A blog post by the Chairman of the Society, Dr Malcolm Dick
We were pleased to welcome Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) at one of our regular meetings on Wednesday e26th October. Andy was raised in Birmingham and Solihull before studying at Oxford University and then pursuing a successful management career within the John Lewis Partnership. Since school he has been actively engaged in local charitable and voluntary activities. He was awarded a CBE in 2015 for services to economic growth. In 2017 he was elected as Mayor of the WMCA, standing as a Conservative, and he was re-elected in 2021. The aims of the WMCA are outlined on https://www.wmca.org.uk/who-we-are/
Andy explained how before lockdown after 2000, the West Midlands was the most rapidly growing regions in the country from a low base and how over the same period educational qualifications were rising rapidly. The Black Country had suffered from economic decline and a limited skills base, but there were many positive local elements. He noted the major contributions that the University of Wolverhampton and local colleges were making to skills and economic development. The WMCA had stimulated transport developments - Dudley was particularly badly served as the largest centre of population nationally without rail communications - and the regeneration of brownfield sites.
Andy was committed to improving local prosperity, wellbeing and a sense of belonging by working with central government, local councils, private enterprise and community organisations. Money had already been committed by central government for a range of economic improvements. The Midlands Metro, light rail, a new Dudley Bus station and railway stations in Aldridge, Willenhall and Darlaston are examples. The new hospital in Cape Hill would be the largest A&E hospital in Europe. s One task was to develop the Soho Foundry heritage site in Smethwick – a site of world importance for the history of mechanical engineering. Andy had supported, for example, Chance Heritage Trust and local arts groups to seek funding and proposals for a velodrome in Halesowen. Much of his influence was through persuasion and talking to people. Local authorities still had important controls over their areas, for example in planning and he couldn’t override local decisions.
There were many questions, including some which were robust, relating to future investment, cuts in higher education, heritage, the arts, the River Stour, bus services, local political structures and, a particularly contentious point, the demolition of Dudley Hippodrome by Dudley Council. Some in the audience were hostile towards him, but Andy replied fully, sensitively and generously to all questioners, and invited several people to contact him about concerns.
Inviting a local politician to one of our meetings was bound to be controversial. Given Andy’s central importance in shaping the region, it was important for us to secure an overview of what he saw as priorities, challenges and achievements. I gained a strong sense of Andy’s energy and demonstrable personal commitment to enhancing the welfare and wellbeing Black Country within the West Midlands region and his command of information and knowledge of what is happening locally. We don’t have to agree with all that is happening in the region, but it was right that we should welcome him, listen and engage positively, rationally and logically in debate and discussion, even if we disagree.