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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Park Life: On the repeated incineration of Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace from the air. Image: John Bointon/Wikimedia Commons.

Head directly north in a straight line from the official centre point of London at Charing Cross, and the first park of any real size you’ll hit is Alexandra Park. You’ll know you’re headed in the right direction when you spot the whacking great palace sat on the hill in the middle of it.

But Alexandra Palace and Park aren’t the former home of some forgotten bit of the nobility: they were actually purpose built for more or less their current use, as a venue for North Londoners to get up to a wide variety of things that may or may not be considered fun.

Various Victorians, including Owen Jones (presumably not him), one of the architects responsible for the Crystal Palace in the south, thought an equivalent in the north might be worthwhile, and used the same cost-saving manoeuvre: while the Crystal Palace had been built from the construction materials of the Great Exhibition, it’s northern counterpart used parts from the 1862 International Exhibition in Kensington.

Proving some kind of point, I guess.

Initially known as “the palace of the People”, it took on a marginal air of aristocracy when the park opened in 1863, the same year that the future King Edward VII married Alexandra of Denmark. The building opened in 1873, and copied Crystal Palace again, by almost immediately burning to the ground.


But two years later they’d nailed the bits back together and finally the people of North London had something to do other than complaining how long it’s going to take them to get to this birthday party in Peckham.

One of the more notable features of the next century or so of the park’s existence was its racecourse, known as The Frying Pan, because it looked a bit like a frying pan on whatever the Victorian equivalent of satellite photography is (balloon rides or imagining things, I guess). Popular for much of its life, attendances dwindled in the 1970s. Who wants to look at horses when television’s in colour now?

It was the favourite course of famous sexist and horse describer John McCririck – he’s been linked to efforts to get it rebuilt, and has instructed his wife to scatter his ashes on the site. Hopefully local residents will be warned so they can shut their windows first. Though the outline of the course is visible from above – the cricket pitch sits in the middle of it – It otherwise only survives in the names of a couple of now trendified gastro-pubs, the Victoria Stakes and the Starting Posts.

Early non-horse based physical activities available included going up in a balloon (mainly to draw pictures of what the race course looked like, presumably) and then jumping off the balloon while wearing a parachute if you were, for example, waitress turned daredevil Dolly Shepherd, commemorated in a mural on the side of the palace. There was also a lido, which legend states was used to wash visiting circus Elephants. It is unclear whether this is connected to the dubious cleanliness that to its demise by the early part of the last century.

Winter sports have been an unlikely intermittent features of the park: you prod the some of the undergrowth on one side of the hill, you might be able to uncover the remains of what was once London’s most popular dry ski slope, ideal for if you didn’t want to have to lie to all your friends about how much fun your first skiing holiday had been. Though long since defunct, in 1990 it gained a spiritual successor in the palace’s ice rink, which among other things has been home to various ice hockey teams, most recently the ‘Haringey Huskies’, it says here.

Less glamorous from this angle. Image: Ed Jefferson.

But back in the 1980s the palace and park were briefly threatened with being entirely sport-based. After the palace decided to have a belated centenary celebration and burn down again, there was a proposal to redevelop the whole thing into a massive sports complex, including – good news, snow haters – a brand new dry ski slope. In the end nothing came of it – the existing building was retained and most of the sport associated with the park now is of the indoor variety: among many other things, the palace hosts darts and table tennis tournaments.

The park does see a bit of the action. Aside from the football and cricket pitches, a popular brand of energising drink sponsors an annual soapbox race, and there’s a miniature golf course that makes up for being golf by a) being miniature and b) allowing you to drink while playing (well, if you book the whole thing for an office party circa 2011).

Sadly the park’s best sport of all has been retired: watching puce-faced CityMetric writers attempt to run to the top of the hill the palace sits on, while placing bets on whether they will reach the top before keeling over and dying (2015-2018).