For the love of Brum

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Once the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of John Lewis, Andy Street has gone back to his Birm­ing­ham roots to be the area’s ‘metro mayor’. Mick Brown spends a fre­netic day with him

Ap­proach­ing an au­to­matic slid­ing door on our way out of the Li­brary of Birm­ing­ham, where he had been vis­it­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion of de­signs for the city’s new HS2 rail­way sta­tion, Andy Street, ‘metro mayor’ for the West Mid­lands, was obliged mo­men­tar­ily to check his step. ‘Come on!’ he barked as the door slowly jolted into ac­tion, fi­nally al­low­ing us to pass through.

It had been a fre­netic day. We had al­ready done a tour of shops and su­per­mar­kets in the leafy sub­urbs of Knowle and Dor­ridge with the lo­cal MP Caro­line Spel­man (theme: sav­ing the high street), be­fore driv­ing into the city cen­tre for a round of press and ra­dio in­ter­views about HS2 (theme: im­por­tance of speedy trans­port links to busi­ness) and a glimpse of the new de­vel­op­ments trans­form­ing the cen­tre of Birm­ing­ham. Now we were mak­ing our way – al­most run­ning, ac­tu­ally – to New Street sta­tion to catch a train to Walsall. And it was not even lunchtime.

It is two years since Street – a nim­ble, puck­ish fig­ure with sandy hair, wire-rimmed glasses and a re­lent­lessly pos­i­tive and up­beat man­ner – re­signed as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of John Lewis, a job he had held for nine years at a re­ported salary of £800,000 a year. It is 18 months since Street, a Con­ser­va­tive, was elected as the first mayor of the West Mid­lands Com­bined Author­ity (WMCA), one of a new group of ‘metro may­ors’ be­ing in­tro­duced across seven city re­gions in Eng­land as part of the govern­ment’s de­vo­lu­tion agenda.

Street’s elec­tion vic­tory cut across the grain of pre­vail­ing po­lit­i­cal sen­ti­ment in the re­gion. In the coun­cil elec­tions of 2016, Labour had nearly 30 per cent more of the vote than the Con­ser­va­tives. But in the may­oral elec­tion, Street beat the Labour can­di­date Siôn Si­mon by a mar­gin of less than 4,000 votes out of half a mil­lion af­ter the trans­fer of vot­ers’ sec­ond pref­er­ences.

Work­ing in con­junc­tion with seven lo­cal au­thor­i­ties – five of them Labour-con­trolled – Street, whose term runs till 2020, is re­spon­si­ble for an area of three mil­lion peo­ple, as he puts it, ‘as big as Mas­sachusetts and with an econ­omy the size of the Czech Repub­lic’. He con­trols a bud­get of £1.48bn up till 2021, and his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­clude eco­nomic growth, trans­port, hous­ing and skills. Sig­nif­i­cantly, he also has a key role in rep­re­sent­ing the re­gion na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally. His salary is £79,000 a year.

I met Street in a café in Knowle, a pros­per­ous sub­urb with the low­est crime rate in the West Mid­lands. He was dressed in a blue suit, nar­row tie and shiny, im­prob­a­bly pointy, black shoes. Just the day be­fore he had re­turned from a four-day trip to In­dia, where he had been drum­ming up busi­ness, meet­ing automotive sup­pli­ers and talk­ing to the In­dian avi­a­tion min­is­ter about start­ing di­rect flights from Birm­ing­ham to Am­rit­sar (about five per cent of the West Mid­lands pop­u­la­tion, 150,000 peo­ple, are Sikh, for whom the Golden Tem­ple in Am­rit­sar is the most im­por­tant pil­grim­age site). One might have ex­pected signs of fa­tigue, but he was evinc­ing some­thing of the im­pa­tience of a grey­hound strain­ing in the traps.

Street led the way into a print shop, where the pro­pri­etor talked about new photo-print­ing tech­niques while Street nod­ded en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. We crossed the road to an ar­ti­san baker’s, where he nod­ded en­thu­si­as­ti­cally at the im­pres­sive se­lec­tion of cakes. As a former re­tailer him­self, Street has strong feel­ings about the high street. The fu­ture, he said, de­pends on com­bin­ing the best of re­tail along with leisure and ‘ex­pe­ri­ence’ ser­vices – restau­rants, cin­e­mas, yoga stu­dios – and pub­lic ser­vices and en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to live in town cen­tres, ‘giv­ing peo­ple the so­cia­bil­ity that comes with the high street’.

A few min­utes down the road was Dor­ridge, where Spel­man was keen to show him how a new Sains­bury’s de­vel­op­ment had re­gen­er­ated a mori­bund high street, driv­ing foot traf­fic to the lo­cal butcher’s and shoe-re­pair shop. On such mat­ters do peo­ple’s hap­pi­ness – and a politi­cian’s votes – stand or fall.

‘The other great thing about Dor­ridge,’ Street said, as we paused on the pave­ment be­side a rail­way bridge, ‘is there is a train line di­rect to Lon­don.’ Right on cue, a train rum­bled into view. ‘I didn’t or­gan­ise that,’ Street said.

Street has known this neigh­bour­hood since he was a young boy, when he would come to the lo­cal park to col­lect conkers. Street’s fa­ther was a met­al­lur­gist; his mother a hos­pi­tal lab­o­ra­tory worker. He was born in Ban­bury, Ox­ford­shire, but the fam­ily moved to Solihull when he was just a few months old. ‘One of the eco­nomic dy­namos of the West Mid­lands,’ he said – never one to pass up the op­por­tu­nity to bang the drum – as we set off in the car for the city cen­tre. ‘Growth of over 30 per cent in five years, so an in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful place.’

Spend any time with Andy Street and one thing is im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent. He loves Birm­ing­ham. Adores it. And his Birm­ing­ham roots, and af­fec­tion for the city can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated in con­sid­er­ing his drive and his am­bi­tions.

At Ox­ford, where he stud­ied PPE, Street be­came ac­tively in­volved in pol­i­tics, and was pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity Con­ser­va­tive As­so­ci­a­tion. Birm­ing­ham in the late 1970s and early ’80s could be summed up in one word, he says, ‘grim’. ‘It was go­ing through dein­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, but there was very lit­tle hope and as­pi­ra­tion and op­por­tu­nity for young­sters, so I be­lieved then we needed a dif­fer­ent way of do­ing things.’

In the early years of her lead­er­ship he be­lieved that Mar­garet Thatcher of­fered hope and change. ‘She was say­ing, you

take responsibi­lity for your sit­u­a­tion.’ But his ad­mi­ra­tion faded. ‘I felt eco­nomic suc­cess had to be bal­anced by much more so­cially in­clu­sive poli­cies, and I don’t be­lieve in the lat­ter half of Mar­garet Thatcher’s pe­riod that she achieved that.’

As a stu­dent, Street had been ac­tive in vol­un­tary work, run­ning hol­i­day pro­grammes for dis­ad­van­taged chil­dren, and on leav­ing univer­sity, he ap­plied to be a so­cial worker in Birm­ing­ham. He was turned down. ‘They said I lacked the nec­es­sary ex­pe­ri­ence, which was hard to ac­cept when I was 20, but it was prob­a­bly true.’ In­stead, in 1985, he joined John Lewis as a grad­u­ate trainee, start­ing – lit­er­ally – on the shop floor at the Brent Cross branch. ‘I joined ex­pect­ing it to be a short-term ex­pe­ri­ence in man­age­ment train­ing. But this whole no­tion that busi­ness could be a force for good, both in how it em­ployed peo­ple, and how it played a role in the com­mu­nity, just got me. And that’s why for 30 years I was very happy there.’

Street’s great hero is Joseph Cham­ber­lain, the rad­i­cal Lib­eral politi­cian and self-made busi­ness­man, who rose to be­come mayor of Birm­ing­ham in 1873 be­fore go­ing on to serve in Glad­stone’s govern­ment. ‘He was the man who built mod­ern Birm­ing­ham at the time when it was de­scribed as the best gov­erned city in the world,’ Street says. ‘He talked about us­ing the suc­cess of busi­ness to im­prove the out­comes for – his words not mine – the masses. He was ab­so­lutely crys­tal clear that the pur­pose of busi­ness is to do good for com­mu­ni­ties, and that is some­thing I still be­lieve to this day.’

Street’s first step into lo­cal pol­i­tics came in 2011 when he was asked by the then Con­ser­va­tive leader of Birm­ing­ham City Coun­cil to chair the Lo­cal En­ter­prise Part­ner­ship (LED) – an ini­tia­tive by the Cameron govern­ment to build vol­un­tary part­ner­ships be­tween lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and busi­nesses to help set lo­cal eco­nomic pri­or­i­ties and stim­u­late growth and job cre­ation.

‘This re­gion had failed eco­nom­i­cally dur­ing the so-called Blair boom years,’ Street said. ‘If we rank re­gions by eco­nomic growth, 2000 to 2010, the West Mid­lands was bot­tom. If you rank them af­ter 2010 to now, ex­clud­ing Lon­don, the West Mid­lands is top.’

In 2015 when it seemed the idea of metro may­ors might be com­ing to fruition, Street says he was a strong ad­vo­cate for the idea. ‘I was adamant this should hap­pen as an op­por­tu­nity to build on the progress we’d made.’ But he de­clined to put him­self for­ward for the job un­til af­ter the Brexit ref­er­en­dum in June 2016. ‘I wanted to know who the leader of the Con­ser­va­tive party was go­ing to be. And when Theresa was ap­pointed I went to see her and I said I will do this on two con­di­tions: the first was, Prime Min­is­ter, you must sup­port me down the line, and she said, “I will do that, Andy.” And she has ab­so­lutely hon­oured that word. And the sec­ond was – and this was just af­ter Zac Gold­smith had lost the Lon­don elec­tion cam­paign – we will run this to­tally as a cam­paign from the West Mid­lands. And she said, “Do it your way, Andy.”’

Is he sug­gest­ing that Gold­smith’s cam­paign, with its mis­judged at­tacks on Sadiq Khan, was in­flu­enced by cen­tral govern­ment? ‘I don’t know how Zac’s cam­paign was run. All I know is that it ended up paint­ing him as some­thing that I did not think was him. It didn’t seem to me that he was in con­trol of the brand that was Zac Gold­smith. And to put it bluntly, I wasn’t go­ing to let any­one else have responsibi­lity for my per­sonal rep­u­ta­tion other than me.’

Street first re­alised he was gay when he was about 30. He says that in his years at John Lewis, he never felt the need to talk about his sex­u­al­ity. ‘It was known about and it was a com­plete non-is­sue. John Lewis is a very pro­gres­sive or­gan­i­sa­tion in terms of how it dealt with all ar­eas of equal­ity, and I sim­ply did not feel a need to make a state­ment.’ Run­ning for the of­fice of mayor, how­ever, he says he felt it was nec­es­sary to ‘have all this on the record’, and talked about it for the first time pub­licly in a news­pa­per in­ter­view. ‘There­fore, non-is­sue. And not one sin­gle per­son since – apart from jour­nal­ists, who are in­ter­ested in the ques­tion, and I un­der­stand that – not a sin­gle mem­ber of the pub­lic has made any ref­er­ence to it at all.’

There is no part­ner in his life. Street lives alone in the flat in Birm­ing­ham, which he bought as a base in 2011, when he took the LED job. He also has a hol­i­day home in West Wales, which he shares with the ex­trav­a­gantly coiffed MP Michael Fabri­cant. Street laughs off any sug­ges­tion of a ro­man­tic in­volve­ment.

We had ar­rived at the li­brary to see the de­signs for the main HS2 sta­tion in Birm­ing­ham’s Cur­zon Street, and an in­ter­change at Solihull. He has been an out­spo­ken cham­pion of HS2. In Septem­ber, in the week be­fore Birm­ing­ham hosted the Con­ser­va­tive party con­fer­ence, he pub­licly up­braided Boris John­son af­ter John­son wrote a col­umn in this news­pa­per sug­gest­ing that HS2 may not be good value for money. Street re­torted that, given the de­ci­sion had been taken to go ahead with the project, it was ‘not right’ for John­son to call it into ques­tion. ‘I am ab­so­lutely clear,’ he said. ‘The Govern­ment’s got to sus­tain its com­mit­ment to HS2.’

Now he moved quickly among the as­sem­bly of HS2 ex­ec­u­tives, lo­cal politi­cos and the ar­chi­tects of the scheme, shak­ing hands, talk­ing ad­mir­ingly of the ‘grace­ful­ness’ of the de­signs, and do­ing lo­cal-me­dia in­ter­views.

‘This way!’ Du­ties done he led the way up an es­ca­la­tor and out on to a ter­race, of­fer­ing a com­mand­ing view over the city sky­line, dot­ted with cranes. He pointed down to a build­ing un­der de­vel­op­ment, the new re­gional head­quar­ters for Price­wa­ter­house­coop­ers. ‘Their big­gest in­vest­ment out­side Lon­don’, and, di­rectly in front of us, the new re­tail bank­ing head­quar­ters of HSBC. ‘If you want to see a sign of the city’s re­nais­sance, that is prob­a­bly the sin­gle best ex­am­ple – 2,200

‘I of­ten re­fer to my­self – and I hope this isn’t in­dul­gent – as the chief in­spec­tor of the West Mid­lands’

jobs. Last year more peo­ple in Birm­ing­ham moved into jobs than any­where else in the coun­try, out­side Lon­don.’

Street con­sulted his sched­ule. He was due for a meet­ing at a new build­ing de­vel­op­ment in Walsall. We took the es­ca­la­tor back down, through the au­to­matic door (‘Come on!’) and set off at mil­i­tary pace for New Street sta­tion, barely paus­ing to note the flag­ship John Lewis store, grab some­thing to eat, and just in time to catch the train.

Street sat by the win­dow, eat­ing a tuna baguette and point­ing out places of in­ter­est – the new route for HS2; Villa Park, home of his favourite foot­ball team; Perry Barr, the main lo­ca­tion for the 2022 Com­mon­wealth Games – dis­cussing pol­icy, plans, achieve­ments. His body lan­guage sug­gested he couldn’t wait for the train to ar­rive at Walsall, so he could get on with what­ever it was he needed to get on with.

‘I’m quite a rest­less per­son,’ he said. ‘I used to say when I was run­ning John Lewis, when you’re win­ning you should be para­noid, ie you should never be rest­ing on your laurels; you should al­ways be think­ing about where the next op­por­tu­nity is com­ing from. And that was very much the psy­che of the or­gan­i­sa­tion when I was run­ning it.’

What then should you be when you’re los­ing? Street seemed mo­men­tar­ily thrown by the ques­tion, as if los­ing was not a word he was fa­mil­iar with. ‘The an­swer is even more rest­less, ob­vi­ously. But the the­ory is if you’re rest­less you never get your­self into that po­si­tion any­way. I was lucky in the years that I was there that that was a strategy that worked.’

You do not need to be a cynic to ob­serve that whether by serendip­ity or good judg­ment, Street left John Lewis at ex­actly the right time. Hav­ing con­sis­tently re­turned prof­its dur­ing his nine years as MD, in Septem­ber the com­pany re­ported a 99 per cent fall in first-half prof­its, from £83m in the same pe­riod last year to £1.2m – a fall largely at­trib­uted to the de­part­ment store chain be­ing obliged un­der its ‘never know­ingly un­der­sold’ pledge to match dis­count­ing ‘ex­trav­a­ganza days’ by its ri­vals.

‘All the stuff that was in the pa­pers about their price com­mit­ment and how that had hurt their mar­gin – I can work out what I think has hap­pened, but I gen­uinely don’t know, and I haven’t even asked,’ Street says. Since the day he left the com­pany in Oc­to­ber 2016, ‘I have not even been over the thresh­old of head of­fice. I re­ally did say, that’s it, I’ve had my time, now it’s some­body else’s turn.’

In his years at John Lewis, Street was known as a highly ef­fec­tive sales­man – both in his early days on the floor sell­ing saucepans and re­frig­er­a­tors – and in his ex­ec­u­tive po­si­tion, sell­ing John Lewis as ‘Bri­tain’s favourite re­tailer’.

‘That was in my pre­vi­ous life,’ Street says. ‘In this job I don’t use the word sales­man, I call it cham­pion. There is a story here that needs to be told in terms of in­vest­ment. The point is that no­body has spo­ken up for this place for years and years. That’s why I wanted the job.’

Street says he never had am­bi­tions to en­ter pol­i­tics as an MP. ‘I’m not say­ing I was given the op­por­tu­nity, but I never wanted to do that. But I hap­pened to think that this job would bet­ter em­ploy the busi­ness skills that I have. When you’re CEO of a com­pany you’re the front­man and there’s no hid­ing. If things go wrong on your watch you have to stand up and de­fend it.’

Street was elected on a man­i­festo to im­prove pub­lic trans­port and con­nec­tiv­ity, build more homes, erad­i­cate youth un­em­ploy­ment and deal with the prob­lem of rough sleep­ing. It would be un­rea­son­able, per­haps, to have ex­pected him to meet all those tar­gets af­ter just 18 months in the job, but what ‘halfterm’ grade would he award him­self ?

Peo­ple com­ment­ing on his first year, he said, gave him ‘seven and half out of 10, so that equates to a B or B+. Not ev­ery­body gave me that. But peo­ple who were be­ing ob­jec­tive did.’

One who didn’t was Ian Austin, the Labour MP for Dud­ley North, who claimed the only thing the new mayor ex­celled at was pub­lic re­la­tions. Money to tackle home­less­ness had not ar­rived and Street had failed to cut un­em­ploy­ment, he claimed. Both are un­true, Street says. The West Mid­lands has been the ben­e­fi­ciary of £9.6m in the Govern­ment’s Hous­ing First ini­tia­tive, de­signed to take the home­less off the streets and straight into per­ma­nent ac­com­mo­da­tion, which will pro­vide 225 per­ma­nent res­i­dences, while the un­em­ploy­ment fig­ures in the West Mid­lands have ac­tu­ally fallen. ‘More im­por­tantly this re­gion has cre­ated more jobs than any­where else in the coun­try.’

Street de­scribes his char­ac­ter as ‘very so­cial, but quite re­served. My def­i­ni­tion of hell would be to be given a karaoke mi­cro­phone.’ But there was lit­tle sign of re­serve in the time I spent with him. Walk­ing out of Walsall sta­tion, he was hailed by an el­derly cou­ple seated on a bench. Street seemed to recog­nise them and paused for a chat. ‘This gen­tle­man,’ he said, look­ing at me, ‘is from The Daily Tele­graph. Tell him how you feel about what’s go­ing on in the West Mid­lands.’

‘You’re do­ing a great job!’ the man replied on cue.

‘I hon­estly did not ar­range that,’ Street said as we moved on. I would no­tice, he said, how dif­fer­ent this is from the cen­tre of Birm­ing­ham. I had no­ticed: the two pound shops within 50 yards of each other, the ‘to let’ signs above empty shop fronts. ‘This is one of the towns where M&S has closed, which is re­ally grim,’ Street said. ‘It’s places like this where we have to get bet­ter out­comes quickly.’

The new de­vel­op­ment was a short walk from the sta­tion, part of the re­gen­er­a­tion scheme in the town cen­tre, com­pris­ing a Trav­elodge, a drive-thru Mcdon­ald’s and some re­tail units. We were shown to the site of­fice where the de­vel­oper ex­plained how the scheme had laid dor­mant for five years un­til be­ing kick­started by a £6.9m loan – on ad­van­ta­geous terms – from WMCA.

It is a truth uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged that at some point any­one re­motely in­volved with a ca­reer in pol­i­tics will have to don a hi-vis jacket and hard hat, tramp across a muddy build­ing site and feign in­ter­est in ex­actly how a bath­room is fit­ted in a Trav­elodge ho­tel room. But here’s the thing – Street wasn’t feign­ing it. ‘Fas­ci­nat­ing!’ he ex­claimed en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, as the site fore­man ex­plained how the bath­rooms are con­structed off-site and craned into place. ‘All lo­cal em­ploy­ment, 250 jobs gen­er­ated,’ the de­vel­oper ex­plained. Street beamed with sat­is­fac­tion. He has only been in the job for 18 months. Th­ese things take time, and Street knows he has only un­til May 2020, when he stands for re-elec­tion, to know whether he has been a suc­cess. But for the mo­ment, one thing is clear. Andy Street is hav­ing the time of his life.

‘No­body has spo­ken up for this place for years and years. That’s why I wanted the job’

10.17 Knowle Mayor Andy Street and MP Caro­line Spel­man meet a butcher dur­ing a walk­a­bout in the leafy sub­urb 10.34 Dor­ridge Street and Spel­man dis­cuss how a new Sain­bury’s de­vel­op­ment has in­creased foot­fall in the area

11.50 Cen­tral Birm­ing­ham Plans for HS2 sta­tions are un­veiled at the Li­brary of Birm­ing­ham – Street is a big sup­porter of the con­tro­ver­sial project

13.08 Train to Walsall Dur­ing the jour­ney, Street points out the site for the 2022 Com­mon­wealth Games and Villa Park foot­ball ground

14.03 Walsall Street in­spects the build­ing of a new Trav­elodge, part of a re­gen­er­a­tion scheme cre­at­ing 250 new jobs

14.55 Walsall Of the de­vel­op­ment of Walsall, Street says, ‘We have to get bet­ter out­comes quickly.’

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