West Midlands Mayoralty: Street Fighting Man

By Pearce Branigan

Having defied the odds in May 2017 to secure the inaugural mayoralty for the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), Andy Street can arguably be credited as the first blue fracture in the ‘red wall’ of Labour’s traditional political heartlands across the West Midlands.

Securing the mayoralty by a slim-majority of 3,766 votes, Street now faces a significant task in fending off the determined challenge from Labour’s Liam Byrne, to reclaim its former political hegemony in the region.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities across the UK will be a critical influence on their decision making come 6 May. Street himself is no stranger to the tragic effects of the pandemic, having announced in February 2021 that his mother had sadly passed from the virus. This highly personal hardship is one that many families across the West Midlands have endured over the past year, so Street is perhaps more acutely attune to the frustrations of these communities, in respect of how well they view the Government’s response to, and recovery from the pandemic, as well as the necessity for him to present himself as the region’s champion.

So who is Andy Street and what does he stand for?

Before his election to the mayoralty of the WMCA, Street served as Managing Director of John Lewis Partnership from 2007 to 2016 and as Chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership from 2011 to 2016. He has also been the lead non-executive director for the Department for Communities and Local Government, as well as a member of then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group.

He has positioned himself as a vocal advocate for the region’s interests, being unafraid to take an independent line, frequently at odds with the Conservative Government’s rhetoric, to deliver and defend the West Midlands economic, commercial and social interests.

From the outset of his re-election campaign, Street promised to build an economic powerhouse by making it the fastest growing region in the UK by 2020. He has latched on to the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda for rebalancing regional investment in the West Midlands, championing the completion of HS2 as a critical component in achieving this, as well as improving the regions connectivity, by upgrading tramways, branch lines and bus services. Commenting on the long-awaited investment in the regions transport, Street argued that “it is indisputable that in the past we have spent far too much on transport projects in the south compared to the West Midlands. The ratio is seven to one. That isn’t right.”

Street has advocated for a more liberal financial approach to regional investment and infrastructure, being one of the first major Conservative politicians to call for an end to austerity, as early as 2018. In an article published on ConHome in September 2019, he vindicated his call for austerity’s end, stating “I am heartened to see the cuts not just stopped but in some critical areas significantly reversed. While we can now invest in public services, we must also ensure that we stimulate investment, to continue to drive the growth that enables prudent spending.”

Central to the region’s economic lifeline is the automotive sector, a fact which Street has been more than willing to stress to successive governments during the tenure of his mayoralty. Drawing from his established experience in business and knowledge of the complexity of just-in-time supply chains, Street lobbied the Government to pursue a trade deal with the EU that maintained a seamless transition of goods and services, as necessary to sustain the UK’s automotive sector. Street has commented “we cannot have a tariff or a delay…we will be pressing very hard because it bloody matters here.” 

Street has fervently lobbied the Treasury to support the automotive sector in the development of electric and autonomous vehicles, arguing that “Government spending must back it”, alongside investing in a state-of-the-art ‘gigafactory’ to manufacture the next generation batteries that will power those vehicles, to be based in the West Midlands, alongside the established automotive industry presence.

Brick-by-brick

On housing and development, Street has strongly favoured the reuse of brownfield and former industrial sites to accommodate the regions’ housebuilding targets. He was critical of the findings from the Urban Capacity Review, part of the Black Country Plan, calling for the release of green belt land to accommodate future development, perceiving this as the “easy option” to pursue. In response to the report, he tweeted“I simply don’t accept this report and I will do everything I can to oppose its conclusions. We can and will find more brownfield sites to regenerate for homes and we can and will find more sites in town centres for housing.” In contrast, using funding from the Government’s £350 million Housing Deal, the WMCA has been purchasing brownfield sites across the region to be brought back into public ownership and reused as housing estates. Commenting on the abundance of brownfield sites, Street indicated that “I believe we shouldn’t have to build on any green belt here until 2031.”[sic]

He was critical of the algorithm and methodology used in the landmark Planning White Paper for allocating housing targets. Street felt that this caused greater targets to be placed on council’s with lower amounts of brownfield space to utilise, obliging them to turn to greenfield sites. Tying into his own brownfield-first approach for the West Midlands, Street urged that “We must not let developers ‘off the hook’ by allowing them to pile into greenfield sites and turn away from more challenging regeneration sites. For developers, these sites present a more lucrative and easier option. For the local community, they represent a loss of much-loved green space.”

Street has emphasised housebuilding as being central to the West Midlands economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Commenting in December on the prospects for 2021, Street was unabashed in affirming “the New Year has the potential to be a very good one for our future housing plans. We must keep up the momentum as housebuilding and brownfield land remediation will have a key part to play in our economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.”

Street has demonstrated a critical understanding of the prominent issues facing the West Midlands, particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He has been unashamed in speaking his mind to pursue, promote and defend the region’s interests, as well as an astuteness for identifying opportunities and challenges on the economic, social and political horizon. His candidacy will need to demonstrate not just that he is the best champion for the West Midlands, but that he can also offer a credible roadmap for the region’s recovery from COVID-19.