Andy Street: "I want to restore pride in the West Midlands"
The West Midlands Mayoralty is the only political job that would have plucked Andy Street from his role as chief executive of John Lewis. But does the businessman-turned-politician have all the powers at his disposal he needs to achieve the transformation he hopes for the region? And what does he make about the state of the Conservative party? Sebastian Whale travels to Birmingham to find out
I didn’t want to start an interview with a gotcha question. With delegates preparing to descend on Birmingham for Tory party conference, we’re keen to get a flavour from Andy Street of the best spots to visit. Places to eat and drink, which museums to see. So I thought I’d let him know in advance, so he has some time to prepare.
“I can answer all of those now straight off the top of my head,” he says. First comes the Pickled Piglet restaurant in Gas Street for grub. Then the Gin Vault on the canal. For museums, he recommends the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists and the striking library, next door to where we meet in Baskerville House, which has two floors with external spaces from which you can get a “grandstand view of the redevelopment of Birmingham”.
It took two minutes for the 55-year-old to reel off his recommendations. “That’s cause I live here,” he says in a noticeable Brummie twang. “These are all places I know and walk by and love going to myself.”
Street, who last year was elected Mayor of the West Midlands, grew up in and around Birmingham. He became political after the winter of discontent and seeing the “huge challenges” the city faced in the late 70s and early 80s. “Completing the circle, we’ve come back and that’s now part of my responsibility,” he says.
Street studied PPE at Keble College Oxford and was chair of the University Conservative Association. After being turned down for the Marks & Spencer training scheme, he was employed by John Lewis as a trainee in 1985. By the age of 44, he had climbed his way up to managing director. In 2014, he was voted the UK’s most admired leader in a survey compiled by business magazine Management Today.
Running for the newly created role of West Midlands Mayor was Street’s first venture into frontline politics. On a recent September evening, I visited Birmingham to find out more about the businessman-turned-politician.
Was a move to politics inevitable?
No, not at all.
Was the West Midlands Mayor job the first you had considered?
Yep, absolutely. Lots of people asked me often whether I would leave John Lewis to go into politics and the answer was ‘no, no, no’. But when this job came up, I thought this is the political job that is probably right for me. This is the only political job that I would have wanted to leave my previous employment for.
The reasons? It is something I care passionately about. Let’s be very straightforward: this place, this region, has had a huge struggle. You see the social consequences of that. I perhaps immodestly thought I could make a contribution to improving it – and I believed the executive responsibility of this role and the sort of content of the job suited my background.
Can you achieve that transformative change in this role?
The answer is yes, but maybe not for the reason behind your question. Let’s be really precise about that: this role has unfettered power, but it doesn’t have the powers. The power it has is to convene people together. Just in the last few weeks, we were successful in getting 5G mobile coverage [the technology will be trialled in the city next year] – nobody said it was in my job description. There is no power that says the mayor will do this. It wasn’t just me – it was all of us, the team around me. We saw that opportunity to get stuck into that. We got businesses, the public sector and local authorities all behind that bid. And lo and behold we won.
Of course, you are the first mayor of the West Midlands. You started with a blank canvass.
Exactly. That was the other reason I wanted to do it, because I absolutely understood, just as Ken Livingstone did in London, that you shape the role. And what’s been wonderful about it is that I’ve been able to do that. We haven’t succeeded in everything we wanted to do. But if you ask people here who’s leading the bid for Channel 4 for the region, people would probably say the mayor.
If people were asked – and this probably is more directly in my power – who’s really driving this question of the reopening of the railway lines? I think people would say I was. It has been a great opportunity to step into things.
Given the nature of the business you left, from where do you think you can influence more people’s lives?
What is the purpose of John Lewis? The ultimate purpose for John Lewis is to be there for its employees. It is a co-owned business – its success is shared with its employees. And that’s what this job is about. What we have got to do is share the success of the region with the population – and remember this is the most diverse place in Britain, 37% of the population is from BME communities. It is the youngest city in Europe, okay. It really matters for cohesion and sustainability that the success is shared.
But how do you influence the lives of people outside of the city centre?
We have an absolutely splendid map, which maps our transport investments onto the indices of social deprivation by ward. Some of those communities are just not connected with the big job opportunities. When HS2 was announced, I was determined this was not going to be about smart-suited businessmen being able to travel to London in less time. It was about using that as the catalyst for connecting the whole region, to get people to work.
Secondly, where are we building houses? Lots of those communities are looking at land that has been derelict for 30 years. You hardly feel as though you’re in a booming community when you’re looking out over that. What we’re doing with our new powers around brownfield remediation, is saying we’re going to turn those places back into homes. In terms of how people feel about their area, that is so important.
But the most important aspect of all is skills. We don’t have all the powers we need – you asked the question about powers early on – and that is the area I would like to see more devolved. But we’ve made a damn good start with the skills deal with central government and how we’re able to think about the industries of the future for those communities. That’s a critical intervention.
We’re jumping forward a bit, but what would you want your legacy to be?
We were very precise in the 2017 election in saying by the 2020 election we’d build 25,000 homes, we would have the fastest growing economy outside of London, we would have the fastest growing pay rates outside of London. We will be judged on those in 2020.
Of course, what that reflected was my business-like approach. I do see this as not dissimilar to being the chief executive of a company – though on a bigger scale with many more opinions – you lay out what you’re going to do and then you do it.
But there’s something bigger than that: this place was the butt of jokes for quite a time. That’s certainly unfair – look at the sense of reinvention across the West Midlands. But it’s true to say, when we started on the campaign trail, a lot of people said to me “we just don’t have a sense of pride here”.
What I want people to say at the end of my time as mayor – which I hope of course is after a second term – is that we have restored this area as a place that leads, where there’s a sense of pride. Again, that’s why it’s important: it’s all about the team, not about me individually. That’s why things like winning the Commonwealth Games, and the Coventry City of Culture, are moments where pride will be restored. Brummies felt that bit prouder the day after we’d won.
Brummies have a unique sense of self-deprecation.
We have a modesty, a self-deprecation. That’s extremely good, in one sense. It is very English and the ‘deliver, don’t talk’ [attitude] is something I believe in hugely myself. However, it can be a disadvantage as well. There is a sort of international branding race, the marketing – you’ve got to win competitions, you’ve got to win investment. And we didn’t win competitions for years. So there is a flipside of that admirable modesty.
Many people say that political debate is too London-centric. How have you viewed that?
That’s correct. So our view is let the evidence speak for itself. But why I’m so looking forward to the conference coming here, is that’s our opportunity to say to everybody we’ve been getting on with it. We’ve been demonstrating what politicians are supposed to do: to deliver and improve. Pay is going up faster here than anywhere else, houses are being built faster than any time in the last five years. We’re investing all that capital around infrastructure. Business start-up rate is good.
Most importantly my hunch is if you ask people travelling on the bus out of town tonight, do I think they’d say things are looking up for this place? I do. That’s very important at a time when there is not huge regard for the political process amongst the general population.
Do you want the West Midlands to be a role model for the rest of the Conservative party to follow?
That would be a little presumptuous, given we’ve only been at this for 15 months. But I do think that delegates should perceive what is happening here – never mind the politics of it, just the demography of it, the changes of society that are happening here – as something that may be at the leading edge for Britain. If the Conservative party can find a way of harnessing that and delivering for the population here, then maybe it is.”
Are you concerned about what’s happening within the Conservative party at Westminster?
Of course, I am. One of the things that have given us success here has been unity. You test this for yourself. I am absolutely certain, if you talk to our eight MPs for the West Midlands – all of them brilliant, moderate, practical people, serving their communities – if you talk to our council leaders – and remember we’ve now got three metropolitan councils here, Walsall, Dudley and Solihull – if you talk to all of our councillors, if you talk to our MEPs: this is a united team, determined to deliver.
I am very proud of the unity that we’ve built across this region. And I’m a great believer that it is enabling us to deliver. So, of course, compare that with what you see in the Conservative party in Westminster, the contrast is obvious.
What did you make of Boris Johnson’s outburst on business?
It was a completely inappropriate thing to say.
How would you feel if he took over the party?
I am very clear: I do not want to see any change in the leadership of the party.
I am on record of supporting Theresa May wholeheartedly at the moment. She and her government have been brilliant supporters of the West Midlands. It isn’t just my view – the editorial of the Express and Star, the black country paper, has written that this government is more supportive of the West Midlands than any previous government. And her, Hammond, Clark, Karen Bradley, Matt Hancock, all sorts of them, have been brilliant supporters of this region.
Would you have joined this Conservative party with its rhetoric towards business?
That’s not fair. That is just what one member, who is now a backbencher, said. That is not what Philip Hammond said. It is not what Greg Clark said. And they are the people responsible for the economic leadership and the business connections of this party. And I am proud to call Greg a personal friend, he’s done a first-class job and his industrial strategy is hugely helping the West Midlands.
So to answer your question straight up: of course I’d join this Conservative party, led by a prime minister whose personal values – that we heard on the steps of Downing Street – are inclusive and moderate. I only decided to stand for this job after I knew who the prime minister was going to be. I would have been very willing – proud – to stand for David Cameron. But I waited to see what happened after the Brexit referendum and then Theresa and I then met to discuss it. I was proud to stand as a Conservative with her as leader of the party because her personal value set is impeccable. I think it was wrong what was said by certain people about the business links.
But for the last two years has the party’s aspirational message been bogged down with Brexit?
That’s why what we’re doing here is really important. What we tried to do in the election was to say: this is about the new economy, new jobs, new homes, new investment, all wrapped in a society that is genuinely cohesive and supportive of everybody. I honestly think that we are delivering on that whole notion of hope and opportunity.
You are on record as supporting Chequers. Why?
The West Midlands voted firmly to leave the EU, and that is what that deal delivers – but doing it in a way that delivers for businesses and manufacturers in the region and across the UK as a whole.
Are you concerned that leaving the EU – particularly without a deal – could undo much of the work and progress that has been made in the West Midlands?
It is important for the West Midlands, as the exporting heart of the UK, that we secure a deal. That will allow us to sustain our economic progress whilst seizing new opportunities. To that end, I am going to India on a trade mission immediately post Conference with the Midlands Engine Minister James Brokenshire.
Delegates will soon descend on Birmingham for party conference. Are you prepared for what’s coming?
Are we looking forward to showing the government, and indeed all the delegates, the progress that’s been made across the West Midlands? My goodness, we are. I want to show everybody the pace of development and the way in which teamwork has really paid off. I am confident to predict that the delegates’ reaction will be “my goodness, this has come on so far in two years”.
ANDY STREET'S BIRMINGHAM TOP TIPS
Where to eat
Pickled Piglet is the restaurant I’d recommend, in Gas Street. It’s an independent of course and super. I love it. I had my first campaign meeting there, so it has happy memories. It has great food as well.
Where to drink
Gin is the fashion, and there is the most wonderful place called the Gin Vault just on the canal. It’s at the back of the ICC. It’s got chip board branding on the outside – if you walk along the canal from the ICC, down towards the Mailbox – you won’t miss it.
What to do
Royal Birmingham Society of Artists
There’s all the great museums, of course, like the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. The thing I’d recommend is to go to the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists in Brook Street, which is exactly as it sounds: it’s where local people show their art. You can often pick up some incredible pieces of art, and it’s a society that’s existed for over 200 years. It shows the whole history of Birmingham through the arts and the sciences – it’s a truly brilliant place.
You should also go to one of the two floors of the library, which is not in the secure zone. The third and the seventh floors have external spaces which are beautiful anyway. But you go onto those terraces and you have a grandstand view of the redevelopment of Birmingham.