Interview: Osborne – “Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. In terms of local taxation, double it.”

29 Nov

George Osborne urges Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and their colleagues to pursue devolution of powers to metro mayors with indefatigable determination:

“Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. Whatever you’re doing in terms of local taxation, double it.”

Osborne recounts how as Chancellor of the Exchequer he launched the Northern Powerhouse, abandoned during Theresa May’s prime ministership but now revived by Johnson as the centrepiece of the present Government’s levelling up agenda.

He looks forward to the forthcoming White Paper about levelling up, on which Gove and Neil O’Brien are at work:

“I’m optimistic about the White Paper because of who’s drafting it, and I would only tell them, not that they need my advice, to trample over anyone who gets in the way.”

In Osborne’s view, the benefits of elected mayors should be spread to the English counties, regardless of any opposition from Conservative councillors:

“The Conservative Party is quite easily led if it’s given a strong direction.”

At the end of the interview, he dismisses as “nonsense” the idea that Johnson needs a new team of advisers, and insists that success lies within the Prime Minister’s grasp.

Osborne describes how, having spent his childhood in London – “I’d grown up I guess with that world view that nothing of any importance happened outside the M25” – he came round, after becoming MP for a northern seat, to the idea of decisive action to revive the cities of the North of England.

He urges the Government to be ambitious:

“I would say…to the current crop of Conservative ministers and to the Prime Minister…you never know how long you’ve got in office, and the wheel turns, and then suddenly you’re out.

“And I can tell you as someone who’s been out of office and out of politics for five years, you look back on the big things you feel you got right, and they’re often the things against which there was the most opposition, the hardest internal arguments in your party, but they’re also the most rewarding things.”

ConHome: “Let’s start with a broad-brush question. How do you think the Government’s doing?”

Osborne: “I think the Government has every opportunity to be a great success, and it has hit what all Governments hit, which is that kind of mid-term moment when people think, you know, is the focus there, is the direction there, are they going to deliver.

“It’s not unique to the Boris Johnson Government. Something quite similar happened to the Cameron Government in 2012, 2013.

“And, you know, we got our act together and won an election. And so it’s perfectly within the capability of Boris Johnson and his team to do the same. But they do need to act.”

ConHome: “How do you assess their chances of winning the next election?”

Osborne: “Well the odds are greatly in favour of the Conservatives winning, because the Labour Party has not yet done enough in my view to make itself electable.

“Though Keir Starmer is a very presentable Leader of the Opposition, he has not distanced himself from the Jeremy Corbyn era enough, apologised to the public for presenting Corbyn to the country as a serious candidate for Prime Minister.

“He has not done internal reform to reduce the influence of the trade unions.

“When I look back at my own career, I spent half my time in Government and half my time in Opposition. Opposition is in many ways harder than Government, because you don’t have the kind of natural agenda that a Government has.

“You certainly don’t have the full weight of the British state carrying you forward. The Leader of the Opposition – the Shadow Chancellor, which I was for five years – if they don’t do something that day, nothing’s going to happen.

“And if you look at the enormous efforts which Gordon Brown and Tony Blair went through in the 1990s – I was at the time a junior staff person in Downing Street and I saw at first hand their efforts to make the Labour Party electable.

“If you think of the huge efforts that David Cameron and myself and the people we worked with went through 15 years ago to make the Conservative Party electable, you just don’t see the hunger, the effort, the appetite in the Labour Party at the moment to do what is required to win back the trust of the British people.

“But the Conservative Party cannot just sit there and rely on their opponents failing to get their act together.

“And if the Labour Party were to get its act together, which is perfectly possible, there are still a couple of years to go until the election, yes, then the Conservative Party could be in real trouble.

“It doesn’t need to be, because it has all the instruments at its disposal to make itself eminently electable and to get itself re-elected.”

ConHome: “So let’s get on to the main subject of the interview, which is the Northern Powerhouse, devolution, elected mayors and all that.

“The Treasury is often viewed as an anti-localism, anti-devolution department. In Opposition, you yourself were a bit of a sceptic about localism.

“When did you become a convert to localism and mayors, and why?”

Osborne: “Yes, my own thinking on this did change over time. I remember early on thinking the Conservative Party had made a mistake in not initially opposing the creation of the Mayor of London.

“And then once we got into office, I think the definition of localism we had was a little bit limited. It was all about giving parish councils a bit more power over planning.

“There were some ideas, actually from the Liberal Democrats, that there had to be a referendum, because at that time there were lots of Liberal Democrat councillors in those cities.

“And so the whole agenda basically went nowhere for the first two or three years of the Government I was part of, and I guess around 2012, 2013, essentially the kind of emergency job on the economy was beginning to bear fruit and we were moving out of the financial crisis period, I became very focussed on what we could do with our opportunity of being in Government to tackle the really, really big economic problems the country faced, rather than the very immediate ones of the deficit and the recovery from the financial crisis.

“And I guess because I was a northern MP, you know, I’d grown up in London, educated in London, I’d grown up I guess with that world view that nothing of any importance happened outside the M25, and one of the luckiest and best things that happened to me in my political career was that I got selected for a seat in the North of England.

“It completely changed my perspective on the country, and it changed my perspective on how the rest of the country sees London.

“And for a long time I was one of only a couple of MPs for the Conservative Party who were even remotely close to Manchester. There was basically me and Graham Brady.

“And I’d already begun to get more involved as an Opposition MP in what we could do in Manchester as a party. I supported for example the BBC’s move to Salford.

“All this kind of thinking was evolving in my head, and we got to the middle period of the Government, 2013, and I thought why not take on the biggest domestic challenge of all, which is that the North of England has lagged behind the South – and the greatest political challenge, which was that people thought the Conservative Party had nothing to say about that.

“So it was both an economic and a political challenge, and I threw myself into it, and the Treasury is sceptical of devolution, for the simple reason that it always has to pay up when devolution fails, because people will not let local public services fail, let cities fail, and in the end the Treasury has to step it.

“But the Treasury is also an amazing department, full of incredibly talented and committed people, and if they’re given direction, they have the best chance of anyone in Government of delivering.

“And so with a selection of very talented civil servants, one in particular, John Kingman; my special adviser at the time, Neil O’Brien; with one of my Treasury ministers at the time, Jim O’Neill; we really focussed on would it be possible to reverse a century-old trend in British economic geography.

“High Speed Rail was already there, in fact an idea originally born of the Conservative Opposition, not the Labour Government, so High Speed Rail, High Speed Rail across the Pennines, and devolution and the creation of metro mayors, not just city mayors which had been the original idea in 2010.

“And so a much bigger economic geography than just Manchester city centre, they’ve got all of of Greater Manchester including places like Bolton, Bury and so on, and within Merseyside, South Yorkshire and so on, real devolution, allied with a big commitment to what I would call the social capital of the cities, the teaching hospitals, the universities, the science facilities, the cultural facilities, that would make these cities really attractive places to live and to commute to work in, so that it would also help the surrounding towns.

“And that became known as the Northern Powerhouse because the speech I gave launching it was in the Power Hall of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, and right from the start in the front row I had Labour councillors, the Leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, who’s just retiring, the then Leader of Liverpool, and so on.

“So right from the start I thought it was never going to work if it’s not a bipartisan effort, and they’re never going to trust the Conservative Government, these big Labour urban fiefdoms, if they don’t see that there’s a Chancellor who’s prepared to share the credit with them.

“And I always thought the political gain, which was very much a secondary consideration, would flow from that. People would blame the Government when things go wrong, they would give the Government credit if things went right.

“If I have a regret it’s that I’d have either started earlier or had longer in office, to really cement it, because we made enormous progress in those subsequent three or four years, we got metro mayors created in all these places, which people had been trying for decades to set up.

“We got the plans in place for the railways, we created organisations like Transport for the North, so there was enormous progress.

“We then hit unfortunately the buffers of the Theresa May Government. She was not interested in it and basically ditched it.

“And then what excites me genuinely is that the Boris Johnson Government – which calls it levelling up, which is a good slogan – had doubled down on something I thought was very important.

“So all the political stars are aligned. Of course the really hard thing in government is then actually getting the job done.”

ConHome: “Was there ever any element of wanting to push the responsibility for public spending consolidation out and down to local authorities, many of them Labour?”

Osborne: “Well yes, at the time the country was spending too much, whether at national or at local level, so there were reductions in local authority budgets.

“But we gave them more freedom, we removed a lot of the ring fences that dictated how they spent money, something I think we should go much further with.

“If I had my time again, I would have doubled down on that.

“We explicitly said, for example, if they allowed more development in their area then they would keep the proceeds, the extra council tax receipts which would come from having more homes, the extra business rates which would come from having more businesses.

“Until then they didn’t see any benefit from that, so there was zero incentive to consent to planning or to encourage economic growth.

“One of my proudest achievements was that by the time we left office Manchester was the fastest growing city in Europe. And that was certainly not all down to me and I pay a lot of credit to people like the Labour Leader Richard Leese and people who worked for him and around him.

“I should particularly credit by the way Howard Bernstein, who was the Chief Executive of the Council, who was also brilliant.

“And that partnership really delivered Manchester. And we were starting to deliver in Liverpool, in Sheffield, in Leeds, in Newcastle and so on, and I think laid the groundwork for the Conservative revival in Tees Valley as well.

ConHome: “You outlined what you did in terms of allowing councils to keep more of business rates and so on. How far do you think the tax-raising powers should go, and what should the Government do?”

Osborne: “I think you could go quite a lot further. I think you could give local authorities, I wouldn’t do it at an individual council level, I think it has to be at a metro level or a big county level, but I don’t see why you couldn’t give them their own proper business-rate raising powers.

“So it’s a choice an area would make, you could either cut your local taxes to encourage business, or you could raise your taxes and spend on infrastructure.

“I think it’s worth looking at local income taxes as a supplement. I mean after all we have that arrangement in Scotland, I wouldn’t necessarily say you have to go that far in English devolution, but I was one of the architects as Chancellor of giving Scotland more tax-raising powers, and I think as a result, by the way, the SNP is being held much more to account for its own domestic performance, and they can’t keep saying we want more money from Westminster, because everyone goes hold on, you’ve got the power to raise taxes if you want to.

“So the public are not stupid. I think it’s really interesting that when the metro mayors have come up for re-election, the good ones have been re-elected – Andy Street in Birmingham, I was also very involved in creating a West Midlands Mayor.

“I’ll give you a local example where I don’t particularly agree with the approach the Government is taking, in London, where I was for several years editor of The Evening Standard.

“Sadiq Khan is saying Transport for London – we’re having a set-to about a Tube strike – he is the Mayor, he’s the Chairman of Transport for London, and he should have responsibility for running the transport system in London.

“And the freedom to run that system as he sees fit, to raise fares if he is prepared to. And what’s happened instead is the Government has stepped in and is trying to micromanage how he runs Transport for London.

“I would let him take responsibility, because then I think the public would say, ‘Are you doing it well?’

“At the moment you’re giving him a free pass of saying ‘Well, you know, the Government’s not giving me enough money.’

“I suspect it’s not a ministerial failing, it’s just the Whitehall system seeks to take control when it has the opportunity – it’s often the simpler solution to a problem, when, you know, Covid means the Tube’s gone bust.

“But the harder solution, but the better one, is to put the Mayor in charge.

“I think it’s a great shame that Transport for the North has been downgraded – I would upgrade it with more powers, make it more like Transport for London.

“I would give the metro mayors more responsibility. For example, we devolved the NHS in Manchester, which was a really bold thing to do.

“It’s the only place in England where that’s the case. It integrates social care. There’s no reason why the Conservatives should be afraid of this.

“Fundamentally, it should be in the Conservative DNA, if you go back to Edmund Burke etcetera, that they trust local communities.

“I remember at the time, when we started all this, there were some prominent members of the Cabinet who said, ‘We’re just handing power to the Labour Party in Birmingham and Teesside and so on – we’ll never ever have Conservatives elected there.’

“And I would reply, ‘We don’t have Conservatives there at the moment – it’s not as if we’re starting from a position of giving away power.’

“And the election of Conservative metro mayors in the West Midlands and in Teesside essentially proved that point. And I would also say there’s nothing really to be lost.

“The best news at the moment from my point of view is that Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien have been given the opportunity to demonstrate this, because I think they’re two of the smartest and most creative Conservative thinkers we’ve got at the moment.

“And I would just say – well they don’t need my advice, they’re both good friends of mine – just let them get on with it.

“Every time you’re confronted with something which is, you know, ‘Oooh, should we trim a little, this is a little bit too radical, the Treasury’s got a problem with this,’ I would go for the reverse.

“Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. Whatever you’re doing in terms of local tax-raising powers, double it. Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolving the NHS, double or triple it.

“That is why we have ministers, and we have political leadership in government: to push the system where it doesn’t want to go. For the Conservatives, this is really the once in a generation opportunity to show the whole country it can deliver.

“And if you just limit yourself to a couple of town-centre funds, which by the way the Cameron Government had, the Blair Government had, they’re not new, that’s not what’s needed.

“What’s needed is proper economic theory about creating big economic clusters in the North, bringing the cities closer together, connecting them to the towns that surround them, connecting them with real transport links that work, and attracting business, which cannot be done by the public sector alone, which is another classic mistake.

“You’ve got to make business feel that these are the places to go to, to create jobs and invest, the wonders of the free market will then work, and in a way that no Government White Paper will ever predict, real activity will happen.

“I’m optimistic about the White Paper because of who’s drafting it, and I would only tell them, not that they need my advice, to trample over anyone who gets in the way.”

ConHome: “This question of doubling everything you’re doing, does that extend to more elected mayors outside cities, in counties with smaller populations?”

Osborne: “Yes, I think it would be great to have elected mayors. I was an MP in Cheshire for 16 years, and I remember the time when we were in Opposition, I was a junior MP, and there was a plan to create unitary authorities in Cheshire.

“Pretty much all the MPs in Cheshire, led by the redoubtable Gwyneth Dunwoody, the Labour MP, and Sir Nicholas Winterton, led the fight against it, and thankfully we were ignored by the Government and unitary authorities were created, and it’s a much more efficient and effective way to run Cheshire.

“No one likes local government reorganisation, and local MPs and councillors have got to resist because it’s your local power base, but on a country-wide scale you could easily have mayors for Cumbria or Cheshire or wherever it happens to be.

“And I think the point about a mayor is it provides a point of accountability, an individual who can’t really pass the buck and is held to blame or indeed applauded for what they do.”

ConHome: “A former Conservative Leader of a big county said, ‘When I was the Leader, I had to oppose having an elected mayor in our area, because of all my Cabinet colleagues – they would all have protested and given me a lot of political trouble if I had come out in favour.

“Now I’ve gone, I’m all in favour of an elected mayor. So that leads to a political question, which is how do you deal with a mass of Conservative Cabinet members, county councillors and district councillors who won’t want any change, at a time when the Government is moving towards an election and you really need their good will.

“You should arguably have done this much earlier. Can you do this politically in the next few years?”

Osborne: “Yes, absolutely. The Conservative Party is quite easily led if it’s given a strong direction. We did succeed in creating these metro mayors in large parts of the country where there were no Conservative councillors.

“Let’s take Manchester. I remember Trafford Council, it was Tory-run, and they were like, why would we want to give power to a metro mayor in the middle of Manchester.

“The truth was the council leader at the time, the Conservative council leader was very courageous and led his group in support.

“And I always thought the best way was never to try to impose these metro mayors – to use the carrot, not the stick – so I would pile up all the advantages that come from having a metro mayor, the additional money, the support for local transport – and that did work. The hardest area was West Yorkshire and Leeds, it was politically contested, but even that now has come into line as they’re seeing the benefits.

“So you can show them the treasure at the end and they will follow the trail.

“In any organisation, it’s quite hard to lead from behind. You have to have a view, and ultimately if people don’t like you, they’ll get rid of you.

“There’s no point just occupying those offices. I always felt [as Chancellor of the Exchequer] there was a ticking clock, I never knew when the axe would fall, and I would try to be as bold as possible.

“I would say the same to the current crop of Conservative ministers and to the Prime Minister, which is you never know how long you’ve got in office, and the wheel turns, and then suddenly you’re out.

“And I can tell you as someone who’s been out of office and out of politics for five years, you look back on the big things you feel you got right, and they’re often the things against which there was the most opposition, the hardest internal arguments in your party, but they’re also the most rewarding things.”

ConHome: “So far, hasn’t levelling up really been a bit of a mess? You’re right to say that Michael Gove is a great executive politician – Neil O’Brien a huge brain, did a column for us – they will instil some order and political shape to it.

“But so far, hasn’t it been a bit incoherent? And has it had the strategic grasp the Northern Powerhouse had, in terms of a very clear plan to link up the cities, make them bigger, establish an economic counterweight to London?

“Hasn’t levelling up by contrast been a bit of a shambles?”

Osborne: “Well I am a glass half full person. I would say it was moribund for several years after I left office, as an agenda, and obviously there were enormous distractions, Brexit and then more recently Covid.

“But I think Boris Johnson deserves full marks for picking this up as the big domestic agenda. That’s what a Prime Minister does. A Prime Minister says ‘My Government’s going to be defined by a few things’, and he has decided levelling up is one of them. So I strongly applaud him for that.

“I also applaud him for now having the right people in place to deliver it. I wish he had stuck with, and I think he will end up recommitting to, elements like the High Speed line in Yorkshire, the Eastern Leg, and the Trans-Pennine route, because those are long-term infrastructure projects which you don’t want to throw away and start again on some other project that’ll never get off the ground.

“So I’m quite optimistic about it all. What it needs is proper intellectual underpinning. If you think it’s all just about planting some civic flowerbeds in northern towns then the Tories will be out on their ear.

“It’s got to have proper, serious economic thinking about it, which Jim O’Neill, a world-class economist, provided me with on this, and others like Neil O’Brian and Rupert Harrison.

“There are around the world great city clusters. They are where the action is. The towns around them benefit as well, but a bit more slowly.

“And you have to do the things that make those cities work, so you have to make them exciting places that attract professional people, you need the buzz of universities and cultural institutions, you need excellent transport links between the cities and commuter links into the cities, and you need to empower the city leadership.

“If you’d said to me 30 or 40 years ago that Manchester would be the fastest growing city in Europe I would have thought it was an impossible ambition, because the Manchester area was on its knees.

“You have to think big, you have to be ambitious, and you have to realise that Government puts the kind of instruments in place, but then it’s the private sector and the business community, and not just the big corporates but every little small business, every entrepreneur that decides actually I’m not going to move out of Manchester, I’m going set my new web design business in Manchester rather than move to London. That is how progress is made.

“I think the Johnson Government can do it. It’s got the majority, they’ve made this its central domestic agenda, and if it sticks with it it can work.

“One of the things I find annoying, having been a political secretary in Downing Street in the distant past, is all this ‘Boris Johnson needs a new team in Downing Street. He needs grey hairs around him. He needs as Deputy Prime Minister a Willie Whitelaw-type character.’

“All of that is such nonsense. Actually in my view the Downing Street team is pretty talented at the moment, and they are a good team.

“And there are some real issues the Government’s got – it’s got a difficult economic backdrop, falling real incomes, it’s got to repair the relationship with Europe, which is absolutely critical to Britain’s economy, its immigration policy, its security policy.

“These are the big tasks alongside levelling up. But the idea it’s all going to be solved with some reshuffle of the kitchen cabinet or indeed the Cabinet is in my view nonsense.”

ConHome: “You’re really saying the problem with Boris Johnson isn’t his team, the problem with Boris Johnson is Boris Johnson.”

Osborne: “No I’m not actually, because I think Boris Johnson has the kind of charisma and leadership to deliver a lot of what he’s set out to do.

“But governments in the mid-term, they have to kind of refocus, and the glittering prize is there if they just reach out and grab it.”

Join Truss, Gove, Kwarteng, Houchen, Street and many more on the ConservativeHome Fringe

25 Sep

We are proud to present the ConservativeHome programme of fringe events for the 2021 Conservative Party Conference, running from Sunday 3rd October to Tuesday 5th October.

In 28 events across three days, we’re bringing you over 100 speakers, including members of the Cabinet, the Mayors of the West Midlands and the Tees Valley, numerous veterans and rising stars of the Parliamentary Party, and more.

For the first time, the ConservativeHome fringe programme will take place both in-person and online, with free access to view our events on YouTube for those who can’t be at the conference itself in Manchester.

We hope you’ll join us to hear from Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Andy Street, Ben Houchen, Dehenna Davison, Steve Baker, Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis and many others.

We look forward to seeing you there – in person or online.

Click here to see the full event listings and to sign up for more info, reminders and streaming links.

Andy Street: We must use persuasion, not threats, to keep the vaccination programme on track

10 Aug

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Recently, I was invited to appear in an NHS video to persuade people across the Midlands to take up the offer of a Covid-19 vaccination. The video was launched as the Midlands approaches 13 million vaccine doses, the first region in the UK to hit that landmark.

However, we still face challenges here. West Midlands local authorities are below the national average for administering first doses. We must investigate the reasons behind that fact – and address them.

The NHS video featured a cross section of local people explaining what the vaccine means to them. My own contribution was personal, as I am one of thousands across our region who have lost a loved-one to this terrible disease – my mum. I know very well that if she’d been vaccinated, she’d still be here.

I want to use this column to write a little about my experience, but also about where the vaccination programme is now and how, as society cautiously reopens, a final push in uptake is the only way that remaining restrictions can be removed.

I really didn’t anticipate my mum’s death – I was out walking with her just a week before she went into hospital, where she contracted Covid. It was an incredible shock.

The day after she went into hospital, mum was called for her vaccine. It could have saved her life – it’s that simple. And that’s why I feel even more determined to get across the message that everyone should take up the offer to grab a jab.

There is no doubt that the NHS vaccination programme is having a major impact. It has kept around 52,000 people out of hospital and saved an estimated 60,000 lives.

The vaccination programme in the Midlands has been a huge logistical exercise, which has constantly expanded to new sites, reached out to more people and ensured that a steady supply of vaccine is available. In terms of reach, every Britsih adult has now been offered a vaccination, which was a key part of the decision to ease restrictions and open up businesses.

I have personally worked to ensure there are enough supplies of vaccine to deliver the jabs needed here. We can look everyone in the eye and say they have been invited to get a jab.

Vaccination centres can be found everywhere from town halls to Villa Park, from night spots to supermarkets. We’ve seen the region’s businesses swing behind the fight against Covid throughout the pandemic – from the NEC Group coming forward to host the NHS Nightingale Hospital to Birmingham’s iconic Nightingale Nightclub hosting a vaccination centre last weekend.

But we still face challenges, with some areas and communities displaying a higher rate of vaccine hesitancy. We are addressing this through outreach work that clearly explains the importance of vaccination, dispels any concerns over safety, and helps people book an appointment or find a drop-in clinic.

There have been huge efforts by many of our faith groups to promote the vaccine, dispelling anti-vax fake news, as well as addressing legitimate concerns around fertility and long-term pre-existing conditions. Clifton Road Mosque, in Birmingham, was the first Islamic centre of its kind in the world to give out jabs, making a global TV celebrity of its imam Sheikh Nuru Mohammed, who has been dynamic in extoling the wisdom of vaccination.

Now, with almost three-quarters of adults double-jabbed across the UK, we are seeing the national programme swing to focus more on younger people. People aged from 18-34 now make up more than one in five of those admitted to hospital with the virus.

That’s compared to just one in 20 in that age group at the peak of the winter wave in January. In a young and diverse region such as the West Midlands, a lack of vaccine uptake in these groups is a concern to all. Indeed, the profile of our population means, as a whole, we are more unvaccinated than elsewhere – so there is a real need for young people to get jabbed.

One way to reach younger people is to fold vaccine advice into projects to help them find work in the wake of the pandemic. We know that their generation has been the hardest hit economically by the pandemic, and this is an especially difficult time for those who are getting exam results and not sure about what to do next.

I have been working with the Street Team, a young group promoting work and volunteering opportunities related to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, plus the national Kickstart scheme and apprenticeships. It has been fantastic to chat to young people and hear about their experiences, as well as telling them about the opportunities being created in my push to create 100,000 jobs in two years. However, we have also been using the initiative to encourage greater vaccine take-up among young people.

The NHS is also working to rapidly extend the programme to 16 and 17-year-olds, while children aged 12 to 15 who are clinically vulnerable or live with adults who are at increased risk will also be invited for their vaccine over the coming weeks too.

This huge national vaccination effort, which began with the oldest people in our society, may seem to be drawing to a conclusion as we focus on our youngest citizens. But there is a risk that we will rest on our laurels, instead of driving to get the job done.

In Birmingham, right now, hospitals are cancelling critical operations because of a lack of ICU beds, as virus cases continue to drain NHS resources. This is not acceptable.

Now is the time to press the message home that everyone should get jabbed, and that young people can become seriously ill as a result of Covid.

The debate over ‘vaccine passports’ is important, but right now encouragement should be at the heart of the vaccine drive, not the threat of sanction. Achieving an uptake is the only way that remaining restrictions can be removed, with no new ones introduced. Before our schools and universities return, we must lock in the success of the vaccine programme.

This pandemic has touched all parts of society, impacting tragically on thousands of families, my own included. Yet communities have been sustained throughout by a feeling that we are all in this together. Now, as we face one final push to increase vaccination uptake, we need that spirit more than ever. The message is clear: everyone, of every age and of every background – get the jab!

Andy Street: The Commonwealth Games will showcase the best of the West Midlands to the world

15 Jun

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Over the last 18 months, it seems we have been constantly looking forward to better times – to the easing of restrictions, for the roll-out of vaccines, to the reopening of businesses, to see our loved ones. Well, in the West Midlands we have something huge to look forward to next year: the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

As the growing excitement over this summer’s European football championships has shown, nothing lifts the spirits and unites people quite like a major sporting event, and in 2022 our region will host one of the world’s biggest, with a global audience of over one billion. At the Games, more than 6,500 athletes carrying the hopes of 71 countries will compete in 264 events across 18 sports.

Together with the Coventry City of Culture celebrations, which are now underway, the Games will provide a cultural kickstart after the restrictions of the pandemic, boosting the economy and bringing people together to celebrate not only top level sport, but all that is good about our region. This is an incredible opportunity for residents across the West Midlands, and in particular young people, to get involved in a global event, right on their doorstep. Its timing couldn’t be better.

I want to use this column to write about the legacy the Games will leave, not only in terms of new facilities but opportunity.

Key to that will be the “Commonwealth Collective”: 13000 volunteers who will be the public faces of Birmingham 2022 and represent the heart and soul of the event experience for athletes, officials, spectators.

The search to find these volunteers has now begun in earnest. We want to create a dedicated and dynamic group that will reflect the diversity of the West Midlands as well as the modern Commonwealth, putting in an incredible one million hours of volunteer time.

The Games is by far the largest sporting and cultural event ever to be held in the region and the biggest in the UK since the London Olympics. Many remember the ‘Games Makers’ who made London 2012 such a friendly, welcoming experience. The Commonwealth Collective takes that concept and puts an innovative West Midlands spin on it, turning volunteering skills into opportunity.

So, what will the volunteers do? Roles include those all-important ‘meet and greeters’, drivers, first aiders, people to prepare venues, kit carriers, courtside assistants, and everything in between to help the Games run smoothly and create a unique experience right across the region.

The majority of roles don’t need any formal experience or qualifications, because there will be around 250,000 hours of training provided, and volunteers can select preferred areas of interest which include event services, accreditation, transport, sport and media.

While much is made of the physical legacy of large sports events – stadiums, new facilities and transport infrastructure – in the wake of the pandemic we are also determined to ensure that the Games boost skills for everyone involved, young and old. So, while volunteer applicants must be aged 18, a young volunteer programme for 14-17 year olds will begin recruitment in the autumn too. Critically, everyone who volunteers will gain key skills to help with future job prospects.

We are also, of course, using the Games to provide extensive employment opportunities alongside the volunteering roles, with the aim of creating 35,000 jobs.

The Legacy plan set out for the Games earlier this year shows how this will be done. It aims to deliver the first carbon-neutral Commonwealth Games and the largest business and tourism programme of any Games to attract international visitors and investment to the region and the UK.

A major International Business Expo is expected to run alongside the Games, highlighting and promoting commerce in the region and sending out the clear message that Britain is open for business post-pandemic. Our ambition is not only an unparalleled programme of sport but also trade, tourism and investment.

In terms of bricks and mortar, there are the state-of-the-art legacy facilities at the Alexander Stadium and Sandwell Aquatics Centre for community use after the Games. The first phase of the Perry Barr Regeneration Scheme will deliver 1,400 homes, with hundreds more in future phases. Around £350m of procurement spend will benefit businesses across the UK, with the first Commonwealth Jobs and Skills Academy offering a blueprint for reaching disadvantaged groups.

There is also Commonwealth Active Communities, a £4m Sport England fund to harness the power of the Games to support inactive people to become more active and a six-month, UK-wide cultural festival reaching 2.5 million people and prioritising underrepresented communities. Finally, a £6m Commonwealth Games Community Fund from Birmingham City Council will help communities build pride, respect and cohesion by celebrating the Games.

But if the Games is to have a lost-lasting legacy beyond new facilities, it must reach out to  future generations.

So, hundreds of young people will also gain access to new volunteering and employment opportunities, thanks to more than £700,000 from the National Lottery Community Fund. The project will seek to engage with a minimum of 800 disadvantaged young people, working with 20 community-based organisations working close to Games venues in Birmingham, Coventry, Sandwell and Wolverhampton.

The outreach activity will support local young people aged 18 to 30 who are unemployed or at risk of unemployment, and will particularly target those who live in priority wards.

Making sure that the jobs created by the Games go to local people is a key part of my jobs plan to help more than 100,000 residents into employment over the next two years, and is also critical to ensuring the Commonwealth Games is a Games for everyone.

This hugely exciting event is now a little over a year away, and across Birmingham and the West Midlands preparations are being stepped up. I know that the Games will deliver a message of hope and recovery after the pandemic and create wonderful memories for local people of a once-in-a-lifetime global event. They will also leave behind brilliant new facilities that will benefit generations to come.

But as we look to grow the economy post-pandemic, I also believe this Games will have another significant legacy – a legacy of opportunity, through the jobs it creates and its engagement with business. And, of course, through the new skills learned by the 13000 volunteers who will help make it happen.

The benefits of Birmingham 2022 will be felt long after the closing ceremony. That’s something we can all really look forward to.

Andy Street: Community ownership can help secure a future for our pubs

18 May

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Since I was re-elected as Mayor of the West Midlands just over a week ago, my diary has been full – and rightly so. There is much to be done.

Throughout the campaign, my message was always that I was ready to get straight back to work – to start the task of creating 100,000 jobs in the next two years, attracting new investment, and pressing on with our transport and housing plans. Thanks to detailed planning, we were ready to hit the ground running.

This week represents a major step towards recovery, as lockdown restrictions are eased further. For the owners of restaurants, cafes, gyms, fitness clubs, wedding venues, holiday lets, hotels, B&Bs and many other types of business this will be a big few days.

In this column, I want to focus on the sector whose fortunes have in some ways come to be seen as a barometer of recovery – pubs.

Pubs are, quite simply, part of the fabric of British life. That’s why, I believe, my visit to a Wolverhampton pub while on the campaign trail with the Prime Minister last month gathered so much interest. For many, the simple act of being able to go out for a pint has become shorthand for a return to normality.

I want to tell you about a scheme launched here to help protect local pubs, and also how I believe it reflects broader changes across society regarding much-loved community assets, and how the growing social economy can protect them.

The pandemic has had a brutal effect on our pubs. The facts are stark: over 2,500 pubs across the UK closed down in 2020 – an increase of 50 per cent on the previous year, and a figure which represents five per cent of all pubs in the country. While venues lucky enough to have outdoor space have been able to safely serve some customers since mid-April, this week’s easing of indoor restrictions has been long awaited.

Throughout the pandemic, I have battled for extra help for the hospitality industry, but the cruel reality is that at the time when we are most looking forward to visiting pubs again, there will be less of them to return to.

Of course, many pubs will make a strong recovery once lockdown is lifted, but some inevitably will not. That’s why we have launched a scheme to give people the chance to save those pubs by bringing them into community ownership.

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has partnered with Plunkett Foundation, a community business charity, to help community groups establish action plans, build capacity, and raise the finance to take ownership of local pubs. The statistics show that it works, too. Community-owned pubs have a 99.3 per cent long-term survival rate.

An initial £10,000 investment will enable the Plunkett Foundation to support seven community pub groups – one from each of the boroughs that make up the WMCA. Those groups will get tailored business support and advice, online training, peer-to-peer networking and the chance to visit some of the 150 existing community-run pubs in the UK.

Crucially, saving these pubs will also help address issues of isolation, loneliness, wellbeing, work, and training as well as protecting much-loved community businesses and buildings.

But I also believe that this new scheme reflects a broader change across society, where communities are stepping forward to take responsibility for local assets they value.

Sometimes the people involved are volunteers who simply want to ensure that a cherished building looks at its best, sometimes they are organised groups with serious business plans to revitalise services and create jobs. The common factor is that communities across the West Midlands are realising they can help retain much-loved buildings and boost local civic pride.

There are all lots of examples. In Solihull, a group of dedicated volunteers looks after the town’s main railway station. In Sutton Coldfield, the Royal Town’s historic Town Hall has been transferred from Birmingham City Council to a locally-run Trust, who are bidding for funds to give it a new lease of life. In Erdington, a community association is putting together an ambitious funding bid to turn a boarded-up Victorian baths into a community hub. A determined community Trust is campaigning to turn Harborne’s old Royalty Cinema into a mixed-use commercial and community facility too.

The Government also recognises the huge potential of community ownership, with the £150 million Community Ownership Fund set to open in June.

All of this suggests that community spirit is alive and well. As the UK emerges from the pandemic, I believe we will need that social cohesion more than ever. And that means a crucial yet often overlooked part of local life, the Social Economy, will play a vital role in our recovery.

In 2019 I launched the Social Economy Taskforce with the ambition to double the size of the region’s Social Economy within ten years. As a sign of our belief in its importance, the WMCA has pledged to spend at least five per cent of its procurement budget on social enterprises, while we are also urging local businesses to consider them when buying goods or services.

Our new scheme to bring pubs into community ownership adds another important part to a tapestry of social enterprises, charities and organisations that often form the social safety net needed to support those impacted by the tough times we are living in.

If there has been one positive thing to come out of the pandemic, it has been the renewed sense of community spirit born of adversity. As they open their doors this week, publicans will be hoping to see that reflected by ringing tills. By including pubs in the burgeoning Social Economy, we will ensure more can keep their doors open – and we can all raise a glass to that.

Jonathan Werran: As recent local elections showed, the mayoral revolution has been a success

12 May

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

The injunction to “live local and prosper” is the order of the day in the aftermath of last week’s local and devolved regional elections. Good quality neighbourhoods, vibrant high streets, decent school provision and abundant high-skilled jobs from a prosperous local economy – everything that instils pride in place should be encouraged.

The Government can go so far in stimulating prosperous communities and productive places through all the funding and policy levers available to the central state. But the role of strong local leadership here cannot be underestimated in galvanizing place prosperity.

For evidence we don’t need to look beyond two of the three goals in the hat trick, starting with Tees Valley and Ben Houchen’s truly astonishing 73 per cent vote share to secure beyond all measure the mayoralty he had narrowly won in 2017. Friday’s success was followed up the next day by Andy Street, who nearly won the West Midlands Combined Authority mayoralty on first round preference alone.

On this basis, where you have mayoral figureheads who combine charisma with pragmatism, and with a sufficient war chest for investment, this is a model eminently capable of setting in motion a virtuous cycle of economic and political success. Seen in isolation, this outcome wholly vindicates George Osborne and Rupert Harrison’s coalition-era hatched devolution revolution plan.

As the former chancellor Tweeted leading up to Super Thursday, what is needed next is for more trust to be placed in metro mayors through further meaningful devolution from Whitehall. Ideally what is called for here are substantive powers over investment and fiscal leeway to inject fuel into to the tank of well-exercised convening powers.

In ConHome’s Saturday reaction, Paul Goodman noted how Houchen’s triumph and ability to deliver from Freeports to Whitehall relocation has unlocked four of Teesside’s six parliamentary constituencies. At local level, Street’s readeption of the West Midlands Mayoral Combined Authority was telegraphed by the gaining of Dudley Council, again pointing to the potency of the mayoral model, when well supported, in delivering political dividends.

However, these Conservative successes must be tempered by the twin failures to retain the combined authorities encompassing Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England as well as the entrenched position of Labour’s metro mayors. Switching the voting method from supplementary vote to first past the post in future mayoral polls would have made the difference for James Palmer at least.

But any inquest must also consider the future and determine how what is working out so well as bold and pioneering in the West Midlands and North East might translate inside the deep blue wall – where the voting intentions of red urban islands such as Cambridge proved capable of commanding the rural blue seas.

Answers there may come, we hope, in the shape of the Levelling Up White Paper. If the expectation is that we revert to the vision Michael Gove offered up last July in his Ditchley Park lecture, this seemed to be pointing to one of central government rationally dealing with 50 principal players, as the US President does in relations with state governors in the federal system.

It’s very conceivable to see Conservative counties, even those shires which have been against the imposition of an urban mayoral governance model, lining up in principle with this out of party loyalty. Such a move would, by reducing the number of significant players to something manageable, align with Gordon Brown’s suggestion – one backed by Lord Hague – for saving the union by establishing some kind of “permanent forum between the regions and the nations, and the centre of government, which Boris Johnson should chair”.

But in what political economy would any new mayoralties emerge into? Going back to the first formal definition of “Levelling Up”, a term mentioned in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, we have: “Levelling up means creating new good jobs, boosting training and growing productivity in places that have seen economic decline and the loss of industry – not through a one-size-fits-all approach, but nurturing different types of economic growth and building on the different strengths that different places have.”

Just over four years ago when a formal and interventionist industrial strategy, Localis published a report in which we made the distinction between the “stuck” and the “stifled”. The stuck referred to the places that are still dealing with the fallout of the industrial trauma of the 1980s and the stifled places that are growing quickly but whose growth is hemmed in by their boundaries. We recognised both typologies as of increasing political importance, but the Levelling Up road just taken seems firmly addressed to meeting the needs of the former – and for the latter may be seen as levelling down.

Unfair as it might be, the perception among local leaders in the South East might be that in exchange for financial and political capital being invested north of the Watford Gap, they will be lumbered with the hospital pass of meeting unpopular local housing targets. To obviate this issue, a more spatial strategy for housing might insulate from some of the uproar – but not all.

To what extent pain is inevitable and suffering optional will vary. But as a universal governance model, it’s more than likely that mayoralties would necessarily involve restructuring and reorganisation. Bearing in mind the tensions and rupture between the tiers of local government amid the pandemic response last year, then if the White Paper does come out for it, like Macbeth, ‘’If it were done when tis done, twere well it were done quickly”. If not, not at all.

The evidence shows that when resourced and supported, charistmatic and committed leaders of place like Houchen and Street can lead all before them. For the sake of our recovery, we could do with more of them.

The recent example of Ben Bradley, the Mansfield MP, taking on the duty of leadership at Nottinghamshire County Council is an undeniably bold and imaginative coup which bodes well for the authority’s ability to cut through in talks Whitehall. To quote from the catchy campaign song of failed London Mayoral candidate Count Binface, it’s in such terms that you can see it being hip to be a mayor.

Sam Hall: Conservative lessons from Houchen and Street about how to respond the Greens

11 May

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network

The dominant stories from last week’s elections were the Conservatives’ hat-trick of English triumphs in Hartlepool, Tees Valley, and the West Midlands, and the SNP falling short of a majority in Scotland. But amid these headline-grabbing results, a new trend emerged: the quiet rise of the Green Party.

The Greens won 88 new council seats across England, including from Conservatives. Yes, they did well in their traditional strongholds, such as Bristol, Sheffield, and around Liverpool, where their main competitor is Labour.

But they also defeated incumbent Conservative councillors across England in places as diverse as Surrey, Sussex, Derbyshire, Stroud, and Northumberland. They won an additional two seats in the Scottish Parliament and an extra member of the London Assembly, recording their highest ever vote share in both contests.

Despite two brief surges around the 2015 general election and the 2019 local elections, the Greens have for decades struggled to break past five per cent of the national vote. But the signs from Thursday are that they are on the rise, and could become an electoral threat not just to Labour, but to the Conservatives too.

The reasons for the Greens’ recent electoral success are varied. Public concern about the environment is at historically high levels, with media and government focus on the issue growing, and climate change impacts becoming more visible. It’s understandable that, as the environment becomes more salient, more voters turn to the party whose defining mission is to save the planet.

Factionalism on the left is undoubtedly boosting the Greens, too. As Keir Starmer repudiates Corbynism, he is pushing some of the party’s more left-wing supporters towards the Greens, who have long supported some of the more radical ideas of John McDonnell, such as a universal basic income. The Liberal Democrats remain toxic to many on the left for going into coalition with the Conservatives. And in Scotland, the Greens provide a more environmentally-conscious alternative to the SNP.

Greens across Europe have benefited from a similar trend. Just a few months out from federal elections, the Greens are currently the highest polling party in Germany, two points ahead of the CDU. Greens are part of the coalition government in Austria, after securing 14 per cent of the vote in the last year’s elections. There was also a green surge in the 2019 elections for the European Parliament, with the green bloc growing from 50 seats to 74.

However, this phenomenon isn’t simply about splintering on the left. Nor is it the case that the Greens are just taking votes off Labour and allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle. As Thursday’s results show, the rise of the Greens threatens both the main parties.

That said, the threat shouldn’t be overstated at this stage: the Greens only control one council, Brighton and Hove (where they are a minority administration), and they still only have one MP. But a response will be needed nonetheless.

First, here’s what to avoid. Counteracting the Greens doesn’t entail copying their policies, which are a bad combination of the unfeasible (net zero by 2030), the unpopular (a meat tax), and the economically damaging (a four day week). But neither should they Conservatives shouldn’t become hostile to the entire green agenda, which is popular with a majority of voters. Nor should they ignore other policy priorities in favour of an exclusive focus on the environment. As James Frayne has argued convincingly on this site, this approach wouldn’t keep the party’s voter coalition together.

Instead, Conservatives should unite behind the strategy that the Prime Minister articulated in his ten point plan for a green industrial revolution, linking net zero to people’s immediate economic concerns. This prospectus has the best chance of binding together the Conservatives’ diverse supporter base and stalling the rise of the Greens.

This strategy has worked well for Ben Houchen, whose tireless advocacy for Teesside is helping to attract many of the UK’s leading net zero investments to his area, from GE’s new turbine manufacturing factory and BP’s blue hydrogen plant, to one of the first carbon capture projects and a hydrogen transport hub. He has been one of the biggest advocates for the PM’s green industrial revolution, including on this site, and was re-elected by a landslide.

The Government should copy this formula in other parts of the country. It should invest in enabling infrastructure, fund large-scale green demonstration projects, and put in place market frameworks to attract private investment in new clean industries, such as battery manufacturing, floating offshore wind, heat pumps, and green steel production.

But while it can unite Conservatives, this approach to net zero is divisive on the left. The red-greens can’t decide if they support ‘degrowth’ as a route to tackling climate change. They debate whether people’s lifestyles must be drastically curtailed, or whether to focus on clean technology. And they are divided over whether to attach radical cultural policies on race and gender to their environmental agenda.

The other main element of the Conservatives’ response should be to implement ambitious but practical environmental policies that improve people’s communities and their quality of life. Here, the Conservatives’ other great election-winner from Thursday, Andy Street, provides a blueprint.

He has overseen major improvements in public and active transport in the West Midlands, reopening rail stations, extending metro lines, putting in segregated cycle lanes, and freezing bus fares. He is showing how mayors can connect up their region, reduce the cost of living, and improve the local environment at the same time.

National government should enable more pragmatic local environmental leadership like this. Ministers could give councils the powers and funding to create and safeguard a new network of wild green spaces (a ‘wilbelt’) around towns and cities. They could devolve more funding to metro mayors to insulate social and fuel poor homes in their regions. And they could fund transport authorities to replace old diesel buses with electric or hydrogen ones, and to install electric charge points along the strategic road network.

The Greens, by contrast, have a poor record of delivery on the few occasions when they’ve been entrusted with office. Remember their failure in Brighton and Hove to arrange the bin collections, which lead to strikes and images of rubbish piled up on street corners. There is a political opportunity here for Conservative environmentalism that sets ambitious targets, actually delivers them, and does so in a way that benefits the economy and people’s standard of living.

The Greens had a good night on Thursday. But by uniting behind Boris Johnson’s green industrial revolution, and replicating the approach of Ben Houchen and Andy Street, the Conservatives can prevent them rising further and can make the environment a winning, unifying issue for the party.

Iain Dale: Perhaps one day I’ll get involved in an election again. In the meantime, here are my predictions for Super Thursday’s results…

7 May

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

This is the first time for some years that I haven’t been able to host a live election night show on LBC. Because of Covid, many local authorities decided they wouldn’t count overnight. And since I don’t have a show on Friday or at the weekends, I feel as if I’m being silenced!

Like most of you, I suspect, I love elections. I well remember my first election day back in 1983 in Norwich. I was designated to be a teller and work in the Committee Room. I’ve always loved lists and can remember the thrill of crossing off all the people who had voted on the electoral roll boards.

Sitting outside the polling station was great fun, and was probably the thing I loved doing most. I enjoyed the banter with the tellers from the other parties and with people who were voting. The winks, the furtive smiles. Or growls. I’d have happily done it all day.

And then I remember when I was a candidate in various local elections, and then a general election, touring the polling stations and talking to the election officials. This was quite a challenge in North Norfolk in 2005, where there were, if I recall correctly, more than 100 polling stations.

Still, it kept me out of mischief on polling day, and took my mind off the disaster I knew was ahead of me at the count! The last time I was involved in an election day as a party activist was in 2009. I can hardly believe it was so long ago. Since then I’ve always been on the radio, or preparing for an overnight show. But I’ll always remember the thrill I got out of being involved. And who knows, one day I may be again.

– – – – – – – – – –

Second preferences are a weird thing. You’re voting for a candidate or a party you really don’t want to win, but they’re the least-worst option. By definition it’s a negative vote. In the PCC election I’m afraid I just could bring myself to tick a box at all.

– – – – – – – – – –

“You’ve broken the law, Iain,” said a Twitter follower. He had heard my For the Many podcast in which I revealed how I had voted (by post) in the local elections, both in Norfolk and Kent. “You can’t vote twice,” he maintained.

Luckily I know my electoral law better than he did. If you have properties in two different council areas you are, indeed, entitled to cast your vote in each of them in local elections. However, that does not apply in general elections. I patiently explained this to him.

His reply was amusing. “So you’re telling me I’ve missed out on voting twice for the 17 years I’ve had a second home?” Yup, I said. “Bugger,” he replied.

– – – – – – – – – –

So here are my predictions for the results of the various elections…

Scotland: SNP to get a majority of seats. Conservatives remain the main opposition. Greens gain an extra one or two MSPs. Alex Salmond is elected with one or two others.

Wales: Conservatives add seats, but Labour remains largest party. Plaid gain a few seats. Lib Dems disappear completely. Mark Drakeford to lose his seat.

London: Sadiq Khan walks it. Shaun Bailey gets 25-30 per cent of first preferences. Greens get around 10 per cent.

West Midlands: Andy Street wins.

Hartlepool by-election: Conservatives to take it.

English County & District Councils: Lib Dems do better in these than any of the other elections. Labour lose seats, Conservatives gains. Greens add to their seat count too. Minor parties squeezed.

– – – – – – – – – –

Jacqui Smith and I will be recording an Election Special For the Many podcast for release on Monday morning, analysing all the results.

Whatever they bring, there is bound to be a new bout of reshuffle speculation. However, if the results turn out as I predict above, if I were the PM I’d be tempted to leave any reshuffle until a bit later in the year – either before the summer recess or in the autumn.

The same is not true for Keir Starmer, though. Having had an impressive first eight months as leader of the Labour Party, 2021 has so far proved to be disastrous.

To be fair, it’s not all down to him, as few of his shadow cabinet have managed to cut through at all. Anneliese Dodds is copping a lot of criticism, but to be fair to her, she’s not alone in failing to make much of a mark. The consensus among pundits is he needs to bring Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn into his top team. But what if they don’t wish to return?

Cooper seems to enjoy chairing her select committee and Benn may well feel he’s done his bit. Do a search among other Labour MPs who have a bit of experience, and they’re pretty thin on the ground. Starmer’s position at the moment is far from enviable.

In the West Midlands, Street is buffeted by a storm. But he sounds like a man who has the wind in his sails.

5 May

“I hear it’s sunny in Lichfield,” Michael Fabricant joked, as a storm of unbridled ferocity broke over a group of campaigners for Andy Street, Tory candidate for West Midlands Mayor.

About a  dozen people were gathered in the car park between the One Man and His Dog pub and the Co-Op supermarket in Turnberry Road, Bloxwich.

They included Eddie Hughes, who captured Walsall North (which includes Bloxwich) for the Conservatives in 2017; Fabricant, who has represented Lichfield since 1992; and Jahid Choudhury, who is within striking distance of winning a council seat in Aston, where he will be standing again next year.

“Boris Johnson should go to Aston,” Choudhury said, “and say thank you to the loyal supporters.”

He related how he and other Bangladeshis in Aston, an inner-city area, decided in 2017 to back Street, even though the conventional wisdom was that this was a Labour stronghold.

“The Bangladeshi community worked for six months night and day and then we won,” Choudhury said: four years ago, Street was elected Mayor by the slender margin of 3,776 votes.

Will Street win again this time? The latest poll, for The Times Red Box, puts him 17 points ahead of Liam Byrne, the Labour candidate.

Street flatly rejects this poll: “We dismissed that. I don’t believe it.”

He pointed out that at the general election in 2019, the Conservatives gained 725,000 votes in the West Midlands and Labour 723,000, a result which suggests that the mayoral contest ought, as it was in 2017, to be on a knife edge.

“It will all come down to turnout,” Street adds. “Some of the polls could engender complacency.”

He issued an appeal to ConHome readers: “We still need all the help we can get.”

But morale among Street’s campaigners is good. They began, as is the modern way, by taking photographs of each other, to be distributed on social media.

Jay Singh-Sobal, the Tory candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner, conducted a short interview with Street, and Hughes gave a short speech.

It then began to rain, hail and blow with astonishing force. The get-out-the-vote letters which the team was about to distribute were about to be reduced to a pulp.

Street ordered a tactical retreat to the cars until the storm blew over, as it soon did. The candidate then led the way into various new roads and closes which all seemed to be named after golf courses: Troon, Sunningdale, Birkdale.

The gardens here were immaculate. He raced from door to door, posting the letters.

When he missed a turning and ConHome apologised for distracting him by putting a lot of questions, he replied: “No, no, I should be able to do two things at once.”

He related how Theresa May, to whom he gives the credit for initiating measures which have led to a 75 per cent fall in rough sleepers, had been there canvassing the other day.

So had Damian Green, Damian Hinds, Greg Clark and Sajid Javid.

Aware that he had just named some leading members of the last Government, Street proceeded to add some members of the present Government who had come to canvass for him: Robert Jenrick, Grant Shapps, Therese Coffey, Robert Buckland, and Johnson himself.

Fabricant provided light relief by staggering up, as if having a heart attack, while saying, “The last thing we need is a by-election.”

Street sounds more confident, more at ease with the world of politics, than he did when interviewed in February 2017 by ConHome, soon after stepping down as Managing Director of John Lewis and entering the mayoral race.

On that occasion he said of his campaign:

“If we can win here it is a knife thrust in the Labour Party’s heart.”

A second Street victory might prove even more painful to Labour, for it would suggest a more enduring change in allegiance by voters.

On the drive back to Walsall Station, we passed through Birchills, where a vast brownfield site is being prepared for development by first having the ground cleaned.

Street pointed out that the site had lain derelict for decades. By spending public money for it to be cleaned up, he had prompted ten times as much private investment in new housing.

He obtained £450 million from the Treasury to regenerate such sites in Birmingham, and thereby avoid building on the Green Belt.

But first he had to submit himself to “examination by Spreadsheet Phil”, Philip Hammond, who had the relevant spreadsheet to hand, and wanted to know what “this bit on page five, line one, actually means.”

Street talks with enormous enthusiasm about regenerating the West Midlands by convening all the interested parties and getting them to work together.

He says that this time, he no longer needs to explain what the Mayor can do: he can point instead to what the Mayor is doing. He sounds like a man with the wind in his sails, and he insisted the election is about what is happening in his region, with nobody mentioning the accusations the press has made against Johnson.

But the West Midlands do still contain a large number of people who scarcely register in opinion polls, except perhaps as “don’t knows”.

On emerging at lunchtime yesterday from Walsall Station, and feeling hungry, I ordered a hamburger from a stall, and while it was being fried, asked the stallholder how he would be voting on Thursday.

“I don’t agree with it, mate,” he replied. “Whoever gets in screws you over.”

But what, as a matter of interest, does he think of Andy Street?

“Never heard of him,” the man replied.

In every part of the country, a large number of people are what one might call principled non-voters. They believe that whoever they might vote for would let them down, so they refuse to support anyone.

Street, however, is at least much better known than he was four years ago, and can run on his track record. He has become a far more formidable candidate than he was when he stood and won in 2017.

Andy Street: I’ve got a clear plan for the West Midlands, and I’m ready to go. Here’s what I’ll do in my first 100 days if re-elected.

4 May

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

On Thursday, when the people of the West Midlands go to the polls, they face a critical decision. Do they choose to reignite the progress of the last four years, or return to the stagnant, partisan politics of the last few decades, which saw our region fall into decline?

Before the pandemic struck, the West Midlands was finally shaking off that decline and reclaiming its place as an economic powerhouse. After decades of inertia, a Conservative mayor brought record numbers of new jobs, record house building, increased transport spending sevenfold and created the fastest growing economy anywhere outside of London.

My non-partisan approach – using my business background to bring in more than £3 billion in investment – swept away the local rivalries that had held us back for so long. As we face a tough recovery post-Covid, we cannot afford to return to that. Time is of the essence.

We need to move fast to get people back into work, help the economy recover, and make swift progress on our priorities like transport and housing. I’ve got a clear plan for the region, and I’m ready to go. I want to use this column to set out 12 things I will do in my first 100 days if re-elected.

Over the last four years, my working relationship with Number 10 and the rest of government has been a key factor in delivering investment, with securing the green light for HS2 probably the best example of success. My first task, once re-elected, would be to meet the Prime Minister to discuss how the Government can help deliver our priorities in the West Midlands.

Our region’s economy has been the worst hit by Covid, but is poised for recovery. Generating new jobs quickly will be key to this, so in my first 100 days I will double down on my Jobs Plan to deliver 100,000 new jobs to the region in the next two years. I will also roll out a series of local jobs, training and careers fairs for young people across the West Midlands over this summer.

I will back our pubs, restaurants and hospitality and tourism businesses with a campaign encouraging people to get out and spend after the pandemic – and set up an investment fund to help SMEs grow. I will also use my business experience to connect with potential investors into the battery Gigafactory in Coventry and possible new occupiers for the John Lewis store in Grand Central.

It will be full steam ahead on my transport plans, with detailed planning being done for the new Metro lines. Next Monday – on May 10 – work will start on Perry Barr railway station, with five more stations to follow quickly. I will complete the roll-out of 1500 bikes across every borough in our bike share scheme and begin detailed planning of new cycle routes.

We also need to encourage people back onto public transport as Covid restrictions ease. I will work with National Express to make the most of the major fare cuts and expanded fare capping planned for June 21, when social distancing restrictions should end. My first 100 days will get our region get moving again.

Housing has been another area where we have seen great success, and it has the potential not only to create the homes our region needs but also to unlock thousands of new jobs. London has agreed an Affordable Housing Deal with the Government worth hundreds of millions of pounds – I will push for our region to be the first to get one too, to fund the construction of thousands of new affordable homes to rent and to buy.

I want to see our City and Town centre regeneration plans rapidly progress, and will back our remaining towns fund bids like Bloxwich, Dudley and Walsall.

I will recruit 1,000 volunteers to take part in the Great West Midlands Clean Up campaign ahead of the Commonwealth Games. In my first 100 days will also put the West Midlands at the heart of the climate debate by hosting a conference for mayors and city leaders from across the UK, to agree ways we can work together to affect change.

We have taken significant steps to tackle rough sleeping, but in my first 100 days we will work even harder to eradicate it by “designing out” homelessness. We will launch a new Equalities Taskforce, to address the inequalities highlighted in the Health of the Region report commissioned under my leadership.

Finally, I will stand shoulder to shoulder with the new Police and Crime Commissioner to make things happen to get crime down, such as on public transport and through the joint Violence Reduction Unit.

Setting out all of this in the first 100 days after the election may seem like rhetoric, but I know just how much can be achieved directly after taking office. During the campaign for the first mayoral election in 2017 I set out 10 pledges for my first 100 days, all of which were delivered. In fact, when I think back to four years ago, I hit the ground running – attracting huge investment and cementing key decisions which lay the foundations for our future success.

In the few weeks after taking office in 2017, I met the Prime Minister and Transport Secretary, leading to more than £250 million funding for the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro extension which is now under construction. I set up the West Midlands Homelessness Taskforce which led the work in reducing rough sleeping in the region by 67 per cent, with over 400 homeless people now helped through the Housing First scheme. And I signed up 1,000 people to mentor young people, in a scheme which has helped over 10,000 young people in the last four years.

Now, it is even more important that results are delivered quickly. Our region faces huge challenges. However, I have a proven track record of bringing in billions of pounds in investment and uniting our region to unleash its potential. I have a strong, working relationship with the Government and the connections with business needed to kickstart the economy. I also have a detailed, ambitious but practical plan to deliver the jobs, homes and transport we will need to recover. It is ready to go.

I am ready to get straight to work, to get our region back on track, reignite the progress made over the last four years – and start delivering results within the first 100 days.