MAGGIE PAGANO: Why local mayors matter

MAGGIE PAGANO: Elected mayors are showing what energetic and committed local leaders can achieve – they will be pivotal in economic fightback from Covid

Andy Street was in a cheerful mood this week after launching his campaign to be re-elected Conservative mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority. 

For the first time in months, he was able to report the number of people dying with Covid in the West Midlands is down to single figures, with one death reported on Thursday – a great relief in a region that has endured the third biggest Covid death toll in England. 

It’s a bitter tragedy for all affected but also for Street personally – his mother died of the disease recently after contracting Covid while in hospital. 

On the campaign trail: Andy Street won last time by just 3,766 votes but it was a thrilling result for a Conservative in a Labour heartland

Improving health outcomes for the region’s 2.9m population is a top priority, and a report spearheaded by the mayor, councils and public health officials is being put into action. 

The new ‘Health of a Region 2020’ report has come up with a 50-point plan to reduce inequalities and therefore deprivation; health equals wealth. Inevitably, the region also suffered one of the biggest shocks to GDP in the UK with 93,000 new claimants seeking benefits. Yet Street is confident the West Midlands can recover quickly. 

Before the first lockdown, the local economy grew at 25 per cent over five years, the fastest anywhere outside London. The brain drain was also being reversed, with net positive migration into the district. Over that time, Street brought in over £3.3billion of investment, persuading the Government, local authorities and the private sector to work on his four priorities: improving transport, housing, skills and rough sleeping. The number of rough sleepers on the streets is down from 377 two years ago to 44. 

The role of mayor is to be a convenor, he says, someone who bashes heads together and acts like a chief executive. 

This has relevance beyond the West Midlands. Elected mayors can be pivotal in boosting local economies. Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor of Tees Valley, has shown similar drive, doing deals to bring the local airport into public ownership, restarting the steel industry and attracting green investment. 

Conservative mayors have small majorities in four out of the seven metro mayor races, so the forthcoming elections are going to be tight. Street won last time by just 3,766 votes but it was a thrilling result for a Conservative in a Labour heartland. 

Why should the locals give him a bigger majority? Street says he was ‘levelling up’ before it became fashionable. Mayors like Street and Houchen can challenge traditional mistrust of Conservatives through their focus on improving their local area and giving people reasons to stay. Auguries are good: Steven Knight, the Peaky Blinders creator, is building his new Mercian film studios at Digbeth while the BBC is moving more staff to Birmingham. They join HSBC, Deutsche Bank and other big hitters. 

That’s why opening up old rail lines, improving metro and tram links and freezing bus fares to allow easier commutes and shopping trips have been so critical to the region’s expansion. The number of homes being built has doubled. Diggers are at work on the old Longbridge plant site to create more homes and commercial activities. 

Post-Covid, there will be greater emphasis on training and skills, especially for those in the life science, digital and green industries: Wolverhampton College is training mechanics for electric vehicles. 

It’s fair to say Street been a highly successful and popular mayor – I’ve been out on the streets of Walsall with him and he was greeted like a rock star. 

Elected mayors are showing what energetic and committed local leaders can achieve. They will be pivotal in the economic fightback from Covid.