Parvez Akhtar is an Engine design specialist, has worked at Jaguar Landrover and was the Parliamentary candidate in Coventry North West in 2015
The West Midlands region has a young and diverse demographic, Labour holds most of the Parliamentary seats and run the majority of the seven Boroughs. Given this backdrop, a Conservative victory in the inaugural West Midlands Mayoral election of 2017 seemed a tall order. However by a majority of 3,776 votes from an electorate of just under two million, Andy Street beat Labour to become the regions first “Metro Mayor”.
The campaign was deliberately targeting Labour as the incumbents and inspired people to believe in something more than what the region had become under them. Andy sold himself as the man from John Lewis who was passionate about making a difference to an area where he was raised. This convinced many non-conservatives to lend him, if not the first vote then certainly the second under the preferential voting system. At the count in Birmingham and Coventry, I saw ballot papers where those who had voted for the Greens or Lib Dems as their first choice, were voting Conservative as their second preference.
Twenty-eight months on, the campaign to retain the Mayoralty of the West Midlands, having achieved the impossible two and a half years ago, has been launched. While there is much optimism in the seven-month campaign that lies ahead, this time Conservatives are the incumbents, so will Street’s record stand up for scrutiny?
The region was at the heart of the industrial revolution and the West Midlands Combined Authority is putting an ambitious Local Industrial Strategy at the centre of the transformation, setting out a roadmap for growth over the coming decades which links together employment, transport, housing, and education. Having secured investment, the Authority has started delivery of the strategy with some key projects across the West Midlands and are continuing with their efforts to secure further funding for the industrial cluster around the NEC, lobbying for Battery Industrialisation to power vehicles for the electric era in Coventry and supporting regeneration of former industrial Phoenix 10 brownfield site in the Black Country.
Transport infrastructure investment has been targeted at re-opening closed railway lines and stations, supporting greater bus use through low fare zones and targeted fare cuts, identifying strategic expansion of the Metro network across the West Midlands and lobbying for key road improvements. All of these are helping connect the economic hotspots of the West Midlands with each other and will encourage further inward investment to support the delivery of the Industrial Strategy. However, connectivity with the rest of the country is just as vital which is why the Street is a firm advocate of HS2 as he believes it will unlock millions of pounds of investment and increase productivity helping the region become competitive on a global stage.
The Chancellor recently pledged £25 million each for Bloxwich, Dudley, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton to help revive these Town Centres and High Streets but this investment alone is not enough. Wholesale business rates reform and greater devolution are being pushed with the government so that the West Midlands can retain some of the taxation raised here to build a more sustainable local economy where the region decides its own priorities.
Creating jobs and growth without closing the higher education skills or the social mobility gap in such a diverse population will play into the Labour narrative that only they can spread equality of opportunity. By using the great universities and colleges in this area, in combination with the pioneering Apprenticeship Levy Transfer Scheme, and recent government funding for further education for 16-19-year olds, the Authority is working hard to close the skills and social mobility gap in the many deprived communities of the region. In the West Midlands last year 29320 apprenticeships were created with an ambition to reach 84,000.
With job growth comes the need for housing and while the West Midlands is leading the country in reclaiming derelict brownfield sites, meeting the 215,000 new homes target by 2031 is a massive challenge. While 14500 new homes were built last year, only 2600 of those were in the affordable category. The Mayor has been lobbying the Chancellor to increase the local housing allowance element of Universal Credit, so that housing becomes genuinely affordable for those most in need. On homelessness, the Housing First programme has taken more than 75 homeless people off the streets and the Chancellor’s pledge of £54 million to help tackle rough sleeping in major cities is a welcome boost to help reduce homelessness further in the West Midlands.
Following the Prime Minister’s pledge to fund an additional 20,000 police officers, the West Midlands Police has already started its recruitment drive for 366 officers and the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner Candidate, Jay Singh-Sohal, has pledged to freeze dozens of police station closures across the West Midlands planned by the current Labour PCC.
In such a diverse place you need to show both policy and civic leadership to succeed. With initiatives like the Mayor’s Community Weekend, which brought tens of thousands of people together over 165 events or the Mayor’s Giving Day, where 100 workplaces joined in giving to charity and the “my Faith Action Plan” bringing together different faiths or the Cricket Cup at Edgbaston, Street is leading the way in bringing different communities across the region together. In the selection of Jay Singh-Sohal, a turban-wearing Sikh there is no greater testimony of this inclusive brand of Conservatism and little doubt that Singh-Sohal will bring energy to the Police commissioner campaign that would have otherwise been missing.
Finally, the next Commonwealth Games will be held in the West Midlands and the Government has committed more than £590 million of funding to ensure they are delivered on time and to the highest standard. The Games will be an incredible spectacle for the whole region and will showcase the West Midlands to the world. While the start Street has made as the regions first Mayor is impressive, the West Midlands is still strong Labour territory and it will take an effort as great as the first one to ensure Andy Street is at the opening ceremony of the Games in Birmingham in 2022.