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Interview: Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands

West Midlands mayor Andy Street talks about why digital is key to the region’s economic growth, his hunt for a chief digital officer, and the importance of skills and collaboration

When Andy Street launched his campaign ahead of the 2017 West Midlands mayoral election, digital was a significant feature. And now, after 10 months as mayor, that hasn’t changed.

As the first-ever elected mayor of the West Midlands, Street is keen to embrace digital as an opportunity to grow the economy as well as safeguarding and creating jobs in the region.

It’s an early Tuesday morning and the sun has barely had time to rise when Computer Weekly sits down with Street on the sidelines of a breakfast meeting where he is explaining his digital strategy. Despite the early hour, there is no let-up in the mayor’s enthusiasm for getting digital right in the West Midlands.

Politicians often tend to see digital as an add-on, but Street, who has seen first-hand the impact digital can have from his time in the retail sector as managing director of department store John Lewis, has witnessed the power of the “digital revolution”.

The purpose of his role as mayor, and of the West Midlands Combined Authority, is to make life better for the region’s residents, he says.

“That means you have got to do better economically, and it means we’ve got to provide better public services,” he says. “The way we achieve this is focusing on parts of the economy where we have a genuine advantage.

He describes digital as the “golden thread” linking everything together. Street’s digital vision comprises six pillars: digital skills, data, digital infrastructure, growing the tech ecosystem, digital government, and raising the region’s profile around the world. 

“We cannot limit our horizons. We have got to think about our globally competitive position”

Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands

The region was at the forefront of both the first and second industrial revolutions, but it has suffered from a vulnerable economy and between the 1970s and the crash in 2007, the employment rate in the West Midlands dropped. “By the time we got to 2007, we were the parliamentary constituency with the highest unemployment rate in Britain,” says Street. 

Since then, however, the region has grown exponentially. Productivity has shot up over the past three years, and – a fact not widely known – in 2017, Birmingham had the highest number of new businesses registered in the UK, and the West Midlands now has more tech and digital businesses than any other area outside London, boasting 13,455 digital companies. 

The problem, says Street, is that most people would never guess Birmingham had such a booming startup sector. Having one well-known business set up offices in the West Midlands could be “important for telling the story”, he says, but adds: “Despite the fact that we haven’t got the one iconic company, we have got an incredibly powerful digital business base.

“I am not here bemoaning the fact that we haven’t got that – it just illustrates the fact that because we haven’t got that, people don’t know the story so well.” 

Putting West Midlands on the map 

However, Street is keen to put the West Midlands on the map as an internationally known tech hub. With what Street calls the “transformational sectors”, such as the automotive industry, life sciences and healthcare, all having a strong presence in the West Midlands and all “being changed by the digital revolution”, the region is well placed to take advantage of this. 

“It’s very simple,” he says. “When we talk about our transformational sectors, those have to be things where we genuinely have an internationally competitive situation. 

“I always say this is about us competing with the Bostons, the Barcelonas and the Berlins of this world: we cannot limit our horizons. We have got to think about our globally competitive position.” 

In his mayoral manifesto, Street set out plans for co-sponsoring technology accelerators with large businesses in the region to develop “new spin-off startup ventures” in sectors such as automotive, looking at autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, and research and development. 

“This is taking our traditional strength in automotive manufacture and thinking about the digitisation of that,” he says. “Autonomous vehicles are a digital industry.”

The glue that holds it together 

Street says part of his role is to help create an environment where innovation in these sectors can flourish, which includes ensuring they have the right infrastructure to do so. Birmingham is one of eight cities across the UK that were chosen to be part of the first phase of BT Openreach’s Fibre First scheme, which will see full fibre implemented across the city. 

“Connectivity is so important – it’s critical to our businesses,” says Street. He says he is hugely welcoming of BT’s commitment, but points out that Birmingham is only one part of the region, so he is looking to work with providers in other parts of the West Midlands Combined Authority to ensure no locations are left behind. 

It is also important to ensure that the local authorities across the region are “connected” and onboard with digital transformation, says Street. As mayor, he says he is not in any way trying to “do the job of the local authorities in terms of their statutory services”.

“But there are critical things where local authorities can come together to form the economic plan for the region, and that is what my role is all about,” he adds. This is all about getting people together around a table and talking about areas where they can collaborate, says Street. 

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“There will be a number of public services where we are really trying to have a laser focus as a combined authority to provide improved outcomes,” he says, giving as an example the work being done on mental health in the region. 

Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation trust, together with the Black Country Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, Dudley and Walsall Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust and Coventry and Warwickshire Partnership NHS Trust form one of NHS England’s Vanguard programmes.   

Their joint project is called Merit – the Mental Health Alliance for Excellence, Resilience, Innovation and Training. It focuses on areas such as culture, bed management, crisis management and developing a consistent way of working, bringing all this together through data sharing, including patient data, but also data on available beds, for example. 

Projects such as Merit show there are areas where collaboration can add value, says Street.

CDO as a conductor

To drive collaboration and digital innovation, Street is currently recruiting a chief digital officer (CDO) for the combined authority. He has enlisted recruiter Harvey Nash to find a CDO, who will be responsible for implementing the region’s digital strategy and act as a senior digital adviser to the mayor. 

The CDO’s job will be to work with the region’s digital board and the combined authority board to implement the six pillars of the digital strategy. 

“Let’s be clear, the CDO is not doing that by a commanding network of having hundreds of people working for him or her, it’s through all the different organisations doing it,” says the mayor. 

“Some of it is actually through local authorities, some of it is liaising with government, some of it is with the universities, some of it through networks and startup communities. So I see the CDO as a sort of conductor between all these different parts. That’s the critical point – they have got to be able to glue this network together.” 

Unlike a local authority IT director who is busy running the council’s IT function, this CDO role is about bringing everything together, says Street.

“This is about connecting the digital and tech networks across the region. I don’t in any way want to play down the importance of IT jobs, they are very important, but this is different, this is the glue, the networking, the connectivity between all the different parts of the ecosystem.”

Addressing the skills gap

One of the biggest issues where Street sees collaboration as key is skills. It is no secret that the UK as a whole is facing a huge skills shortage, and that the digital revolution also brings with it a need for new skills.

In his digital election manifesto, Street highlighted the importance of focusing on, and supporting, innovative approaches to skills training, “such as digital apprenticeships, digital boot camps and online learning”, as well as launching a “mayor’s mentors” scheme, in which young people, or people wanting to change career, can be mentored by someone who has been successful in their chosen career.

Street has promised to create a West Midlands Skills Fund, taking money from the £150m-£180m Apprenticeship Levy paid by businesses in the region each year.

“The skills shortage is the single biggest challenge we face,” he says, adding that it is an issue he feels could be solved at a regional level.

“Number one, we have got to be really clear about what and where the demand is,” he says. “What is the need, both currently and how is it going to evolve over the next few years? Then we have got to look at what supply is coming through, and we have got to say ‘where’s the gap?’, and when you have got your gap analysis, you can actually say what specific changes to the supply chain are going to be required to meet that.”

Street adds: “That is going to need new funding, and it’s going to need new training programmes. I have got to find a way to ensure that happens.”

You could drill down into each individual sector, says the mayor. Construction, for instance, is hugely impacted by the digital revolution, so what particular skills will be required as digital technology brings new construction methods?

“Let’s look at the sectors where the growth is – let’s look at the technical skill requirements and let’s be really clear in understanding the needs there,” he says. Street stresses that the region has to “be the first to embrace and the fastest to embrace” the digital revolution – but must always ensure that no one gets left behind.

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