Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, has urged the government to approach lockdown talks “straightforwardly” and to end “unedifying” public battles with regional leaders.
Following a week of fury from leaders across the north of England, Street said conducting public rows with mayors such as Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham would not give “anyone any confidence or certainty” ahead of a winter of social curbs.
The former John Lewis boss said ministers should be clearer about the formula used to allocate funding to each region entering tier 3, the strictest level of coronavirus restrictions, and ensure that talks with local politicians were held swiftly and in private.
“I don’t want a protracted negotiation,” he told the Guardian. “If we were at level three, the very simple point is you must have a very serious health crisis on your hands, so you must be decisive over this. If there is a set formula from the government, in fact, it’s not a negotiation. Can we please be told that straightforwardly? Then we can, in a sense, respond to that.”
Street’s intervention follows a bruising week for the government in which its approach to implementing Boris Johnson’s lockdown policy has been condemned as a “deliberate act of levelling down”, “tawdry” and a “divide and conquer” strategy.
With Nottingham set to head into England’s strictest lockdown measures imminently, meaning the closure of “wet-led pubs” and other venues, and other regions close behind, scrutiny has turned to the formula used by ministers to decide the level of funding given to each area.
Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, said this week that local authorities would be offered a standard financial package based on £8 a head for test and trace and an additional £20 a head for business support.
But local leaders have criticised this calculation as too simplistic as it fails to take into account factors such as business density, deprivation, proportion of hospitality jobs, and whether the area has already been in a long-term lockdown. There is also little clarity about what the business support fund can be used for, with council leaders saying there had been little guidance from government.
Street, arguably the most powerful Conservative outside Westminster, said he would expect the West Midlands, if it was to enter tier 3, to get a similar government offer as Greater Manchester – £82m in total – given that they both had 2.8 million residents. He refused to say whether he would accept it.
“What I would want to do with other local leaders is be really clear in advance of getting to that point what our position would be,” he said. “Because we do not want a protracted negotiation, particularly in the public domain, because that doesn’t give citizens, businesses, anybody, any confidence or certainty.”
He added: “I would like to have [the offer] well in advance of anything to happen. I would like it to be confidential. The whole thing played out in the public domain is unedifying. And I would like it to be a genuine exploring of what the specific issues are in each region built on top of a national situation.”
Street welcomed Rishi Sunak’s overhaul of the job support scheme, praising the government’s “decisive response” to his own lobbying for more support for businesses in tier 2 areas. He wrote to the chancellor 10 days ago to warn of an “avoidable domino effect” of business closures and job losses unless there was swift action, later saying the government had “completely missed” the impact on these businesses.