Tory mayor Andy Street says levelling up policy should trust local people more

<span>Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA</span>
Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

The Conservative mayor of the West Midlands has criticised the government’s levelling up policy for being too centralised, and said he chose to “put place before party” when he spoke out on the issue.

Last week Andy Street broke ranks with his party as he labelled the government’s levelling up plans as a “broken begging bowl culture”, and said he was disappointed more funding hadn’t been allocated to the West Midlands.

Street later told the Guardian he was a strong proponent of the broad idea of levelling up, but did not approve of how funding allocation was being decided.

“I’ve been perhaps the Stormtrooper of levelling up, I’ve always supported it,” he said. “But I just thought, standing back from it, this is a very odd way of going about things, having civil servants in London choosing between different projects. I don’t think that is a coordinated way of really achieving the outcome that we all want.”

He added: “Surely the principle of devolution is much more about trusting the people who are close to the action.”

Last week, the government announced the second tranche of levelling up funding, totalling £2.1bn, with the West Midlands receiving £155m of that after most of the region’s bids were turned down.

In a scathing statement last week, Street said he was waiting to hear from government about what their “justification” for this was.

“Occasionally you do have to stand out and say, place first not party first. Did it ruffle a few feathers? I suspect it did,” he said.

Street said he strongly believed levelling up should be founded on tackling underlying issues such as “competitiveness, productivity and the new economy” to spur growth across the country.

“I don’t think civil servants pepperpotting small amounts of money can really drive that,” he said.

When his comments were reported in the media last week, he was labelled as a “Northern mayor” on Good Morning Britain, while Jeremy Vine said he had “never heard” of a mayor of the West Midlands on his show.

“Here I was thinking being the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the innovators of the bicycle, and the UK’s automotive heartland might get the West Midlands some respect. Silly me,” Street quipped on Twitter.

Despite this, Street said he didn’t believe the Midlands gets lost in the north versus south narrative that often accompanies talk about levelling up.

“It was slightly cheeky, but that’s just loose language. There’s almost a lazy shorthand when people talk about the north,” he said. “Being mayor of the West Midlands, the northerners think I’m a southerner, the southerners think I’m a northerner.

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“But the critical issue is, are we winning the powers and the resources? And the answer is steadily.”

Street said his main focus was negotiating the “trailblazer devolution deal”, which the West Midlands and Greater Manchester mayoral authorities have been selected for, which would give him more funding and more flexibility on how to spend it.

“[The government] have made it clear they want an agreement by budget time, so we’re in the negotiating trenches now and I do believe it’s going to happen,” he said.