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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Smart cities need to be more human, so we’re creating Sims-style virtual worlds

The Sims 2 on show in 2005. Image: Getty.

Huge quantities of networked sensors have appeared in cities across the world in recent years. These include cameras and sensors that count the number of passers by, devices to sense air quality, traffic flow detectors, and even bee hive monitors. There are also large amounts of information about how people use cities on social media services such as Twitter and foursquare.

Citizens are even making their own sensors – often using smart phones – to monitor their environment and share the information with others; for example, crowd-sourced noise pollution maps are becoming popular. All this information can be used by city leaders to create policies, with the aim of making cities “smarter” and more sustainable.

But these data only tell half the story. While sensors can provide a rich picture of the physical city, they don’t tell us much about the social city: how people move around and use the spaces, what they think about their cities, why they prefer some areas over others, and so on. For instance, while sensors can collect data from travel cards to measure how many people travel into a city every day, they cannot reveal the purpose of their trip, or their experience of the city.

With a better understanding of both social and physical data, researchers could begin to answer tough questions about why some communities end up segregated, how areas become deprived, and where traffic congestion is likely to occur.

Difficult questions

Determining how and why such patterns will emerge is extremely difficult. Traffic congestion happens as a result of personal decisions about how to get from A to B, based on factors such as your stage of life, your distance from the workplace, school or shops, your level of income, your knowledge of the roads and so on.

Congestion can build locally at pinch points, placing certain sections of the city’s transport networks under severe strain. This can lead to high levels of air pollution, which in turn has a severe impact on the health of the population. For city leaders, the big question is, which actions – imposing congestion charges, pedestrianising areas or improving local infrastructure – would lead to the biggest improvements in both congestion, and public health.

We know where – but why? Image: Worldoflard/Flickr/creative commons.

The irony is, although modern technology has the power to collect vast amounts of data, it doesn’t always provide the means to analyse it. This means that scientists don’t have the tools they need to understand how different factors influence the way cities function and grow. Here, the technique of agent-based modelling could come to the rescue.

The simulated city

Agent-based modelling is a type of computer simulation, which models the behaviour of individual people as they move around and interact inside a virtual world. An agent-based model of a city could include virtual commuters, pedestrians, taxi drivers, shoppers and so on. Each of these individuals has their own characteristics and “rules”, programmed by researchers, based on theories and data about how people behave.

After combining vast urban datasets with an agent-based model of people, scientists will have the capacity to tweak and re-run the model, until they detect the phenomena they’re wanting to study – whether it’s traffic jams or social segregation. When they eventually get the model right, they’ll be able to look back on the characteristics and rules of their virtual citizens, to better understand why some of these problems emerge, and hopefully begin to find ways to resolve them.

For example, scientists might use urban data in an agent-based model to better understand the characteristics of the people who contribute to traffic jams – where they have come from, why they are travelling, what other modes of transport they might be willing to take. From there, they might be able to identify some effective ways of encouraging people to take different routes or modes of transport.


Seeing the future

Also, if the model works well in the present time, then it might be able to produce short-term forecasts. This would allow scientists to develop ways of reacting to changes in cities, in real time. Using live urban data to simulate the city in real-time could help to inform the managers of key services during periods of major disruption, such as severe weather, infrastructure failure or evacuation.

Using real-time data adds another layer of complexity. But fortunately, other scientific disciplines have also been making advances in this area. Over decades, the field of meteorology has developed cutting-edge mathematical methods, which allow their weather and climate models to respond to new weather data, as they arise in real time.

The ConversationThere’s a lot more work to be done before these methods from meteorology can be adapted to work for agent-based models of cities. But if they’re successful, these advancements will allow scientists to build city simulations which are driven by people - and not just the data they produce.

Nick Malleson, Associate Professor of Geographical Information Systems, University of Leeds and Alison Heppenstall, Professor in Geocomputation, University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.