For the love of Brum
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.’