Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Since I became Mayor of my home region, the West Midlands has enjoyed a sense of real renewal, addressing long-standing challenges in housing, transport investment and skills. However, one fundamental issue has significantly worsened during that time – crime.
Unlike in London and Manchester, the Mayor’s office here does not hold any power over law enforcement – that falls to an elected Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). Under this existing structure, the rising tide of crime has become a matter of increasing concern across all of our seven member boroughs.
The data is truly shocking – the number of crimes recorded by the region’s police has more than doubled over the last eight years. Our violent crime statistics are among the worst in the country.
This cannot be allowed to continue. Things must change.
Clearly, the role of PCC is failing to hold West Midlands Police well enough to account to drive down crime and ensure people across the region feel safe.
I believe that enough is enough, and it is time for the powers of the West Midlands PCC to be transferred to the office of the Mayor. I want to use this column to explain why I have reached that conclusion.
First of all, I must put on record my admiration and support for West Midlands Police. Our force has a significant number of talented and dedicated officers, led by a very capable Chief Constable in Craig Guildford.
However, they are being let down by the current structure of governance and their work has been undermined by decisions coming from the PCC’s office. Only last week, the current PCC announced the closure of ‘at least’ 30 police stations, further exacerbating citizen’s safety concerns. I cannot sit on my hands and watch this happen.
That’s why I have written to the Home Secretary to formerly ask her to use the new Levelling Up and Regeneration Act to transfer the PCC’s powers to the Mayor’s office, with the change taking effect here after next year’s Mayoral elections in May.
It has always been my belief that there should be one single point of accountability for residents in the region – just as there is in Greater Manchester, London, and West Yorkshire (with South and North Yorkshire due to follow). Indeed, the Government’s own Levelling Up White Paper said that Mayoral control of PCC functions where boundaries align is a key priority in keeping the public safe and healthy.
However, asking for this transfer has not been an easy decision to make. I have always tried to do this job in a cross-party, collaborative way, and I am very aware of the fact that when this issue was brought to the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) Board in 2019 it was voted down on political grounds.
The West Midlands is a finely balanced place politically, and much of our success in recent years has been the result of the region pulling together to put aside old rivalries and work as one. I do not take lightly any decision that does not have cross-party agreement.
Nevertheless, I have concluded that crime in our communities has now reached a level where something simply must change. My job is always to put the citizens of my home region first. I firmly believe that the Mayoral model is best placed to succeed in holding West Midlands Police to account, and ultimately to make citizens’ lives safer.
How? For a start, it would enable a more joined-up approach. Transferring PCC powers to the Mayoralty will enable the Mayor to use all of the policy levers at their disposal to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour (ASB) in the region.
So, for example, we could consider crime prevention when allocating regeneration funding, enabling us to ‘design out’ crime and ASB on our high streets. We could develop innovative skills programmes to rehabilitate offenders and tackle the root causes of crime. It would also allow a renewed, relentless focus on making our public transport network safer.
The Mayor also has a unique convening power, with the ability to pull together public services to drive improvements across the criminal justice system more broadly. And, of course, there are potentially significant savings to the taxpayer by avoiding the need to run two separate offices.
Crucially, it would also create a single, directly-elected, point of accountability for the region – to stand up for the West Midlands, drive investment, and advocate for the issues that matter to communities here.
We have seen the success of this model in the West Midlands, with billions of pounds of investment – public and private – brought into the region as a direct result of the Mayoral Combined Authority model. It’s time we applied the same successful approach to crime and policing.
Of course, some will argue that this transfer would be anti-democratic but this assertion is completely wrong. No transfer of powers will take place prior to May 2024, meaning the current PCC will serve his full-term as he was democratically elected to do. Then, in May, voters will be able to choose via the ballot box a candidate for the Mayoralty which will include PCC powers and responsibilities.
This is not about politics, it’s about getting the structure of Police governance right for our citizens, to end the worrying escalation we are seeing in local crime. We have tried the PCC model and for 12 years it has failed to deliver. It’s time for a change.
It is also too easy to point to budget pressures to try to explain away those soaring rates of crime. Everywhere else has faced similar financial challenges, yet we are facing a more acute rise in crime rates here that others are simply not. What’s more, in recent years our Force has actually seen an increase in funding, with recruitment significantly boosting Police numbers.
For the record, if I am re-elected as Mayor next year – with the PCC’s powers transferred – there will be an immediate moratorium on these planned station closures, which have sparked so much anxiety across the region. None of these closures would go ahead until I have vigorously reviewed them.
Historically, we Conservatives have claimed to be the party of ‘law and order’, but I’m not interested in old slogans. I’m interested in the here and now and results – and it’s clear that things must change to arrest the rise in crime we have seen in the West Midlands.