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As anyone knows, there’s only one place worth sitting when you climb aboard a double decker bus – and mayor Andy Street bounds up the stairs to make sure we get there first.
”Top deck, front seats, every time,” smiles the energetic Street as we head out of the city centre on the number 50 route on one of National Express West Midlands’ showpiece fleet of buses.
We both resist making faux-driving noises, but it’s the perfect perch for a man whose focus on overseeing a transport revolution in the region has shaped his first four years as mayor – and who is now plotting to seize more ‘front seat’ powers over the next three.
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Making open demands is a step change for Street, 58, whose mayoral reputation has been crafted around being a firm-but-friendly facilitator and a polite political influencer on first name terms with Boris and Matt and co.
Locally, he's up til now focussed on drawing disparate people of all political persuasions together to encourage investment or action – around rough sleeping, for example, or most visibly around the pandemic response.
And nationally, he has leaned on political allies to make the case for funds or positive decisions.
Now though he is setting out a determined devolution vision, and is pressing for much more autonomy from Whitehall.
A second election win earlier this year – the first in 2017 had been tight and somewhat unexpected, the latest one was by a clear margin – appears to have given the ‘apolitical’ Street added confidence.
Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands, on the No 50 bus
(Image: Jane Haynes/Birmingham Live)
“It isn’t right that we have civil servants in London deciding if we can build a bus stop or extend a tram line, they do not know the West Midlands like our local leaders do,” he told the regional Midlands Connect's pre-COP26 conference this month.
“The constant need to ask London to fund transport projects is cumbersome and slowing down our plans.”
He added: “With a long-term funding settlement we will have the cash to invest in the schemes we know are best for the region and its residents.
”This change would be critical, particularly in the context of tackling the climate change emergency, as it means we can super-charge our plans for cleaner buses, trains, and trams, as well as more active travel options such as our bikes and e-scooters.
A Midlands Metro tram
(Image: Graham Young / BirminghamLive)
“The more viable options people have, the more likely we are to see the polluting car left at home. I am confident we can make it happen.”
It’s not just on transport he wants a freer hand – on affordable housing, he is battling for a London-style deal for the West Midlands.
He wants something akin to the deal struck in 2017 which gave London’s mayor a ￡3.15 billion treasure chest to drive housebuilding across the capital.
Birmingham has, for too long, been trapped in a housing paradox, with developers throwing up multi million pound posh high rises in the city centre while the social housing crisis deepens and more families end up homeless.
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Street acknowledges that disparity, along with the reality of the constraints on new home-building for councils and housing associations.
He also defends the combined authority’s own housing policy, which guarantees 20% of any homes development it helps fund must be affordable.
But he knows it's not enough.
“We need to build much more affordable housing across the region.
“We have increased the pace of social building but compared to the scale of what is needed it is nowhere near good enough.
“We have got to secure considerable extra funding from central government to give an affordable housing deal that can be pointed at whoever needs it – whether council or housing association.”
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And he adds: “We have to be the liberator of that. We have to have more firepower and do that deal with Government to free up social house building opportunities.”
“London has a deal on social housing, but nowhere else has and that political point has to be made.
“I have an indication that the door is open but we have not yet made the case. We are writing those business cases right now.”
And he is also building a case for more funds and powers over youth training and careers services.
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”The Archangel Gabriel could not have stopped youth unemployment going up the last 12 months (through the pandemic) but the question now is to stop it being endemic,” he says. Some 41,000 under 24s are currently out of work in the region.
He highlights recent schemes in Sparkbrook for trainee HGV drivers, digital bootcamps for young people, construction skills projects with HS2, the Commonwealth Games and Coventry City of Culture, and work focussed training in colleges – but says there are just not enough of them.
”They do work, it is not rocket science, but we need more of these projects, and more funding, and more direct powers over training and also careers services.”
Our 15 minute journey to Moseley from the Bullring on the number 50 takes us past visible signs of many of the initiatives that Mayor Street has championed during his first term in office – including the city’s tram network extensions and the racks full of new hop-on bikes.
The city’s fleet of e-scooters are out in force, some riders making us both wince in trepidation as they weave in and out of traffic along Moor Street.
And at our destination in Moseley we talk about plans to get passenger trains back on the neglected Camp Hill line, with new stations for Moseley, Kings Heath and Hazelwell, currently only used by freight and through services. Work is already under way after funding was agreed.
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Train stations at Moseley, Kings Heath and Hazelwell on the Camp Hill line get funding to reopen
Said Mr Street: “I knew our region had been left behind (on public transport), and knew it was a big part of what I do, so have spent a lot of time and effort building momentum around transport,” he said.
He’s clear that his ambition is for the region to have the cheapest, most reliable, cleanest, most eco-friendly and best integrated network in the country, with trams and buses at its heart.
“It’s clean isn’t it, and it feels very safe, doesn’t it?” he asks of the bus we are riding, pointing out the CCTV cameras linked up to a live hub, and how spotless the seats are. “Because it is a really good way to get about.”
National Express say user numbers are recovering – up to about 70% of pre pandemic usage.
That’s likely to significantly improve from July 19, when social distancing measures are set to be axed and society fully reopens, barring continued surges linked to the Delta variant.
Bus fares will be slashed then too – with adult fares down to ￡4, child fares ￡2, and anyone using contactless can take unlimited journeys in a seven day period with their spending capped at a max of ￡15 a week.
The popular number 50 bus outside the Bull Ring in Birmingham city centre
It’s a move that was planned for June 21st’s so-called ‘freedom day’, but delayed a month along with lockdown easing – and it’s hailed as ‘brilliant’ by Street.
“They want to invest in this virtuous circle of lower fares, more users, and have an eye to the Clean Air Zone, complementing the stick of the charge with the carrot of cheaper fares.”
But any hopes of even cheaper fares, or free travel for all under 16s, appear distant.
“What we are trying to do is make it more affordable – but we can’t move to a completely free under 16s plan or whatever unless the member authorities (local councils, through council tax) can put more into the pot.”
Inequality in leadership, jobs creation for young people and the climate crisis are all listed as priority areas for this new term of office.
But in the meantime the spectre of Covid-19 persists. It’s his biggest challenge, alongside a recovery that will somehow have to sustain through mass unemployment and economic fragility.
Street has been “quietly critical” of Birmingham City Council’s approach to tackling air pollution.
“Look, the principle of a clean air zone is one I support. I have no debate that air pollution levels have to be tackled.
“But I think it is very challenging timing, just as people are trying to restore their businesses after such a difficult year. I do wish it was not occurring at this very moment,” he says of the Zone, launched on June 1st.
Clean Air Zone signs are in place around Birmingham
(Image: Birmingham Live)
“I have been clear about my concerns about the geography of the Zone and the 24/7 timing. Other areas of the country are looking at other ways to address the issue.
“I do not see as much progress as there could have been on greening the city, for example.
“I will want the city council to demonstrate that money raised from it will definitely be spent on public transport initiatives, net of the existing transport budget.”
He’s keen to encourage more people to walk and cycle, particularly families – but knows that won’t happen if they continue to have to fight for space on busy roads with excessive numbers of cars, vans, lorries and buses.
“We want to introduce more segregated cycling routes in and out of the city and region.
“The pandemic has driven more people onto bikes, and our new bike scheme (with bikes available to hire from parking areas across the region) is giving people the chance to try it out if they don’t own one. We need more bike lanes, segregated from traffic, to boost confidence.”
Work is progressing at speed on western extensions to the tram network – but a case has yet to be made to attract investment for the next Metro extension from Eastside to North Solihull, through east Birmingham.
The line cuts through some of the “more challenging” areas of the city – and “that makes the economic case harder, and more difficult to demonstrate uplift,” he says.
He added: “We have to unlock that part of the city (places like Alum Rock, Ward End, Chelmsley Wood) and ensure it is not left behind. Without the line more places will be left behind, so I am determined to make that case.
“Solihull Council are very keen on their end, for the section from Chelmsley Wood to Solihull, HS2 and the airport. I think when we crunch the numbers it will be totally viable and will make the case, and then I will be getting on my bike to the Chancellor’s office to press for funding.”
Our bus ride ends in Moseley, where we alight and head into the Prince of Wales pub, a traditional boozer run by outspoken landlord Keith Marsden.
Over a glass of white wine, the Mayor expresses his hopes for the sector to salvage an upturn this summer – while also listening as Mr Marsden sets out his own concerns for an industry 'on a knife edge'.
Andy Street, Mayor of West Midlands, with Moseley pub landlord Keith Marsden
(Image: Jane Haynes/Birmingham Live)
Street defends the financial support that has gone the way of the hospitality and events sector – including furlough, business rates breaks and grants – while accepting that the coming weeks will be crucial.
It's not enough, Mr Marsden tells him. Whatever the Government has done, it is not going to save some pubs.
And with that message of despair left hanging, we leave to catch the next number 50 bus back to the city centre, taking up again our seats on the front row, top deck.
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