In 1985, fresh out of Oxford University, Andy Street did something unusual for a graduate of philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), the preserve of many a lawyer and politician: he started working the tills at John Lewis.
With his application to be a social worker turned down by Birmingham city council, and having also been rejected by Marks & Spencer, the inaugural mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) took the first step in what would become his steady upward climb at the retailer.
From those humble beginnings behind the counter in the decidedly grey Brent Cross shopping centre in London, by 1993 he was managing a store in Milton Keynes, and by 2007 he was managing director – until he resigned for the mayoralty, which he won in 2017.
“I remember being on the till that first Christmas and friends from university coming in and saying ‘God, Andy, what happened? Has everything gone wrong for you?’ But I was right and they were wrong,” he told an interviewer in 2008.
Today, the 58-year-old former businessman, who grew up in Birmingham, is nearly one year into his second term in office heading up the combined authority that encompasses the UK’s “second city”. The WMCA and Greater Manchester were both granted “‘trailblazer’ devolution deals to extend their powers” under the government’s levelling-up white paper, published in February, and the Conservative mayor is optimistic.
“All of the sort of mood music I get is that… the government – up to the Prime Minister, perhaps – are absolutely serious about this,” he tells Spotlight, “so it all bodes very well. But to be clear, we haven’t started that process yet.”
Street is one of only two Conservative “metro mayors” in the UK (the second being Ben Houchen of Tees Valley). Winning his first term by a very narrow margin over Labour in 2017 he hailed “the rebirth of urban Conservatism”. He leads, as he puts it, a “politically balanced” area. The West Midlands has 14 MPs each from Labour and the Conservative Party, as well as four Labour council leaders and three Conservative council leaders. This is why, he says, he has to do his job “in a non-partisan way”.
In the early days of the pandemic the metro mayors became quasi-heroic figures in their vocal criticism of Westminster’s Covid-19 policy. Street does identify with the other, mostly Labour, mayors because “they are doing the same job as me” – namely being “a centre forward for your region”. Though, he adds, he identifies “hugely” with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, and his approach.
But Street sees a “philosophical difference” between him and the Labour mayors. “I am very clear it’s the private sector that will drive ultimately our recovery,” he says. He cites WMCA’s £350m housing deal, announced in 2018, in part to develop brownfield sites, as an example of where the authority has leveraged private funds through public money.
The Conservatives have been promising to fix the country’s London-skewed economy since the 2019 election. The levelling-up white paper, which took nearly three years to appear, touted a hodgepodge of policies enacted since then towards this aim, such as the £4.8bn made available via the Levelling-Up Fund and £3.6bn via the Towns Fund. As a next step, February’s paper outlined 12 “national missions” – from moving more public research and development (R&D) spend outside London and the south-east to improving children’s education outcomes – to be achieved by 2030. Many welcomed the clarity given to what has been criticised as a vague slogan.
Critics also pointed out that the paper did not set out new funding. Street stresses that we don’t yet know what the WMCA’s “trailblazer” deal will look like, but that “those 12 missions going on the table together, the way they weave together, should be extremely successful”.
What about the Levelling Up Fund, or the pledge to move spending on R&D outside the “greater south-east” region? Is what is currently outlined in the white paper enough to achieve the government’s ambition?
“They are all part of a weave,” he says. “Culture is very important. R&D is critical.” It’s “a huge move to send 55 per cent of R&D funding… outside the greater south-east,” he adds, referring to the pledge by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to move that percentage of its public investment to other parts of the country by 2024-25. “We have a lot of really big levers, but let’s be clear that any one lever on its own is not sufficient”.
One of the white paper’s missions promises a devolution deal by 2030 “for every part of England that wants one”. There is frustration in local government that, even in the levelling-up era, authorities need to bid centrally for funds, making planning tricky, and requiring a Whitehall stamp of approval for local initiatives.
Street recognises this but is adamant there is “very clear evidence” that the “government is willing to change away from that”. Last year, the WMCA won its bid for £1bn in funding from the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements fund. The money will be made available over five years, and this, says Street, means he can plan ahead. In any case, he adds: “I don’t object to the idea that we had to bid for our sustainable transport settlement, because the government [has] got to know that national taxpayers’ cash is being invested wisely.”
A “big gap” in the white paper, notes Street, is the transition to a net-zero economy. “It didn’t talk much about that and about our economy, and that’s particularly important,” he says, adding that this has “got to be done in a way that addresses the climate emergency as well. I think that needed to be there.”
Childcare is arguably another omission. While the white paper’s “fifth mission” focuses on raising primary and early years’ standards, there is nothing on bolstering a childcare sector hit hard by the pandemic. Neither is there any mention of rethinking the broken system that sees working parents across the UK paying over the odds for childcare.
“I’ll take your word for it because I can’t remember what every one of those 300 pages in the white paper said,” says Street. “What I am absolutely sure of though, is that the prominence of education and skills is the real driver of levelling up and that’s absolutely there.”
In 2016, not-for-profit network the Women’s Budget Group estimated that investing 2 per cent of UK GDP in care generally would create 1.5 million jobs. Does he see childcare as a key part of infrastructure in a levelled-up economy? “I think that early years, of which childcare is a part… is definitely a key part because we know that it is true that outcomes are determined very, very early in life.”
Given that women tend to do most of the paid and unpaid care in the UK, perhaps this omission reflects a more general problem: a lack of diversity at the policymaking table. This is an issue locally and nationally. Of England’s ten metro mayors (see pages 18-20), only one is a woman: Labour’s Tracy Brabin of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority. The mayors are quite a homogenous group. As are the ministers for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; six out of seven are white men.
“I think you are looking at the wrong group, frankly,” says Street, of the mayors. “What goes on in the West Midlands is much more to do with all the people who are in leadership roles across the West Midlands.”
The mayor is “very pleased” that his executive team is led by women, but admits there is an imbalance in the board, which is comprised of council leaders, six out of seven of whom are men. He adds that there is better diversity there in term of ethnic origin, and says he is trying to make sure there is “genuine diversity”. The region is the second-most ethnically diverse in England outside London.
Should the next West Midlands mayor be a woman, then, or from an ethnic minority? “I’ve never thought like that. I always thought that you need the best person,” says Street. “This is how I was as managing director of John Lewis. People should be considered because they are the best, not because of their background.”
In the direct manner of someone who likes people to get straight to the point, Street roundly rejects the premise that John Lewis dropping its “never knowingly undersold” pledge this year, some six years after Street left the business, says anything about the state of the economy.
“All I would say is throughout my time there we defended ‘never knowingly undersold’ absolutely down the line because I thought it was a critical marketing position and it was a sort of discipline in everything that we did.”
At the time of our telephone conversation with Street back in April, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was getting a lot of bad press over his wife’s overseas income. Such news, combined with “Partygate”, the cost-of-living crisis, and the fall-out from Brexit and the pandemic, could make it harder to retain the mayoralty.
Street, who was never a supporter of Brexit, says he “isn’t thinking about the election in any way at the moment”, and in any case, he says, “people in the West Midlands will judge me as a mayor individually, not necessarily my party, [and] how far I delivered on what I said I was going to do.”
Sunak was criticised at the Spring Statement for doing little to help those hit hard by rising prices. His wealth could raise questions, perhaps, about whether the very rich can enact such policy. Street doesn’t agree at all. “No one in life has experienced everything,” he says. “I don’t think there is anything that says that a wealthy person can’t have those values.”
And, on the subject of values, has the snobbery he encountered back in the eighties from PPE graduates, many of whom go on to senior Tory Party positions, changed at all? “Let’s hope it has because that was a long, long time ago… But what’s definitely happened is a recognition that technical skills are really important to the economy.”
The WMCA is an official partner of the NS Regional Development in the Age of Levelling Up Conference.