‘I earn 1/10th of what I did as John Lewis CEO’: Mayor of the West Midlands in exclusive interview for The Boar News
Forthright, sharp, and personable, Andy Street was raised in Birmingham before studying PPE at university and working his way up John Lewis.
In a sideways move, he dropped his career in business and stood as the Conservative candidate for the West Midlands in 2017 and, in a political shock, defeated the Labour candidate. ‘I didn’t leave university thinking I want to have a life in politics,’ he explains in an interview held at Varsity pub, ‘but I was utterly determined that Labour were not going to win that election.’
Since 2017, the fifty-nine-year-old has overseen an increase in transport spending across the West Midlands, making investments in active transport, and now there are plans to build a new rail system which could connect Coventry city centre to Warwick University. This, Mr Street says, would showcase the deployment of an ‘exciting, brand new technology’ developed with Warwick University’s WMG.
In an interview published exclusively in The Boar, Mayor Andy Street describes his journey as a politician and his plans for the West Midlands.
You went to Oxford and studied politics. What was that like?
I liked it, it was the most wonderful privilege. I was chairman of the Conservative Association. Quite a lot of my personal friends now are people I met during that time. They say so many people meet their future husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever. It was an absolutely lovely time, it flew by.
What does your conservatism mean to you?
I’m a very moderate, inclusive, you might even call it left-wing conservative. In the old Margaret Thatcher language I’d be described as a ‘wet conservative’ – this means the Michael Heseltine version of conservatism.
And that is about a compassionate, caring society where those who can succeed and make Britain great in that sense do, and those who cannot actually have to have appropriate support from the state for, we hope, short periods of time to move them forward. So there’s an utter compatibility between my background and my values.
Why did you walk away from your career in business to become a candidate for the Mayor of the West Midlands?
For 30 years I did business. I didn’t want to be a politician. If I wanted to be an MP I probably could have found a way to be one, though I didn’t want to do that. But, when this job came up, about getting the confidence back to the West Midlands, I thought: ‘That’s the job I want.’
I get paid 1/10th of what I did as chairman of John Lewis. I’d been CEO for nine years, that was quite a long time. I thought: ‘I’ve done this, there are other people who can do this, so I must move on.’ I always remember we got together as a board at lunchtime, because in retail it’s all about the last week’s numbers. And I remember sitting there one Monday and thinking, ‘you don’t need me anymore’ and that was a wonderful feeling, because I thought that I’d done my job. And that was at the same time as the new position for mayor was there, and I thought that that was the role I wanted. I was utterly determined that the Labour party were not going to win that election, because I did not believe – and I still do not believe – that they have the leadership, the vision, and the management capability to win, and I was determined to stop it.
You criticised the ‘begging bowl culture’ of Whitehall when it comes to applying for central government funding for projects. What did you mean by that?
As a region we’ve done very well with government funding and a lot of it’s gone into transport. But, despite the fact that we’ve done pretty well, what I called out in that ‘begging bowl’ piece is that we always have to say to people in London: ‘Please, please give us that money.’ Real devolution would mean that we could decide for ourselves what we are going to do. And the projects in question in the Levelling Up Fund were relatively small – £20 million here or there. Now, that still matters to a community, it’s a lot of money, but in terms of what governments spend it’s a relatively small amount and it isn’t going to change the world. So, we’ve got civil servants in London sitting and deciding whether a high street should have £20 million when you’ve actually got a local council and a combined authority that, I would argue, would be able to spend it better. It’s about empowering local people.
So you feel that you lack control despite receiving the funding for these projects?
Let’s take the Active Travel Fund. We as a region have done really well in this respect. We have a lot of money for active travel, but the point is, why do we keep having to make tiny applications for this cycleway here and there? If they’re going to give us £100 million, give us £100 million and we can decide what we do with it, rather than each individual scheme being signed off in London.
What value does Warwick University bring to the West Midlands?
Perhaps the best way of illustrating this is a story from my trip to India last year. We must have met 300 businesses across the whole of the trip. And you ask them, why would they invest in the UK rather than in the US, rather than France or Germany? And the only answer which comes back in terms of real differentiation is the quality of the R&D which is being done in some of the leading sectors. The thing that really stands out is the quality of the R&D. This University is right at the cutting edge of that R&D.
The University already makes a brilliant contribution to the West Midlands. The value to the economy is over £1 billion a year, the chancellor would probably say. But the long-term contribution is the talent that comes out of this place – whether you’re an inward investor in India or a small entrepreneur here who can actually grow something really competitive.
So, higher education is important. Do you think the current system is fair?
Broadly, yes. I think there’s one caveat on that. First of all, it’s an option. No one forces anyone to do this. Second, there’s a threshold over which you repay, and over that repayment rate you have a large amount of time to repay. And given that there are all sorts of pressures on the public exchequer, it is right that an element of costs to higher education should come from those who benefit from it. That is basically a fair deal. What I don’t think is right at the moment is the high rate of interest on student loans, and I can’t believe that it is beyond the funders to do better deals. I can borrow money to fund investment at a lower rate than students can at the moment. That does not seem to be right to me. But the principle of a contribution, I believe, is fair.