Andy Street sets out his vision for the Black Country after landing second term as Mayor

In the centre of Wolverhampton there is a large store which has the words ‘eat, drink, shop, enjoy’ emblazoned across its front.

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street has big plans for the region after being re-elected
West Midlands Mayor Andy Street has big plans for the region after being re-elected

You can’t do any of those things in the place itself, as it has stood empty since the city’s KFC shut down in October 2019.

It is one of many vacant buildings that occupy town and city centres across the Black Country, their presence a daily reminder of the demise of our high streets as bustling hives of commercial activity.

For West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, breathing new life into the traditional shopping areas across the four boroughs is a key challenge as the region bids to recover from the ravages of the pandemic.

“We’ve got to be positive about it because the brutal truth is we are not going back to exactly where we were five or 10 years ago,” says Mr Street, who was reelected in last week's election after a comfortable win over Labour.

“It’s not the end of retail, but there is no question that the value of a big department store is a lot less than it was, so you have to think about other things that will draw people in.

“I want to bring these places to life 24 hours a day.”

Mr Street says that while retail will continue to play a major role in smaller, “vibrant” centres such as Tettenhall and Halesowen, bigger town and city centres would see more housing, pointing to the homes scheme at the old Bull Street car park in West Bromwich.

There was also a place for high quality public services, he said, as well as more health facilities and local business start-up hubs, the latter of which he has committed to a network of in his manifesto.

Cultural institutions, such as Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre, can perform “that anchor function” of attracting visitors from far and wide.

“Change is coming, and we are managing through various sources to liberate cash to make a really positive future for these places, rather than looking back,” he said.

If anyone should understand how to foster that change it is Mr Street.

He took a massive pay cut when he quit as boss of John Lewis to campaign to become the region’s first Metro Mayor.

A Conservative in what was then a Labour heartland he upset the odds to win, and now four years later he’s back in office after his re-election, determined to continue what he started.

Although Birmingham-born, he has always pledged to be a Mayor for the whole region, something which he says initially involved "learning fast" about the various nuances of the Black Country, its people and its history.

“People have talked about things happening in the Black Country for years and they just haven’t happened,” Mr Street said.

Andy Street gives his speech after being re-elected.

“What people are now seeing is development and regeneration actually happening before their eyes.”

He points out that before he was Mayor the West Midlands was rock bottom of the Government’s table of capital expenditure by region.

And while all of the region missed out, the Black Country was hit hardest, with the majority of investment that did come in landing in Birmingham.

“That expenditure is now above average, and the Black Country is getting its share,” he said.

“I said from the start that I would be the Mayor for all the region and I’ve tried to live up to that. We’ve tilted investment towards the Black Country, and Dudley and Sandwell have now had more than Birmingham.”

So far Mr Street has brought £1.2 billion into the Black Country, with much of the investment spread across transport, housing, skills and regeneration projects.

He is unapologetic about his focus on transport, saying improving it was in “the first line of the job description” as a means to spur economic regeneration.

Spending on it was £38m the year before he became Mayor. Last year it increased seven fold to £277m, and he’s pledged to double it again in the new Mayoral term.

“The Black Country, in particular, has been held back by poor connectivity,” he said, recalling a tortuous journey by road he once endured from Walsall to Stourbridge.

“Everything I have ever learned tells me that if people can travel between places they can get to better jobs and improve their skills. Horizons are raised. It enables people to take part in the economic success of the region.

“I wanted to bring a step change to transport. It is important for climate change, and once the transport is right, other developments follow.”

Current projects include new railway stations and the reopening of old lines, Metro extensions and the recently launched bike share scheme.

Road still has a major role to play, he says, hailing the £24m Birchley Island upgrade as a key milestone in his plan to “end the bottlenecks” on the region’s roads.

He uses the ongoing regeneration of Dudley as an example of how transport can be a catalyst for change.

“The Metro is coming, and along its route you have the Institute of Technology, and the Very Light Rail project, as well as – potentially – the University campus,” Mr Street said.

“Then there’s the Portersfield development, bringing housing into the town.

“That is close to the model of a new town centre, but none of it would have happened had we not done the deal for the Metro back in 2017.

Andy Street shared a light moment with rival Liam Byrne.

“That has been the game changer. It was talked about for 30 years and nothing happened. It took us six months to get it going and one investment after another has followed since.”

He says the ability to strike the right deals is a required skill for any Mayor, with the position largely reliant on the amount of investment that can be brought in from central government.

A lot of the region’s funding has come from him “banging on the Chancellor’s door”, he says. His ability to forge strong relationships with Tory heavyweights – including the Prime Minister – has also helped.

But he has rarely banged the political drum, deciding before he was elected that putting the greater good before party politics was the best way to yield results for a Conservative Mayor heading a West Midlands Combined Authority featuring several Labour council leaders.

“Unlike London and Manchester, this region will always be politically balanced, Mr Street said. “We are much better when we work together and pool our resources.

“Nearly all the things we have had success with have involved cross-party working. I’m extremely proud that there isn’t a single major financial decision made by the Combined Authority that has not been agreed by everyone on the board.

“The way you get things done in business is you make the case, you get the cash for it then you go on and deliver. Yes, I’ve used my access to the Conservative government, but I’ve delivered in a way that has benefitted the region.”

He conceded that there had been “bumps along the road”, recalling his plan to scrap the Police and Crime Commissioner role – which he is still committed to – that Labour council leaders voted down.

“We have always managed to move on,” he said, “I believe that I have given that lead by being pretty non-partisan. I think the public see that as refreshing.

“They are sick and tired of politicians just doing the ‘yah boo sucks’. My view is, let’s just work together and deliver.”

He says the fruits of that collaborative effort can be seen all around the Black Country, but is the first to admit that progress – particularly in terms of jobs and green recovery – have been stunted by the pandemic.

The jobs challenge on the horizon was now “enormous”, he says, insisting that he is the right man to provide the jobs for the future.

“In three years before the pandemic 39,000 jobs were created in the Black Country and the economy was growing fast, so we were on the right track,” he says.

“Now we’re planning to create 100,000 new jobs over two years, which is faster than anything the region has ever achieved.

“In many ways we’re keeping our feet on the ground in terms of the number. We know it can be achieved because we have a proper plan in place across various sectors.

“History should give people confidence that we can deliver that.”

The target includes 7,000 green jobs, including roles retro-fitting existing homes to make them more energy efficient, and practical roles such as plumbers, double glaziers, gas engineers and electric vehicle maintenance workers.

With almost a quarter of its GDP coming from the export of goods – three times the level of London – Mr Street says the region is still very much an industrial heartland.

“We are the exporting heart of the country,” he says. “It will change in its nature and we need to nurture it going forward.”

He’s committed to building on brownfield sites and protecting the greenbelt, with more land deals to follow the one struck for the 44-acre Pheonix 10 site in Walsall, which lay idle for 20 years but is now set to be home to a £100m business park, creating more than 1,000 jobs.

In years to come the Black Country, he says, can become famous for new models of housing.

Mr Street is adamant that devolution has worked in the region, but believes more powers should be coming the Mayor’s way in the months ahead.

He wants greater financial power in the shape of a set annual budget handed over by central government – what he calls “real devolution” – and has also made a formal request for the careers service to be devolved to the region.

He also wants an affordable housing deal similar to London’s, and for the West Midlands to secure all post-16 skills funding, saying that colleges currently have “too many different paymasters”.

“I’m optimistic that government will look closely at this,” he says.

Mr Street admits he is frustrated over falling apprenticeship numbers in the region, which he says reflects underlying difficulties with the system since the levy was introduced.

He notes that the Kickstart scheme currently has around 7,000 vacancies in the region, and says he is pushing the Government for a greater subsidy levels for employers.

Mr Street has been a key figure in the region during the pandemic, running weekly briefings with other local leaders and speaking out against Government restrictions on hospitality.

He endured a testing time on a personal level, losing his mother to Covid towards the end of his mayoral campaign, but says he's keen to get back to work immediately.

He has already issued a series of pledges for his first 100 days in office.

The Mayor is due to meet the Prime Minister in the coming days and says he will be asking for "more funding to deliver our top priorities".

He wants to launch major jobs fairs in every borough over the summer to help people find new jobs and training schemes, and is preparing a campaign urging people to "get out and spend" to help retail and hospitality businesses get back on their feet after lockdown.

Mr Street says he is also committed to swift progression on his regeneration plans for town and city centres, including securing Towns Fund cash for places including Bloxwich, Dudley and Walsall.

As for why people have kept faith in him for another term as mayor, Mr Street says he hopes they see the character in him.

“I think people know I will do what I say I will do,” he says. “That’s the way I’m wired.

“The only point in doing this job is to deliver on the ground and to improve opportunities for people, and I think the evidence is there that it’s what I’ve done.

“It’s even more critical this time round given the effect the pandemic has had upon us.

“I want people to see me as the guy who was presiding over a growing economy before 2020, and who has practical plans in place to do it again.”

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