced and Mr Street admitted the “big surprise” to the start of his term has been the “national political context is not what we expected it to be”.
While the mayoral role is “not as different as you might think” to his former job as managing director of John Lewis, Mr Street said the “political imperative to be seen to do things” is “where it is perhaps a bit different to business”.
In his first two months as mayor Mr Street has extended the rollout of the region’s travel smartcard, set up a taskforce to tackle homelessness, and been heavily involved in the bid to bring Channel 4 to the region, among other initiatives.
He said: “The mayoralty will be judged not in the first 100 days but in 10 years’ time. Have we done things to make this a more successful and more equal region which has got a dynamic future? Those are the really big questions and are what I like to think we are spending our time on.”
Mr Street was quick to point out any success would not just be down to him. He said: “Any notion of the mayors are doing this on their own is misplaced… It just couldn’t happen without all of the councils contributing to it.”
The West Midlands Combined Authority has appointed Deborah Cadman as its first full-time chief executive. Mr Street, who said interim chief Martin Reeves had been “masterful” in his work to date, said having a chief of Ms Cadman’s calibre was “critical”.
“The single most important thing you do in any role is assemble your team, and a high class team will deliver high class results and that CEO is right at the vortex of all of this,” he said. “You need an outstanding person in that role and we have got that. The lesson of business is that the quality of people always wins through.”
Andy Street’s initial assessment of combined authorities and mayors
Earlier this month, the National Audit Office said combined authorities’ economic impact had been “mixed and inconclusive”. Mr Street was “not worried” about whether the West Midlands CA had “proved itself” and added it was still “early days” in the history of combined authorities and elected mayors. He was, however, been “really encouraged” by how mayoral terms have started off but warned it was not all about one individual. “What is the point of raising the profile of the mayor? Very little,” he said. “The point of it is to say you are the champion of the region and head up your regional team. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Mr Street said he is keen to work with other elected mayors across the country and backed the Local Government Association’s role in co-ordinating meetings between them. “Everyone felt it [the first meeting] was really purposeful so there are plans to continue that collaboration between mayors,” he said. “Everyone acknowledges everyone is in slightly different positions but equally everyone acknowledges there are common interests so we will continue to do that.”