West Midlands mayor Andy Street has a plan to create 100,000 jobs in the next two years to help the region bounce back from pandemic, he has said.
Speaking to NationalWorld, the former John Lewis boss said his region has “done extremely well” from government support, but that “true devolution” would see regional leaders able to collect and keep certain forms of taxation to use as they see fit.
Mr Street also said that some people are too quick to “point the finger at London” rather than taking responsibility for their region.
The Conservative metro-mayor is currently seeking re-election for the first time, in a contest he is considered likely to win, in a part of the country which has been particularly hard hit by the economic impacts of Covid.
“We were the fastest growing region outside London pre-pandemic,” he laments, “but thinking of the sectors that are really strong here, things like business tourism, live entertainment; these are some of the worst hit, and we know they employ an awful lot of young people.
“So the big question is, how do we get back our momentum?”
In answering his own question, Mr Street is keen to stress that he’s already working to regain ground lost to the pandemic.
Education, skills and the levelling up agenda
Of the 100k jobs promised in his manifesto, he says the most important thing is that they are “things we can see right now, not resting on some economic miracle of a bounce back, or huge investment we can’t yet anticipate”.
HS2, the government’s major infrastructure project to connect London and the Midlands with high speed rail, will be a major provider of jobs in the region in the relatively short term, as will the Commonwealth games, due to take place in Birmingham next year.
But when it comes to long-term jobs, Mr Street says he is keen to try to target education funding at future growth industries, preparing workers in the region for jobs that will come available over the next five to 10 years.
He said: “At Wolverhampton College we’re spending our funding on a new faculty doing new mechanics for engineering for electric vehicles, to make sure our mechanics can move to electric vehicles.
“We also secured funding very recently to train people in retrofitting, making old houses more energy efficient.”
It’s this point, where education and skills meet long-term industrial planning, that Mr Street believes to be largely missing from the ‘levelling up’ debate.
“Skills and education are actually the long-term way to level up. If you raise people’s ability and their aspirations, and if good jobs come, then that’s how they can improve their life chances. [Education and skills] is a much under-represented part of the levelling up debate.”
“We don’t have the same level of powers on education as with transport, but we have our adult education budget and we have other budgets we work with colleges on. We’re using that to make sure that citizens here are getting the skills that are going to be needed for the growth areas of the economy.”
‘It’s very easy to point the finger at London’
While many local and regional officials will argue strongly for greater devolved powers, or point to areas in which their hands are currently tied as a result of power being largely situated in Westminster, Mr Street is more interested in what he can do now.
This could well be down to his record of successfully bidding for a number of projects and initiatives from central government. Mr Street says his region has “done extremely well” when it comes to government support.
Some have speculated that, as one of only a few Conservative regional leaders, Mr Street has an easier time applying to a Conservative government for cash and initiatives than some others who represent opposition parties.
Asked about what further powers he would like to be granted, Mr Street says that direct power to set policy isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all for regional leaders.
He said: “At the moment, it’s very very easy for people to point the finger at London, actually that’s not fully-fledged leadership.
“You don’t have to have formal power to have influence. Nobody said in the job description that it was my role to champion the building of HS2 and some would say persuade the government to do it, but as mayor you have the authority to step forward and represent your region in whatever way you wish.”
He added: “There’s an incredible authority to champion, to do deals with people around the world and in government, let’s not be too focussed on the pure job description.”
That aside though, he says the main thing he’d like the government to do to empower regional leaders is to further the process of financial devolution, allowing certain tax revenues to be collected and kept at a local level, with the money able to be used as regional leaders see fit.
“Rather than putting a proposal to the government and they decide, the next stage is retaining some taxation here, and then we decide what we’re going to do with it. In exchange for that government can say ‘well Andy, you can’t come and ask us, because you have to live within your means’.
He added: “I would say that that’s true devolution, because it trusts people on the ground to make their own decisions”.
Read more of NationalWorld’s reporting on the ‘levelling up’ agenda –