A government pledge to give more money and powers to the West Midlands is a sure sign of success for the region – so says mayor Andy Street as he marks first 100 days in office.
The former John Lewis boss, who became the West Midlands’ first ever elected mayor in May, says he has laid the foundations to bring some major improvements to the housing, transport and economy of the West Midlands over the next three years.
And key was being the first city region to secure government agreement for a second devolution deal with the promise of more power and more funding to be handed down from Westminster. The first deal in 2015 was worth £1.1 billion over 30 years.
Since the departure of George Osborne as chancellor last summer, there has been less of an ideological drive towards the devolution agenda and projects like the Northern Powerhouse have been placed firmly on the back power.
But Conservative Mr Street says that the government is now being pragmatic and recognises he and his combined authority colleagues – crucially the seven local councils – are doing a good job.“Nobody asked us to present a second devolution application.
I just went down there after the election and the government has responded as we wanted. They understand that as a region we’ve got our act together, our economy is growing pretty fast and we can deliver.”
The West Midlands is asking for direct control of the £100 million skills budget and more powers to develop housing on unused land. There are also bids in for major transport investment in rail, roads and tram lines.
“We don’t know what the negotiations will lead to, but they will be concluded by the budget [in November]. I’m feeling really optimistic that we’ve got our foot in the door when others appear not to have done so.
”During the campaign he had billed himself as the businessman who would work with the Conservative government to secure the best deal. It is remarkable that given the poor election result for the Tories and the distraction of forming a coalition and negotiating Brexit while dealing with a series of terror attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire, that this devolution deal is being done.
Otherwise it has been a steady, if unspectacular, start for the new mayor.
Mr Street has been busy manoeuvring his own staff into place including chief executive Deborah Cadman who starts next month and the transport director Anne Shaw, who will be responsible for tackling traffic congestion.
He is still yet to announce directors to run the skills and housing agendas.
He has no problem increasing the wage bill at this stage as those people will need to produce business cases and secure funding and investment for the region . “I’m more than happy for this to be examined in years to come to say has it paid for itself many times over,” Mr Street said.
But in his manifesto he helpfully set up ten goals for his first 100 days and argues he has achieved all of them.“We made ten commitments – I like to think that by August 13, and this may sound indulgent, we will have got ten out of ten,” he said.
The final one, this Thursday, August 10, will see Brexit minister Robin Walker take part in a mini-summit with local business leaders at the Aston University Business School.
Some of the points were quite simple to achieve – he has held two public “Ask Andy” question time events in Coventry and Walsall, announced a mayor’s community charity weekend for 2018, organised a summit with faith leaders for November to discuss community integration, and agreed action plans on transport, housing and jobs.
He has also met with Prime Minister Theresa May to discuss further devolution, led a trade delegation to Canada and confirmed the investment in traffic congestion measures announced last week.
He also managed to recruit more than 1,000 potential “mayor’s mentors” who will be matched with aspiring young people to support them in their careers.
This was all very doable and the real test will be driving major change.He has also inherited a major extension of the tram network through Centenary Square and Broad Street, Eastside and Wolverhampton, and has now submitted a bid for a Brierley Hill extension.
“I know what I said on that. It will either be on my political tombstone or my re-election address,” joked Mr Street.
He added: “We’ve got to pin network rail down on this. It’s in the plans everyone is supportive.”He said the critical part is the development of what is now the West Midlands Rail Hub around the Camp Hill Chords to link the Moseley line to Moor Street and the new HS2 station. Initial funding for this has already been found.
Opposition reaction: Mayor has let us down on M6 Toll Road and Brexit
Two questions should be asked of Andy Street – who’s side is he on and what has he achieved?
That is according to the Labour’s Sion Simon, the man who finished runner up in May’s mayoral election.
Mr Simon said: “Ticking of meaningless tasks you set yourself while so many people are still struggling so badly is no kind of achievement. On homelessness, congestion, getting the best deal for the West Midlands from Brexit, Andy Street has failed to stand up for the West Midlands.”
He says crucial missed opportunity was Mr Street’s failure to step in ahead of the sale of the M6 Toll Road and a hike in charges.
The Labour man promised to lobby for nationalisation of the Toll Road during the campaign, but Tory Mr Street took the opposite view.
Mr Simon said: “Motorists continue to suffer hours of delays on their daily commute. The half empty M6 Toll was sold to a new operator, who has now hiked toll fees by seven per cent.
“On both occasions, Andy Street said and did precisely nothing. He is on the side of the private profiteers who buy and sell the road with no care for the West Midlands; and the Tory government who don’t want him to rock the boat.”
He also asked where a West Midlands plan for Brexit was, especially as nationally the Government is in chaos over negotiations. He said the mayor should be showing leadership and making clear demands of government to defend regional jobs and business.