Andy Street made history by becoming the first elected mayor for the West Midlands with a manifesto of creating the right environment for business to thrive. Here the former John Lewis boss explains to BQ how he aims to attract the big names but also how small businesses have a part to play in transforming the region into the free trade capital of the UK.
No doubt many in the business community would have considered Andy Street’s decision to quit as John Lewis boss and stand for West Midlands mayor as too big a gamble to take. In a region that historically returns a Labour majority, the odds were not exactly favourable so it must have taken significant self-belief and conviction to step down from one of Britain’s best-known retailers.
But perhaps it was also indicative of Street’s passion for the West Midlands and his determination to nurture and accelerate what he saw as an emerging economic renaissance in the region. “It’s true, I loved my job at John Lewis,” the new mayor says. “But as a proud Brummie I also care deeply about this region.
“We have so many assets and strengths from advanced manufacturing and creative industries to a wonderfully vibrant and diverse community.
“We have much to be proud of but I think too many us don’t actually realise it. We need to change that and rediscover our sense of pride.”
His role of mayor and chair of the West Midlands Combined Authority is part of a devolution deal with the UK Government that will see more than £1.1bn made available for investment in the region over the next 30 years.
As mayor he will oversee that budget with powers over transport investment, strategic planning, skills and housing. But his key priority is to help build a strong economy that can provide better and more secure jobs, which he feels is the only sustainable way to raise people’s living standards.
Street points to the affluence once seen in many parts of the West Midlands during the manufacturing heyday of the 1960s but which has ebbed away after years of decline and lack of attention. He says that for too long there was no single voice to make the case for the West Midlands either in London or around the world. Consequently the region was left behind by other parts of the country.
“We’ve certainly had our share of hard times but I saw the role of mayor as a unique opportunity to help drive forward the steady economic transformation I had witnessed across the region in more recent years.
“It’s why I was prepared to leave John Lewis for the chance to work with MPs and councillors to provide a powerful voice for the West Midlands and help safeguard and grow that economic renaissance.”
Street comes to the role of mayor with an impressive track record. During his time as managing director of John Lewis he oversaw a major expansion of the business.
He is also a politics, philosophy and economics graduate, valuable disciplines for a Mayor, and his time as chair of the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) gave him a unique insight into the economic strengths and weaknesses of the West Midlands.
But he also has a keen eye for effective communications and marketing, as the John Lewis Christmas adverts demonstrate.
“This region has so much talent, industry and innovation yet we have not been very good at telling that to the rest of the world.
“Maybe it’s a reflection of the self-effacing nature of our regional character but we must – and we will – get much better at telling our story. That will help us immensely as we compete on a global stage against the likes of Berlin, Barcelona and Boston.
“Indeed, with Brexit on the horizon it’s more important than ever to get out into the world and bang the drum for the West Midlands.
“One of my key responsibilities as mayor will be to act as an ambassador for the region and I’m determined to attract companies here that can bring secure, well-paid jobs with them.
“This will help build the strong economy we need to raise people’s quality of life and provide the sorts of jobs we used to see at the great factories and offices of the West Midlands.”
To help bolster this outward facing philosophy he wants to make the West Midlands the free trade capital of Britain and will be calling on the UK Government to prioritise trade deals with the region’s key export markets.
There is much in his manifesto – or “Renewal Plan for the West Midlands” – about creating the right environment for businesses to thrive. The plan talks about focusing industrial strategy on the sectors where the West Midlands already leads the world while helping businesses to market themselves and gain investment from overseas.
“We will be working with big employers like Jaguar Land Rover, HSBC and National Grid to make sure businesses have what they need to create jobs,” he adds. “We also need to make sure there is enough employment land available for businesses to set up and expand.
“Yet all of these commitments are not just about new office buildings. They are about closing the productivity gap and fostering innovation. They are about providing well-paid jobs for people, their children and grandchildren.”
Support is also offered for small businesses and entrepreneurs. The new mayor is working with banks, venture capital firms and other investors to make it easier for small businesses to access capital.
He also intends to raise awareness of existing business support schemes and make sure small and medium-sized companies have a fair chance when bidding for goods or services being commissioned under mayoral control.
“Small businesses need to tackle new challenges all the time, but they create a huge amount of prosperity and I intend to champion their interests not just here in our region but also with the UK Government.
“It’s the small businesses that create jobs and if we maximise the talents of entrepreneurs we maximise their contribution to the economy.”
One small business sector the mayor is particularly excited about is digital. There were 550 digital start-ups in Birmingham last year and the industry is expected to be one of the region’s biggest growth areas over the next decade.
The city is now recognised as the UK’s premier tech and digital centre outside of London and this cluster effect has created a local talent pool with 89% of digital companies recruiting from the region’s workforce or universities.
While the future looks increasingly bright for some young people and the number of youngsters not in work, education or training has halved since 2013, Street has still set the target of eradicating youth unemployment by the end of his three-year term.
He has also launched his “Mayor’s Mentors” programme so volunteers from across a range of jobs and industries can offer advice or a helping hand to those who are struggling to get started in life or looking for a new direction.
“I hear every day, people in the business community saying they want to play their part in the ongoing success of the region,” he adds. “Mayor’s Mentors is a great opportunity to do just that.
“We are looking to get 1,000 mentors in 100 days and the response has been incredible. We had several hundred people sign up in the first week alone.
“I’d like to think this is a reflection of the new- found optimism generated by our region’s economic renaissance.
“We now need to embrace this renaissance and grow the economy in a way which benefits everybody and in all parts of the region.
“The business community has a critical role to play in achieving this and by working together, speaking with a united and powerful voice, I believe we can become Britain’s beating economic heart.”