Kevin Johnson reports
Fresh from his return from the Gold Coast, Australia, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street told an audience of Downtown in Business Birmingham members that he’s hopeful that a Skills Deal with be struck with Government before the summer Parliamentary recess.
Asked by Downtown Founder Frank McKenna for his highlight almost 12 months into the brand new role, Mayor Street said it was Birmingham winning the right to stage the Commonwealth Games in 2022.
Having arrived back in the city just 24 hours before, following a series of meetings ‘down under’ with Games organisers, business and political leaders and the official handover, Mr Street was keen to underline opportunities from the ‘friendly games.’
Winning the bid had taken some “brinkmanship” according to Street, but he was confident it would galvanise the region, help to bring forward infrastructure investment and provide an opportunity to show the region to the world.
Mr Street said that the first year of Mayors for Combined Authorities had seen them secure more investment, prove they can deliver and have structures in place to take on more powers. Mr Street said he was working closely with other Mayors including Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester.
However, he admitted that devolution has not started in any real sense. Government is still hanging onto powers, with only individual funding deals rather than a ‘single pot’ arrangement. The fundamental rules of the game – governed by Westminster and Whitehall – had not changed.
Mayor Street said there was a really good transport plan and the recent Housing Deal was a good first step, made possible by the way local leaders had worked together.
But the third leg of policy areas that should improve regional economic performance continues to exercise the Mayor.
Mr Street expressed his continuing concern about skills, in particular the flagship Apprenticeship scheme which he described as “going backwards.”
New arrangements for the scheme are discouraging potential participants, with a quarterly reduction of 25% in Apprenticeship starts for levels 2 and 3. However, the Mayor was pleased to see the increase in Degree Apprenticeship places.
Mr Street told the Leaders Breakfast at the Hyatt Regency Hotel that he is hopeful a Skills Deal with Government will be concluded ahead of the summer break. The details are being hammered out with Number 10 and the new Education Secretary, Damian Hinds. He was also able to highlight the latest job creation figures, with Birmingham and Solihull the best performing district.
Mr Street’s recent foreign trips have served to underline his belief that international promotion of the region is in need of a significant boost. The High Commissioner in Australia told him the West Midlands was virtually invisible.
Careful not to criticise the West Midlands Growth Company under Neil Rami, Mr Street said the fundamental structures are not there and that the region had tried to support trade, investment and tourism “on the cheap.” It was a structural issue for Government, notably the Department for International Trade.
The Midlands Engine and the Growth Company have commissioned KPMG to report on the issue, including advice on the necessary structures and resources for successful international promotion.
The Mayor said that the Housing First pilot for homelessness and rough sleeping – announced in the last Budget – would kick off shortly.
Mr Street said he was disappointed that the economic success of Birmingham city centre and other key centres of the “seven Boroughs” was not yet being shared with other parts of the region. We can expect to see more focus on the “inclusive economic growth” agenda in the coming months.
Mr Street reflected that not everything had gone well, including his attempt to secure a Mayoral Precept in the West Midlands Combined Authority budget. He has admitted in an interview with the Local Government Chronicle today to having “a few little run-ins” with Labour members on the WMCA.
There were days when he thought he had gone completely mad, Mr Street told Downtown members, but he found the job to be a great privilege and hugely satisfying.