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Andy Street: Skills devo 'biggest priority' despite DfE foot-dragging

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The “single biggest priority” for West Midlands CA mayor Andy Street (Con) as he heads towards his second year in office is to “deliver more” on skills devolution despite foot-dragging from the government.

In an interview with LGC, Mr Street said both he and the combined authority needed to reframe the argument for greater control over skills services and budgets.

That, along with powers over housing and transport, are the “big levers” to delivering better outcomes for residents, he said.

“We have found it hard to make progress on skills. Am I surprised by that? No, I am not. Are all areas finding this difficult? Yes,” said Mr Street.

Mayoral combined authorities had been set to take full control of 19+ adult skills budgets in 2018-19 but that has been pushed back a year. In this transitional year the Education & Skills Funding Agency will continue to manage the adult education budget nationally and calculated each area’s allocation.

Andrew Carter, Centre for Cities chief executive, said skills is “a common cause” and one which “all mayors have expressed frustration around the slow moving agenda”.

In a separate interview with LGC in February, Liverpool City Region CA mayor Steve Rotheram (Lab) said the Department for Education needs to “change its culture” if it is to achieve its aims on improving educational development in the north.

Greater Manchester CA mayor Andy Burnham also expressed concern last July about delays to the devolution of adult skills budgets.

While Mr Street said “frustrated is not quite the word” for the lack of progress on this agenda, he added: “We have not yet managed to get the Department for Education and the government to see the criticality of this but I am extremely optimistic we will in the coming year…

“We have got to revise our proposals and the way we argue them. Where we have done that well in the past they have persuaded people and they have backed us.”

Mr Street said the local industrial strategy will be “of paramount importance” on this issue even if it “sounds a bit dry”.

While Mr Street is particularly keen to gain more control over skills, he said he is “not obsessed with hard powers” and powers that enable him to convene partners and lobby the government are “far more important”.

Despite the difficulties surrounding skills devolution, Mr Street said he felt “very supported from the prime minister down”.

Since Mr Street was elected, the West Midlands has secured a second devolution deal, a housing deal, while Birmingham has been awarded the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Mr Street is perceived to have the most access to the upper echelons of the government of all his counterparts. He said: “An absolutely critical part of the mayor’s job is to be in regular dialogue with ministers.”

He said he speaks to and meets with the likes of business secretary Greg Clark and chancellor Philip Hammond “whenever I want”.

However, he said in “any relationship you don’t always get what you want” but added he is trying to make the West Midlands the “go to place” for the government but said “that takes maturity and sophistication” in the way discussions and negotiations are conducted at all levels.

It has not been pure plain-sailing for Mr Street in his first year though.

The most high-profile hiccup came in February when Mr Street was forced to defer his plans to introduce a mayoral precept following opposition from Labour leaders on the CA.

While “there have been a few little run-ins” Mr Street said “everyone has those” and added one of his biggest achievements has been maintaining “the way the West Midlands has stuck together”.

“Three years ago I doubt you would’ve had money on the West Midlands being one of the leading areas on devolution,” he said.

Mr Street said deferring the mayoral precept for a year has not meant he has had to reprioritise projects as “the money we would’ve raised from it has been effectively replaced by the money we are getting from the 100% business rates retention pilot”.

Another success has been witnessing a continued upturn in the West Midlands’ economic fortunes, although he admitted that is “not” solely down to the mayor.

He said being mayor is “an enormous privilege” and added it has been “really exhilarating” even though “not every moment is perfect”.

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