Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Last week’s local council elections were a bruising encounter for the political world. With the national conversation focused on Brexit and Westminster, community campaigners were often given the cold shoulder by residents, with local issues failing to influence voters. In such divisive times, positives can be hard to find.
But for Conservatives a shining light can be found in the heart of the Black Country – in Walsall. One of the seven boroughs that make up the West Midlands Combined Authority, Walsall Council was one of a precious few gains for Conservatives, moving from No Overall Control to blue under the indefatigable leadership of Cllr Mike Bird in a campaign organised by Cllr Adrian Andrew.
This achievement was all the more impressive given that Walsall is a major political battleground, a post-industrial town of working people where Labour should be expecting to win seats, not lose them.
The success of Walsall’s Conservatives, and the strong support they have built, provides not only a masterclass in pragmatic local politics but also perhaps a prescient reminder nationally of how being seen to deliver the goods is key.
Walsall is also a local authority that is open to collaboration on a regional level, being quick to win investment and make positive changes. It also provides a great example of the brand of ‘Urban Conservatism’ that is emerging here in the West Midlands.
A similar local campaign was well fought in Dudley, where there is now a real prospect of Conservatives forming an administration again. After holding Solihull against a tough Liberal Democrat and Green challenge, and taking control of Walsall, the addition of Dudley would give us three metropolitan councils across the West Midlands Combined Authority. While this may still put us in a minority in the region, there is a strong Conservative platform being built here and a clear direction of travel.
Walsall Conservatives are a close-knit team who focus their energies on a positive agenda, delivering on bread-and-butter issues and providing tangible change for residents. They get on with the job for local people, running a good council delivering key services, such as popular fortnightly ‘brown bin’ garden waste collections, investment in cleaning up litter, increased road repairs and action on derelict sites.
It is a team that understands the concerns of local people and responds to them with visible results.
But crucially, Walsall has a broader outlook that has seen it engage with its neighbours and play a big role in the West Midlands Combined Authority alongside Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Solihull, Dudley and Sandwell. This has allowed Walsall to benefit from the investment attracted by regional initiatives.
It is through this regional approach that Walsall’s Conservative leaders have been able to deliver much of the tangible change that is likely to have impressed residents and influenced voting patterns.
Take the Phoenix Ten site. For thirty years this huge derelict area, once a copper works, has greeted visitors to Walsall as they arrive via the M6. By working with the Combined Authority, and the Black Country LEP, Walsall’s council is finally cleaning up this contaminated site.
This kind of scheme is helping to breathe new life into Walsall, while driving economic growth across the borough and the Black Country as a whole, giving people better opportunities for a decent home and jobs.
Reclaiming land contaminated by Walsall’s industrial past is a big part of Conservative efforts to provide visible change, which includes providing sites for housing too.
Schemes already underway include 250 new homes on a former industrial site, while proposals would also see the huge former Caparo steelworks in Birchills developed for housing.
Another bread-and-butter issue that Walsall has taken on is transport. They have seized the opportunities afforded by regional investment to work in partnership with the mayor’s office, Travel for the West Midlands and other agencies to deliver new services that residents value – and use.
A great example of the ambition being shown in Walsall is fast-tracked plans to reverse decades-old Beeching cuts and reopen railway stations to passengers in Darlaston and Willenhall, with a third in Aldridge hopefully not far behind.
Walsall’s Conservatives have also recognised the deeply symbolic role the borough’s historic town centre holds for local people. I have been working with them to make Walsall a regional pilot scheme for our high streets programme.
Homelessness is another highly-visible issue that has prompted a strong reaction for doorstep campaigners, and Walsall has stepped forward to push the Housing First scheme we are pioneering across the region, with Government backing. As a borough, Walsall is potentially hosting 32 tenancies to help local homeless people make a new start.
And the Walsall team have had other successes, like campaigning and securing investment in Walsall Manor Hospital to rebuild and expand the A&E department.
Time and again what you see in Walsall is a strong local Conservative team identifying issues that matter to residents and then getting backing from Government – and cash – to make a real difference.
The strength and unity of that team is also key to Walsall’s success. Fantastic candidates and councillors campaign together in a positive and ambitious way that speaks directly to local people.
Conservative MPs Wendy Morton and Eddie Hughes have always supported the ambition of their council colleagues, providing a united front to achieve results.
It is always a positive and fun experience to go campaigning in Walsall and be part of their team.
And last Thursday hard work, a united team and a positive forward-looking agenda paid off with the Conservatives gaining the Council.
This success has been achieved in a post-industrial town that has been for many years a fierce political battleground. Walsall is a town where Labour believe they should be winning council seats.
But it is also clear there is little local enthusiasm for the Islington brand of socialism in Walsall, or the Leftism of Momentum. Walsall people simply want their council to be run well, and for their elected leaders to deliver.
The Conservatives of the Black Country are getting on with the job, providing tangible change and showing an ability to collaborate and grasp the opportunity to deliver results. Their success was one of few bright moments in a challenging night at the polls.
Their pragmatic approach to getting the job done provides not only encouragement to the local associations who fared less well last week, it also reminds us at both the regional and national level that success in politics is about delivering the goods.