Prof. Catherine Staite
Thursday’s mayoral elections brought some surprises. There was a higher than expected turnout in areas like the West Midlands where public interest in the election had been worrying low during the campaign. There were two notable cases of political revolution; Tees Valley and the West Midlands. Like Ben Houchen in Tees Valley, Andy Street won by a slim majority – 238,628 votes against Labour’s Sion Simon’s 234,862.
While commentators ponder on what the mayoral results will mean for national politics, the new Mayors will have very little time for reflection. Their first terms are only for three years and all have set out challenging agendas for their areas. Three years isn’t a long time for the new Mayor to make an impact, yet the progress made in these three years will determine the value the public place on the role and the extent to which central government are willing to devolve more powers.
Here in the West Midlands, Andy Street’s focus is on renewal and he’s seeking quick wins on improvements to the transport network to reduce congestion and improve air quality. He’s also keen to see land released for both industry and housing. He recognises the importance of technology, not only to drive economic growth in the region but also to have a beneficial impact on people’s lives
It’s notable that these and other ambitions, such as improving health and wellbeing, can only be achieved by collaboration with major stakeholders in the region. For example, he will have some compulsory purchase powers but responsibility for planning remains with each of the individual local authorities. Many of his key goals can only be delivered if he is able to bring a wide range of competing and conflicting interests together under his leadership and influence them to do their part to deliver his ambition to shape ‘a region that works for everybody, no matter how strong or weak you are’.
The ability of the Mayor to bring people together, not only councils, other statutory services, business and the voluntary and community sectors but most importantly the residents who have become disengaged from local politics will be vitally important as he seeks to demonstrate the added value of the mayoral role. His effectiveness in harnessing and mobilising collective energy and resources to tackle complex social and economic challenges, will be crucial to his success.
Andy Street will be exercising his leadership and influence in a complex political and organisational landscape. The West Midlands Combined Authority, which Andy Street will chair, is made up of seven local authorities, Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. The Leaders of those authorities will form the Mayor’s Cabinet. The WMCA is a new organisation but it has made good progress in developing its capacity to deliver, with the support of the chief executives of the member councils who have each taken on a key leadership role, on top of their demanding day jobs. Now the WMCA is recruiting a chief executive and a small strategic team to help drive delivery of the Mayor’s agenda.
How will we measure success? Increased public recognition of Andy Street and his role will be not only an important soft measure of the success of his first term but will bode well for his ability to gain more devolved powers from central government. Progress will also be measured by the speed with which major infrastructure projects are planned and delivered and better opportunities provided for people who are currently socially and economically disadvantaged. The hardest test of all is the extent to which the public perceives that their lives have been changed and improved as a result of his election as Mayor for the West Midlands.
Catherine Staite is Professor of Public Management and Director of Public Service Reform at the University of Birmingham. As Director of Public Service Reform, Professor Catherine Staite leads the University’s work supporting the transformation and reform of public services, with a particular focus on the West Midlands. As a member of INLOGOV, Catherine leads our on-line and blended programmes, Catherine also helps to support INLOGOV’s collaboration with a wide range of organisations, including the Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives as well as universities in the USA, Europe, Australia and China. She was named by the Local Government Chronicle, in 2015 and 2016 as one of the top 100 most influential people in local government.