End of term report: How is Andy Street doing as mayor of the West Midlands?

Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands. Image: Getty.

In the first of the Centre for Cities’ round up of the first half-year of metro mayors, we look at Andy Street, Conservative mayor of the West Midlands.

Back in May, the close race between Conservative candidate Andy Street and his Labour counterpart Sion Simon made the West Midlands the key political battleground of all the mayoral elections. Given that the city region is a traditional Labour stronghold, Street’s victory with a 50.6 per cent share of the vote (after the second round) was testament to the strength of his campaign, and to the strong emphasis the Conservative national leadership placed on supporting his bid.

After taking office, the former John Lewis boss wasted no time in setting out his vision for his first 100 days and a long term plan for 2020. But with six months having gone by, what progress has he made in realising this vision, and what challenges does he face?

Progress and key moment

Street kick-started his term by launching the ‘Mayor’s mentors scheme’, aimed at supporting young people to improve their skills and move into employment, and concluded his first 100 days by ticking off all the objectives he set himself for the first few months.

These included meeting with the Prime Minister Theresa May to discuss the ambitions of the combined authority. They also comprised meeting his target of 1,000 applications for his mentor scheme, and holding ‘Ask Andy’ sessions to engage with the public in areas across the city region. Street also went on a trade mission to Toronto to raise the profile of the region, and brought Robin Walker – a government minister for Exiting the European Union – to the West Midlands to discuss its future in light of Brexit.

Beyond these achievements, the most high-profile moment of Street’s mayoralty has been his address to Conservative Party Conference last month. This made him the only newly-elected metro mayor to individually address any of the party conferences, helping to raise both his profile and that of the West Midlands.

As he pointed out in that speech, “the mayor’s job is all about leadership”, and he has exercised it both on the national stage – by addressing conference – and also at the community level, where, among other initiatives, he took part in the Cure Leukaemia half marathon to raise awareness and funds. Furthermore, to promote the West Midlands across the country, Street has led Birmingham’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games and to become the new home of Channel 4, as well as Coventry’s bid to be named UK City of Culture in 2021.


Toughest challenge

One of Street’s mayoral priorities is to boost employment and improve skill levels in the West Midlands. In his vision for 2020, the new mayor pledged to reduce the number of young people not in education, employment or training to zero by 2020. And given the high number of residents with no qualifications and the low employment rate, it’s clear that urgent action is needed on this front in the West Midlands.

However, Street will have to attempt to tackle this problem without having control over the adult skills budget. That’s because the Department for Education (DfE) has delayed devolution of this budget until 2019, despite it being one of the key powers set out in the West Midland’s devolution agreement.

The mayor should therefore make the most of his existing powers to influence employers, schools and universities to work together to improve residents skills and ensure they are relevant to business needs. As we suggested in the run up to the election, this would be a first and important step to unlocking the potential of the West Midlands and its citizens.

Opportunities and future priorities

Improving transport and infrastructure will be critical in driving economic growth and opportunity in the West Midlands, and this also formed a central part of Street’s manifesto aimsAs our metro mayor dashboard shows, people in the West Midlands use public transport (both bus and train) less than the national average. This is problematic as connecting people with employment opportunities is key for the success of the region, and requires urgent action.

Street has pledged to deal with this issue by introducing smart ticketing, improving rail services and the tram system, and promoting cycling and walking. These aims offer the biggest opportunities for success for the mayor, and should be his priority in the coming months and beyond.

For this reason, it is welcome to see the mayor’s office cutting fare prices for young apprentices and trainees, and consulting on the introduction of a bike sharing system similar to the one in place in London. The mayor should now build on these initial successes by improving public transport within the combined authority, opening new bus routes and maximising the impact of HS2.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.