Greg Taylor is a political consultant and was formerly public affairs manager at the Local Government Association and in the Mayor of London’s office.
Andy Street, the new Mayor of the West Midlands, will join a panel of his fellow mayors on Monday, at the Conference, to discuss how to realise a modern industrial strategy. As the former managing director of John Lewis, who doubled the company’s reach and oversaw a 50% growth in sales over his nine year tenure, his ideas on delivering economic growth, building an innovative and appealing brand, and harnessing loyalty and trust based on a strong ethical framework will be well worth listening to.
The fact that Street’s incursion into Labour heartlands secured him over 238,628 first and second preference votes in May, in a city region firmly tilted towards Labour (five of the seven constituent councils are Labour-run, with Birmingham City Council – covering the largest population in the country – returning nine Labour MPs from its 10 constituencies) is evidence that his brand of pragmatic but ambitious Conservatism – rooted in a deep appreciation of regional ambitions and anxieties – can really turn heads at a time when ideology can seem to be running roughshod over common sense.
That winning pragmatism must be used to work out how the Conservative Party can build a brand that revitalises its connections with the inner-city constituencies that have remained, to a large extent, out of reach despite the truism that Jeremy Corbyn plays poorly on doorsteps from Manchester to Portsmouth. As one of the country’s pre-eminent and blooded localists, Street should be the leading light in a revitalised campaign to devolve significant power and funds down from Whitehall to local areas, illuminating a Tory vision for strong, ambitious regions with the means to build the physical and cultural infrastructure they need without the degrading begging trip to London.
There is currently little to work from – the 2017 General Election Manifesto was deeply disappointing for localists hoping for an evolution of Greg Clark’s bold work as Communities Secretary. The manifesto simply promised to “consolidate our approach… providing clarity across England on what devolution means for different administrations so all authorities operate in a common framework”. Vagueness, as Bernard Levin once said, is all, but the agenda is more pertinent than ever: as national government’s attention focuses on Brussels, it’s our cities and city regions that must shoulder the responsibility of delivering economic stability and growth. They can only do that with the freedom to concentrate on the local issues – from housing supply to improved transport connectivity – that will underpin successful progress and engaged communities.
Boris Johnson was, until his move out of London’s City Hall to the fusty halls of the Foreign Office, England’s most bullish and vocal localist, the Heineken Tory who saw the practical and electoral benefits of prising central government’s sticky fingers off the local levers of power. The independent London Finance Commission he set up in 2011 under the forensic chairmanship of Professor Tony Travers undertook a detailed analysis of the city’s finances and its potential, recommending transformative but sensible fiscal reforms that would allow London to operate on a level playing field with its international competitors.
When you consider that New York controls around 50 per cent of its tax take, and Tokyo grips around 70 per cent, it’s no wonder that London’s erstwhile mayor balked at the revelation that the UK’s capital, and international finance centre, was keeping a paltry seven per cent of its total tax take, with the rest disappearing into HMT’s churn. Boris picked up the Commission’s suggestion that London should keep all its property taxes – most importantly stamp duty and business rates – and ran with it, pitching a vision of a newly-freed, investor-enticing city to all who would listen, and many who wouldn’t.
George Osborne’s announcement of Business Rates devolution at the 2015 Conference was a direct result of Boris’s relentlessness, but to many it was nothing more than a piece of political legerdemain.
Business Rates was one thing, but stamp duty is a very different beast. The Treasury were loath to lose London’s huge contribution to the national pot – of the £7.3bn collected from invidious stamp duty on residential properties in 2015-16, £3.4bn, or 47%, came from the capital. Under cries of “redistribution”, the beancounters simply refused to countenance Boris’s cash-grab, and the campaign stalled.
The West Midlands though, brought in £240m over the same period, an amount that could be far more palatable to the Malbeccos at Horse Guards Road. Andy Street, in partnership with the leaders of the nine West Midlands councils, should be given control over this money. That would show that devolution has not stalled under Theresa May’s Brexit-focused government. It would give out the message that Whitehall is willing to countenance serious transformations to the way city regions are governed.
Street’s manifesto, clearly far more successful than the one that emerged from Number 10 a few months later, makes clear he’ll fight tooth and nail for the best financial deal for the West Midlands. As a successful businessman and pragmatic politician, like Boris Johnson he knows that the best way to cement both investor confidence and political leadership is to set out a positive vision and then deliver on it. His plans to tackle Birmingham’s chronic congestion, improve local connections and transport infrastructure, and swiftly build more affordable homes, are the bread and butter of positive local politics and while the West Midlands’ stamp duty receipts won’t pay for all his ambitious projects, they will give him the financial freedom he needs to plough on with them swiftly. And, crucially, this devolution would give the government a fantastic devolutionary story to tell – about unyoking England’s cities from Whitehall and helping them thrive.
As the Tories’ pre-eminent city leader and a pragmatic and ambitious thinker, Street can, and should, be the leading Conservative champion for our urban centres and future city campaigns. He needs to be instrumental in scrubbing that devolutionary vagueness from Tory thinking and writing over it with an exciting, chunky narrative of freedom and improvement.
So even if he isn’t directly addressing the Conference next week, the Conservative Party really needs to be listening to Andy Street.
To clarify Andy Street will be speaking as part of Panel Discussion with newly elected Mayors at the full conference on Monday afternoon. The session starts at 2pm.