Andy Street: I haven’t raised a mayoral tax during my term, and commit to not doing so if I’m re-elected

23 Feb

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

As we await next week’s Budget from the Chancellor, here in the West Midlands we’ve just considered our own local financial plans for the next year. Approved by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), it is a budget of more than £900 million – funding infrastructure, regeneration and job training schemes that can support our post-Covid-19 recovery.

After such a difficult twelve months, and with significant challenges ahead, this year’s financial plan for the region stands out in terms of its ambition and breadth, delivering on my core commitments of new jobs, better transport and more homes.

But our plans aren’t just about big spending to kick-start the economy, they’re about public funds working hand-in-hand with private sector investment. This is about delivering investment into projects that are based on solid business cases.

In this column, I want to tell you about how we intend to spend that investment and also explain how, as Mayor, I believe it’s vital that I set a financial example to ask only for money when it is needed – and ensure it is used properly.

So what’s in the region’s budget? For a start, there is £142 million towards skills and training – to support people as they adapt to the new world we face and get high-quality, stable jobs in the industries of the future.

Despite the pandemic, we have already made a good start on the 20-year transport plan that I unveiled 12 months ago, and this budget includes a further £363 million towards delivering our ever-expanding Metro lines, reopened railway stations and better, greener buses.

Then there is ‘brownfield first’, our ground-breaking policy of reclaiming derelict industrial sites for development. Our budget includes £116 million towards maintaining our progress in making ‘brownfield first’ a reality, not a slogan – regenerating communities and easing the pressure on our Green Belt.

Plus, of course, millions have been allocated to other big regional investments we have secured, for a whole raft of projects that are generating jobs and sustaining livelihoods now – projects such as the Commonwealth Games, Coventry City of Culture, the rollout of 5G technology and many more.

All told, since becoming Mayor four years ago, we have brought in £3 billion of new Government funding, a figure rising every day, and topped up with millions more given to our councils, and supported by us as a regional body.

When the pandemic struck, the West Midlands economy was motoring, with record employment, record housebuilding and the strongest growth anywhere outside of London. Government support played a huge part in that success, but I believe that our ability as a region to put together compelling business cases has been crucial to winning that investment. Now, as we plot our recovery post-pandemic, this approach will be more important than ever.

It’s not surprising that I do things differently as Mayor, when you consider that I came to the role from a business background, rather than via the world of politics. My business experiences have certainly informed how I tackle the role, in terms of setting strategy, building a team, ensuring delivery and understanding that the UK’s regions are in a competitive race.

However, in financial terms, my 30 years at John Lewis have meant I build a budget based on business deals, not political decisions. Every penny we have brought into the region has been won through coherent business arguments, project by project, and working hard to make the case with Government.

Throughout my time as Mayor, I have worked with Ministers to secure the funding we need from across Government. I haven’t done this through megaphone diplomacy, or seeking out TV cameras to make demands, but through approaching each project as a business deal – and making sure we land as many as possible. Naturally, this approach also knits well with the business world, leading to big private sector investments which drive our economy forward.

There could have been another way. When it was established in 2017, the office of the Mayor was given considerable powers – powers I have often argued should be extended, for example to decentralise decision-making from London, or to give regions more ability to direct how money is spent locally.

However, there is one significant area where I have not used the powers on offer to me. During my time in office, I have not used the ability available to the Mayor to introduce a precept – an additional Mayoral tax.

In the last four years I have never used this power to tax the people of the West Midlands and, where we have borrowed, it has been to push forward projects – and never at a rate which means citizens end up with a precept.

Our model of retaining local business rates has also helped balance the books, by ensuring we benefit from the fruits of our strong economic growth, paying in part for the work of the WMCA.

I could have got our region into heavy debt to make my transport plan happen, or raised extra taxes to press ahead with Brownfield First. As a person with a business background, and someone who believes good housekeeping, this hasn’t been my way. Areas served by Labour mayors levy a precept. This has not happened here.

As households across the region face the hardships caused by Coronavirus, I’m proud to say that this year we have once again balanced our books and delivered a budget that hasn’t cost local people a penny in extra tax from their Mayor.

It is an approach I want to continue. After four years of no extra tax due to the Mayor’s office, I am planning to do the same again if I am fortunate enough to continue in this job – that’s zero tax again for another three years. I do not intend to introduce a precept.

I consider it a great privilege to be the Mayor of the region where I grew up, the place that made me what I am. I passionately believe that the office of Mayor should exist to the benefit of local people, not to their cost. By continuing to approach this job in a business-like way, I am confident I can continue to bring real money into their region, without taking it out of their pockets.

Andy Street: Our pioneering bus partnership will get the West Midlands economy moving

15 Dec

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

Bob Neill: There is no good reason to apply the same Covid restrictions throughout London

19 Oct

Sir Bob Neill is MP for Bromley and Chiselhurst, and is Chair of the Justice Select Committee.

I do not naturally sit on the libertarian wing of our Party, and neither am I an adherent of the Great Barrington Declaration proposals that some of my colleagues embrace. I am very much a One Nation Tory and, like my Bromley predecessor, Harold Macmillan, not adverse to state intervention in the right circumstances.

And yet, despite those differences, I find myself agreeing with the view of many who fall into these two former camps: the Government’s approach to this pandemic is not only increasingly clumsy and ill thought through, but in itself, potentially dangerous.

I reach that conclusion based not on ideology but instead, like a growing number of my colleagues, through a frustration that what the Government claims it is doing – targeted local interventions based on the evidence, something I wholeheartedly support – and what it is actually doing – taking a broadbrush to lockdown great swathes of the country – are two very different things.

Our response to Covid-19 should be firmly rooted in empiricism. That was a much harder task in March when far less was known about the virus, how it spreads, who is most at risk, and how it is best treated. Seven months on, and thanks to the genuinely inspiring work of those researchers and experts toiling in the field, we find ourselves in a very different position.

Let me be clear: I have the upmost respect for our medical and scientific advisers. They are tasked with providing their honest and truthful assessment to ministers, including on worst case scenarios, and I give short shrift to anyone who criticises them for doing so.

But, just as it is their job to say how they see it from their particular area of expertise, it the job of politicians to mediate between, on the one hand, the feedback they are receiving from SAGE, and on the other, the very real evidence, seen on every high street and in every city centre, of businesses in free fall. That is no easy balance to strike, but we are elected to make tough decisions.

Regrettably, by moving the entirety of London into Tier 2, the Government is widely missing the mark. As the Prime Minister knows well from his time as Mayor, our capital is a vibrant patchwork of different communities – just one of the things that makes it perhaps the greatest city in the world. From the calm of Richmond Park to the hustle and bustle of Brick Lane, and with a population over three times the size of the UK’s next largest metropolitan area, it’s as diverse as it is big.

Why then is it deemed acceptable to assume that what is necessary in one area will be suitable in another? The London Borough of Bromley, a part of which I am proud to represent, is a case in point. Bordering Kent, and twelve times larger in size than the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, with our large parks, ancient woodlands, and even an open farm or two, you’d be forgiven for forgetting you were just a 25 minute train journey from Charing Cross.

Although cases are rising in Bromley, like many suburbs in the south of the city, they remain considerably lower than in other parts of London (at the time of writing, Bromley has roughly 70 cases per 100,000, compared to 144 in Ealing).

When I made that case to the Health Secretary, the significant number of commuters in our capital was given as the reason for the pursual of this blanket strategy. But again, that simply isn’t born out in the evidence. As of this week, even by the Government’s own statistics, tube journeys are only at 33 per cent compared to the same time last year, and bus journeys 59 per cent. Overground train commuting is also reckoned to be down to 10 to 15 per cent of pre-Coronavirus levels.

The Government should be in no doubt: this one-size fits all approach will have real repercussions, not just for businesses, especially those in the hospitality, events and arts sectors, but also for hundreds of thousands of isolated, elderly or vulnerable people (did anyone consider that Bromley is home to more pensioners than any other London borough?). Additional and targeted support must now be provided.

I do not for one second underestimate the seriousness of this virus or the need to protect the NHS, nor am I against strict interventions, but a far more localised and nuanced approach, as Germany and others have shown is possible, should be the way forward. Clobbering businesses in London to make admittedly difficult political decisions elsewhere more palatable is not.

And finally, if we are to continue to take the public with us, we have to be honest about the broader costs and trade-offs involved. Failing to control the pandemic obviously has serious health consequences, but missed hospital appointments and medical tests for other conditions (some themselves life-threatening) does too, as does isolation and separation from family and friends. The same risk to mental and physical health is there with increased unemployment, or the stress of seeing the collapse of a family business built up over many years.

Of course, we want to protect the NHS, but we will not do that in the long run if we wreck the economy and destroy the tax base that funds it. Sad to say, I do not think we are always getting that balance right.

Andy Street: Our blueprint setting out the economic ambitions of the West Midlands

30 Jun

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

Last week saw the launch of a blueprint setting out the post-Coronavirus economic ambitions of the West Midlands. As a manufacturing heartland, where draftsmen drew up plans for everything from steam engines to Spitfires, blueprints are in our blood. They illuminate our history. This intentionally ambitious £3.2 billion business case draws a clear trajectory to our region’s future.

As Mayor of the West Midlands, it’s my job to attract as much investment as possible. Rishi Sunak’s bold and decisive actions – notably through the furlough scheme – have provided unprecedented economic support for jobs during lockdown. Now, demands on the public purse are high. All investment must be fully justified, diligently used and – crucially – deliver real results. Every penny counts.

Our region was the UK’s fastest growing outside the capital until Covid-19 struck, and as a hotbed of export, manufacturing, construction and professional services, we play a key role in the UK’s economic success. This new blueprint lays out a powerful business case for how continued investment can spark rapid and sustained recovery, not only for us here but for UK PLC.

Our ambition is deliberate because the stakes are high. Research suggests we could be hit harder than most by the lockdown. When coronavirus struck, the West Midlands was in a strong economic position, with record employment figures and productivity growth well ahead of the national rate. However, our economic mix – dependence on manufacturing and business tourism, as well as a significant contribution from universities – leaves us vulnerable.

By following the blueprint we have drawn up, the Government can demonstrate its commitment to ‘levelling-up’ by backing the people of the West Midlands to deliver.

We need to do everything we can to get back on our feet quickly and return to the levels of success we were enjoying before the outbreak hit. That means driving a rapid economic recovery, safeguarding more than 135,000 jobs while building thousands of new homes. It also means learning the lessons of the financial crash of 2008/09, and listening to business.

Investment is crucial. However, while we need significant investment from the Government – £3.2 billion over the next three years – this is broadly in line with the £2.7 billion investment we have secured since 2017, which supported strong economic success here.

Our business plan is to build on our success and on the investment we have already attracted from Government, while leveraging much more private and public sector investment locally, including from our universities.

The blueprint sets out a business case for investments, while outlining the economic benefits they would deliver. For example, it directly supports our automotive sector by harnessing clean technology and electrification. A major investment package, including £250 million towards a Gigafactory producing state-of-the-art batteries, will unlock 51,700 green jobs.

The building of HS2, next year’s Coventry City of Culture festivities and the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games present opportunities to create jobs for local people. By accelerating major infrastructure investment and supporting the recovery of the tourism and cultural sector we can unlock 33,000 jobs.

Then there is the West Midlands’ growing reputation as a hotbed for health research. By investing in healthcare innovation we can protect 3,200 jobs, while improving the health of our population.

Improving transport, housing and digital infrastructure will play a key part in a rapid recovery, while laying the foundations for future economic strength. We can build better transport and digital links to drive productivity and create thousands of jobs in construction. Schemes include extending rail, metro and bus routes, with cash for enhanced digital connectivity and to accelerate fibre connectivity in deprived areas. Reopening long-closed railway stations will better connect people to employment opportunities, attract investment into once-isolated areas and improve productivity.

The West Midlands has pioneered the regeneration of brownfield sites to tackle the housing crisis, while protecting the environment. We even have our own regional definition of ‘affordable housing’ applied at planning level by the West Midlands Combined Authority. We want to build 35,000 new homes – 15,000 of which will be affordable – with a focus on housing key workers. Plans include using a £200m investment package to regenerate derelict eyesores and £24 million for a new National Brownfield Institute in Wolverhampton, which will be a centre of excellence for land reclamation.

Investment to equip people with the skills needed for the future aims to help get them back into work. This includes helping 38,400 young people obtain apprenticeships and work experience, retraining 20,000 workers for in-demand sectors such as health and social care, logistics and business services, and upskilling 24,000 for jobs for the future.

Finally, we want to back the region’s businesses with support schemes – including helping them navigate their way through the post-lockdown world – creating or safeguarding 43,900 jobs.

This ambitious business case is based on our region’s experiences not only of recovering from the last downturn, but on the successes of the last three years. The blueprint has been developed as a team effort between the region’s local enterprise partnerships, universities, business groups and local authorities.  Crucially, some of our biggest employers have also shared their insights about how the region can play its part in securing a strong national recovery, putting central investment to good use.

For the UK to fully recover, all of its regions must recover too – creating a stronger country with a more robust, balanced economy.