FROM Solihull schoolboy to John Lewis boss, Andy Street is hoping his star will rise further to see him become the region’s first metro mayor.
The former Langley Primary School pupil has been named the Conservative candidate to head up the newly-formed ‘super council’.
As he prepared for the final week in his ten-year tenure as John Lewis boss, Observer news editor Lauren Clarke met with him in his flagship Touchwood store to talk about the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and why he thinks he’s the right man for the job.
“In two words, proven experience – I have the proven experience for the role,” Andy Street says leant over his cup of coffee.
Having grown up in and around Birmingham and Solihull before going on to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, Mr Street joined John Lewis in 1985 – working his way through the ranks to managing director.
But when chance to head up the WMCA came knocking, he stepped down from his role as chair of the Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and handed in his notice at John Lewis to jump at the opportunity.
“I have done 30 years in John Lewis – 10 years as the boss – and have absolutely loved it, but the old cliché is true – all good things come to an end,” he said.
“I wouldn’t have left for anything else, and it was a really difficult decision, but I honestly believe this is an opportunity for our region that I couldn’t let pass by.”
Despite studying politics at university and being elected chair of its student Conservative Association, he is keen to suggest he is above party politics – standing on a platform of cross-party collaboration.
Whoever is elected mayor of the WMCA will have to work alongside the seven council leaders of each constituent member – Labour-run Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Wolverhampton; Conservative-run Solihull; and Walsall, which is not controlled by any one political party.
And it is the biggest lesson he has learnt as a businessman and LEP chair – bringing people together – that Mr Street believes will be his greatest asset in the race to be elected as mayor.
He explained: “Politics has been an interest for me all my life, and I was chair of the university Conservative association, so I have always had that passing interest but I have never thought about being an MP.
“I’m standing as a party candidate yes, but this isn’t like national government where you have all people of one party delivering – it’s about leading something that is cross party.
“I think that me not coming from politics also gives me an advantage over the other candidates because the person who wins has to be someone who brings everybody together and I genuinely believe that although I have stood as the Conservative candidate that people will be able to see me as my primary calling card – as Andy Street, who has run business and headed up the LEP.”
While one of his competitors, Solihull Green Party leader James Burn, has pledged to create an assembly of representatives from local authorities, social services and unions to scrutinise him if he were to become mayor, Mr Street has rejected the idea.
He believes the mayor will have to be inherently collaborative in his or her approach to governing, and has said he will not only release a manifestp for the region as a whole but will lay out his promises for each council – responding to specific problems felt in each area.
But for Mr Street, the job is not just about issues close to home, but those further afield.
He explained: “At the moment we do not have someone to represent the west Midlands region around the country and the rest of the world – it’s the person that would go to China or meet with foreign investors.
“And I think I have the experience that sets me up to do that.
“It’s also about being the person who lobbies on the people’s behalf in Government – unlocking money, opportunities and investment from Westminster, and I think my experience as LEP chair has proven that I can do that.”
As well as highlighting his business acumen, Mr Street has also promised to have a ‘caring and individual’ approach to his governance – pointing to the Birmingham and Solihull LEP’s Work Coaches scheme, which he claims has helped around 17,000 long-term unemployed people in North Solihull and East Birmingham into work.
So, when asked what his message to voters was, he simply said: “People can have confidence that from what I have done in the past that I will be able to do this in the future.”
Mr Street will now go up against Labour candidate Sion Simon, MEP for the West Midlands; Solihull councillor for Chelmsley Wood, James Burn for the Green Party; and the Liberal Democrat candidate and Birmingham City University director, Beverley Nielsen.
Mayoral elections are expected to take place in May 2017.