Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
In just over two weeks, the people of the West Midlands will head to socially-distanced polling booths, clutching their own pencils, to have their say in crucial local elections – the results of which will shape how our region recovers from the pandemic.
Of course, in the UK region that has taken the hardest economic hit from Covid-19, the mayoral election is critically important. However, I am very conscious that I am only one of 141 Conservative candidates campaigning in these elections.
I want to dedicate this column to those candidates and the army of dedicated volunteers driving their campaigns – it’s a vast, region-wide team working to win the confidence and support of the people of the West Midlands in a bumper crop of local elections.
First, there is the election for Police and Crime Commissioner, a major job with a big budget of £655 million. This is a hugely important election for our region. The role has significant powers, and we need a new, strong and effective commissioner to tackle the problems of crime and anti-social behaviour in our region. Labour has held this office for 8½ years and its record is poor.
Only this week the British Crime Survey, which is carried out by the Office for National Statistics each year, found West Midlands police to be the lowest-rated force in England and Wales. The survey found 65 per cent of people in the West Midlands force area said they had confidence in the police – lower than in any other part of the country.
There’s no doubt that a significant part of this disengagement with residents has been caused by the Labour policy of shutting police stations. We have seen 44 police stations closed and plans remain in place to shut many more – including Sutton Coldfield, Solihull, Aldridge, Tipton and Wednesfield.
It’s important we have a commissioner who will stop these closures and focus on working effectively with government to get the extra police numbers we need, and we have a fantastic candidate who will do just that.
Jay Singh-Sohal is a local family man, brought up in Handsworth. A serving officer in the British Army Reserves, Jay has a proven record of public service, but just like me four years ago this is his first election campaign. And just like me, he is driven by his passion for our region and determination to make a positive difference to the lives of his fellow citizens. Having Jay as Commissioner is crucial to getting crime down in the West Midlands – and ensuring that resources are fairly allocated to the wider region – not just central Birmingham.
Second, there are crucial council elections across the West Midlands. In Dudley, Solihull and Walsall – the boroughs run by Conservative councils – we have a brilliant story to tell.
In Dudley, we can point to the truly staggering level of investment, from the metro extension to the new Institute of Technology, and from the Very Light Rail Innovation Centre to the new leisure centre and Portersfield town centre redevelopment. The council has also won £10 million for Brierley Hill town centre and is leading a tenacious defence of the Green Belt around the borough.
In Walsall, there is tangible progress, as the borough powers ahead with brownfield development for homes and jobs – perhaps most excitingly at the vast “Phoenix 10” development which is turning one of the most polluted, derelict sites in the country into a new business park to create over 1,000 jobs.
One of the hallmarks of the urban Conservatism we have developed here in the region is to ensure that all communities benefit from incoming investment, and Walsall is working on a whole raft of plans to support regeneration in every town across the borough.
Walsall has also led the way with Housing First, our pioneering scheme which is now accommodating 400 rough sleepers region-wide – seeing a 75 per cent reduction in rough sleeping in two years.
In Solihull, the borough is leading the way on the environment – like its commitment to plant 250,000 trees in 10 years, in a visionary idea described as a new Forest of Arden, and the “wildlife ways” project which has planted thousands of wildflowers and trees across the area.
Solihull town centre, long considered one of the region’s prime retail destinations and an economic dynamo for the region, is being reimagined by a masterplan which will introduce new homes and leisure services, while neighbouring village Kinghurst is set to get a revitalised village centre too.
I have been pleased to work on all of these projects and many more with our councils, underlining how teamwork can deliver on the ground. Perhaps the most tangible evidence of this is our expanding transport network, with new train stations and metro stops at various stages of development. In the next few weeks, these councils will also see the roll-out our bikeshare scheme.
We also have a great team of councillors and campaigners up for election in Coventry, Sandwell, Wolverhampton and by-elections in Birmingham. In each of these boroughs we have a great story to tell about how Conservatives have made a difference.
Coventrians are seeing unprecedented investment in their city – including becoming the first all-electric bus city in the country, city centre investment, a new central station, and support for this year’s City of Culture festivities. Conservative councillors are also making a tenacious defence of the Green Belt in a move that is chiming with concerned residents’ groups across the city.
In Sandwell, we are looking to make a breakthrough into what has been a wholly Labour borough. We can point to how things are changing since we saw Conservatives elected in all but one of Sandwell’s Westminster seats – not least the millions for town centre regeneration in places like Rowley Regis and West Bromwich, plus our own local support for the Metro extension from Wednesbury past Tipton.
In Wolverhampton, again our story is one of making a real change – millions in funding for city and town centre regeneration, a brand-new central railway station and turning the city into the national leader in brownfield regeneration.
Finally, in Birmingham we have great local candidates fighting for their communities and to strengthen the existing strong team on the City Council. It’s easy to forget how rare it is for a major English city to have a large Conservative team of councillors – let alone one that next year can be looking to win control of the council. Within the city’s borders, we have a town council byelection in Sutton Coldfield – again where we have a great story to tell with the town council leading the way on its town centre masterplan to guarantee the Royal Town’s future success.
All of this activity and progress means West Midlands Conservatives are working towards the elections next month with confidence in their candidates and the message they bring.
I have said before that I believe the first breaches in the “Red Wall” were made here in the West Midlands, and I am certain that progress was the result of a unified approach by Conservatives across the conurbation. We fight as one team.
We are also determined to fight a fair and responsible election – that’s why this week I voiced our support for the Jo Cox Foundation’s call for respectful campaigning.
We know that by working together we can achieve much, much more for our communities and that’s what drives all of us to stand as candidates, and what drives the volunteers who give their time, money and effort day in, day out to get the message out there.
They support us as candidates because they believe in what we are trying to do and care about the future of their village, town, city and region. It is humbling to see the voluntary effort that’s going into this campaign across the region by so many people. It is urban Conservatism in action.
It is a privilege to be part of this team and I am hugely proud of the positive and inclusive campaign we are running.