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Street: ‘Addressing skills challenge is my priority’

Street: ‘Addressing skills challenge is my priority’

🕔02.Oct 2017

Andy Street, Mayor for the West Midlands, will tell the Conservative Party Conference today that “addressing the skills challenge is my priority,” writes Kevin Johnson

Mr Street will be speaking during a Conference session on delivering a modern industrial strategy on the main conference platform this afternoon.

Along with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, he is perhaps the UK’s leading Tory who can claim to be a winner and whose appeal stretches across the party and beyond.

But the emphasis on skills is something of a new direction for the Mayor. Or, at least, the beginning of a new phase.

Street 100: what next on skills and housing?

Until now, there has been little evidence of work on the skills agenda, notwithstanding the fact that his first pledge as a candidate was to reduce youth unemployment to zero and his second act as elected Mayor was to launch a Mayors Mentors scheme.

Sources close to Mr Street have made it clear that skills, along with housing, are at the top of his negotiating list for ‘Devo Deal II’ which the Mayor and Business Secretary Greg Clark announced at the University of Birmingham in July.

Talks to begin immediately on Devo Deal II

This afternoon, Mr Street is expected to say:

….we have a clear plan in the West Midlands and a team united behind it.

None of this would have been possible without the rigorous thinking of our brilliant universities. They’ve been genuine partners in our story, ensuring their research has been applied to our economic revival.

​But the job is far from done. Not everyone is sharing in this success and we simply do not have the skills to match our ambition.

So conference, addressing the skills challenge is my priority and I hope it will be the governments in order to reach the full potential of the Industrial Strategy.

The Productivity and Skills Commission, set up by the WMCA before the arrival of a Mayor, is currently analysing responses to its call to evidence. But, it only received 35 replies and appears to have limited capacity at its disposal to quickly set an agenda for the Mayor on skills.

As the Productivity and Skills Commission has already identified in the responses to its Call for Evidence, there is a:

mismatch between employer demand for skills and the skills available within the labour market, particularly in relation to higher level and technical skills.

It would seem obvious that high on the agenda for the Mayor will be to gain control of the Apprenticeship Levy, and its distribution, at the regional level.

Secondly, given the particularly acute issues over technical and vocational education, he will surely be looking to gain greater influence – perhaps through pilot initiatives – over the direction of technical and vocational education.

The lack of parity between purely academic and vocational qualifications, both in terms of esteem and funding, need to be tackled. Given the regional economy’s reliance on higher level technical skills, Mayor Street should be able to make a good claim to wrestle greater control and influence in this area.

Mr Street and the WMCA have been busily building their top team, with the highly respected Deborah Cadman having recently assumed the top job as chief executive and Julia Goldsworthy in as director of strategy – although she will shortly depart on maternity leave.

The WMCA is recruiting a director of skills and productivity, although Chamberlain Files understand an appointment has been made. There are interim directors looking after housing and regeneration and public service reform.

Speaking in Manchester later today, Mr Street will thank Tory members for their help in securing his election back in May. He is expected to share his recipe for success:

Ours was a campaign for an idea which I’ve called Urban Conservativism.

My manifesto was one of hope, aspiration and opportunity.

It was moderate, tolerant and inclusive. It appealed right across the region, across all communities and across the age groups.

It talked of jobs, houses, transport investment and sharing our collective success. It was fit for a region going places.

It worked for me, and can work for the party nationally when the time comes.

Mr Street seems likely to omit to mention there was a national election just weeks after his own successful campaign.

The manifesto in the General Election campaign came in for particularly strong criticism as a factor in the loss of an overall Tory majority and largely accounted for the departure of No. 10 joint chief of staff, and champion of the politician who adorns the masthead of this site, Nick Timothy.

Tackling skills and housing are huge tasks with results only really possible far beyond single mayoral terms office.

It’s perfectly understandable that short to medium term effort will go on transport, where the majority of the Mayor’s current powers rest, and bids such as those for the Commonwealth Games, City of Culture and Channel 4.

But addressing the region’s skills challenge is essential for any political leader who wants to leave a real legacy upon the West Midlands after one, two, or maybe even three terms.

To make a mark, Mayor Street will have to secure real powers and freedoms from central Government on skills.

Mr Street seems confident that the Industrial Strategy White Paper will mark out a ‘place-based’ approach to the policy. That will be welcomed by many, but we will be among those who will wait to see the substance of that approach.

He will also need to forge even closer relationships with the leaders of the constituent councils – the ‘Mets’ – and think hard about the architecture which currently involves both local authorities and three local enterprise partnerships as well as other agencies.

All of which will require a much deeper level of engagement and policy development than has been possible in the first few months of the mayoral term.

But, for today at Conference, Mr Street can enjoy the almost unique feeling of a Tory in power, remaining relatively popular (as far as is he recognised) and with a sense of political direction.

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