MAYOR, WHO IS SEEKING RE-ELECTION, SAYS 100,000 JOBS WILL BE CREATED
FOCUS ON HOSPITALITY AND LAUNCH OF ‘CURRY COLLEGE’ TO TRAIN CHEFS
WEST MIDLANDS mayor Andy Street revealed the loss of his mother to Covid-19 has given him a personal understanding of the pandemic’s devastating impact on society.
In an exclusive interview with Eastern Eye ahead of the mayoral elections on Thursday (6), Street also revealed his plans for a second term as Conservative mayor, the potential challenges in the coming months and his take on the ongoing coronavirus crisis in India.
Reflecting on his own experiences during the pandemic, Street also spoke of the death of his mother in February. She sadly passed away from Covid-19, after contracting it while in hospital for an unrelated illness.
Similar to many others who have lost loved ones in the past year, Street and his family were unable to visit his mother in the hospital prior to her passing. “I do understand, personally, how devastating (the pandemic) has been. It was terrible,” he recalled. “It’s what has led me to the view that we had to have the lockdowns and we have to have a very cautious reopening. It does leave you really, utterly determined to tackle it.”
In the run-up to polling day, Street was campaigning for his second term as mayor, running against Labour’s Liam Byrne and Liberal Democrat Jenny Wilkinson.
Having acted as mayor since 2017, Street has seen the scale of the pandemic up close in the past year and admitted he was “taken aback” by the number of coronavirus-related deaths in the UK, both from ethnic minority groups and the wider population.
Studies consistently revealed ethnic groups were disproportionately impacted, with data showing they were more likely to become seriously ill or die from the virus. “If you’d asked me a year ago that we’d end up with 127,000 deaths….it is staggering, shocking,” he said.
Street has also been following news of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis in India and its impact on the Indian community in the Midlands. India is currently in the midst of a brutal second wave of the pandemic, which has seen healthcare systems and crematoriums overwhelmed with demand.
Street said he has heard from many residents who had expressed their anxiety about the situation. The Midlands has the second largest British Asian population in the country. “I think the people here fear (the situation in India) very, very intently, because the relationship between the West Midlands, and India is so well developed in every field,” he said.
Although he praised the British government for “acting quickly” and sending medical supplies to India last week, Street admitted it was a “drop in the ocean”.
He added: “I’m very confident the British government will continue to look at what it can do – and I think we’re doing that across the western world, an incredible solidarity with our friends in India.”
Across the West Midlands, there are challenges ahead in the form of the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Countless people have lost their jobs during the fallout of the virus and businesses have struggled to keep afloat. The most common concern from British Asians in the West Midlands was on employment and future career prospects, Street said.
Although the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures showed unemployment figures in the West Midlands had fallen in recent months, Street acknowledged there are many still struggling. “Covid has given us an incredible sideswipe to our economy, and we have a real challenge in terms of employment and jobs,” the 57-year-old said. “Prior to the pandemic, we were doing well in terms of employment rates, but we’ve had a terrible year, so (employment) is now an overwhelming issue.”
In Street’s manifesto, he has outlined an employment proposal to create 100,000 jobs in two years. He called it the “most rapid investment recovery plan” in the region to date, noting the last strategy had promised 97,000 additional jobs in three years. New investments in the city will help to provide those opportunities, including the High Speed 2 (HS2) construction and the 2022 Commonwealth Games (which will be held in Birmingham).
“The plans are detailed,” explained Street, adding he felt “confident” the goal could be achieved. “We’ve had it tough, but I feel we’re going to bounce back.”
Part of the recovery process will focus on the curry industry too, which plays a vital role in the West Midlands’ hospitality sector. “Everybody associates Birmingham with the Balti,” joked Street, who was the managing director of John Lewis before turning to politics. “It’s hugely significant here.”
Although business owners are keen to reopen their doors for business, Street also emphasised the need for more skilled chefs in the industry. Street revealed authorities are planning to launch a so-called ‘Curry College’ – an initiative helping people learn the necessary skills.
He hopes those from non-Asian backgrounds may consider it as a potential career, too. “We’d love to draw people in who perhaps aren’t from the families who traditionally support the industry,” he added.
Despite the past and future challenges, there have been highlights too. Reflecting on his first term, Street emphasised the winning mentality which the West Midlands had adopted in recent years. He noted the Commonwealth Games being awarded to Birmingham; Coventry winning the City of Culture in 2017; the ongoing 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme taking place in Birmingham; and the approval of the HS2 railway, with plans to connect London and Birmingham by approximately 2029.
Earlier this year, it was announced the Ministry of Housing would set up a headquarters in Wolverhampton. The first ever ministerial office outside of Westminster, it expects to provide 500 jobs to people in the West Midlands by 2025. “I think the psychology of (the West Midlands) has changed because we never won anything,” laughed Street, who grew up in Birmingham. “But now, we almost expect to win.