The West Midlands is England’s industrial heartland – business leadership and teamwork have turned around decades of decline
Cross-party, cross-region collaboration has led to an economic resurgence across the West Midlands, writes Mayor Andy Street
Three years ago, I saw an opportunity I could not ignore – to become mayor of the West Midlands, the place where I grew up.
The introduction of an elected metro mayor was a first for the region. Heading up the new West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), the mayor would bring together Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton in a region with a huge combined population.
It was a new thing. Perhaps fittingly, I came at the opportunity in a new way too. Unlike all the other mayors taking office across the UK, I had never been a councillor or MP, and entered politics directly from the world of business as the former Managing Director of John Lewis. From the very start, I wanted to bring a business approach to the job.
There are more similarities between being CEO of a customer-facing business and a regional mayor than may initially appear.
You are a front man. In business you champion the brand and your employees; in politics you champion your region and its people. Then, there is setting and sticking to a competitive strategy – this is as important in regional leadership as it is in commerce. I firmly believe the West Midlands must know its strengths and play to them if it is to compete on the world stage with the likes of Boston, Barcelona and Beijing.
Finally, a mayor has to build a team, set goals and make sure there is accountability for delivery, just as a Managing Director would. That clarity of message has been vital in the UK’s most diverse region, made up of many proud and distinct communities.
In business, you employ robust analysis of a problem or opportunity, and then set in place a resourced plan to address the matter at hand. I try to always be clear about what I want to achieve for the people of the West Midlands, and how we can achieve the goals we have identified.
Those goals have focused on a plan for the economy: creating new jobs, providing a better transport network, and building more homes. The foundations for future success have now been laid.
The West Midlands economy is growing faster than anywhere outside London and the number of people in employment is up. A focus on training and apprenticeships is tackling the skills gap that hampered local businesses for years. And areas of opportunity and regeneration are developing across the conurbation.
Transport across the region is being improved too, with funding secured to re-open five railway stations, a major expansion of the Metro network and a fleet of new buses.
Housebuilding is up 20% in one year, compared to a national average of around 1%, and we are leading the way in bringing old brownfield sites back into use – delivering regeneration as well as homes.
All of this is part of a “Renewal Plan” to turn the West Midlands into an economic powerhouse again. As I come to the end of my first term as mayor, the foundations have been laid for ongoing success. We are undoing the effects of decades of decline.
This has been achieved in a region that is politically mixed, requiring a business-like approach and cross-party co-operation.
One of the things that held the West Midlands back historically was infighting, so I have been determined to lead a region that puts on a united front.
Key decisions are taken by the WMCA’s politically-balanced board, while business has a powerful voice through the influence of the Local Enterprise Partnerships around the table.
I have never considered myself to be a traditional politician, and firmly believe in the power of collaboration to get things done.
A great example of this is the successful bid to bring the Commonwealth Games to Birmingham in 2022. The cross-region co-operation demonstrated how the West Midlands operates as a team, putting the prosperity and success of the region before party politics.
This will be my final Conference before standing for re-election next May, and I’m determined to continue the great work we have started to reawaken this region. The role of West Midlands mayor was new when I first took it on, and I believe my background in business has helped my efforts to build a new kind of politics here in the heart of England.
Now, with the foundations of success laid, and the advantages of teamwork clear to see, I’m looking forward to the next chapter. It will be one where we can be more ambitious still for our communities across the West Midlands.
Andy Street is the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands