Annie Benton, photographer.
Andy Street, Mayor of Birmingham, All Out for Frictionless Trade, Tariff-Free and Delay-Free, also with the Euro Zone.
Interview with Fernando Gómez Herrero (fernandogherrero.com).
Spanish translation will come out in La Vanguardia, newspaper based in Barcelona, Spain (https://www.lavanguardia.com/autores/fernando-gomez.html).
With one million inhabitants, Birmingham is the second city of England and the United Kingdom. Quick commute to London (1 and a half hour by train), it is also within easy reach from most other cities in England (Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, etc.). Location matters: Birmingham enjoys the light in the so-called “West Midlands” of the country, a symbolic centre if you wish, put to use by the latest Conservative Conventions, and it is valid to ask if the city punches above its locational and populational advantages. Using a football analogy, will the city luck go in the direction of Aston Villa or the Wolves in the English Premier League as it Brexit-travels now interrupted by covid-19? The Mayor has a few things to day.
This historic city is undergoing a major infrastructural investment, probably a decade old. Construction work is ever present in its city centre branching out into outer neighbourhoods and suburbs. Driving around town is not typically a pleasant experience with eyes open or closed. Birmingham is part of the “West Midlands Combined Authority.” It comprises other adjacent cities such as Coventry, Wolverhampton, Dudley, Solihull, Sandwell and Walsall that will not hit the international imagination inside or outside the Anglosphere. Its local airport puts the city within easy reach of national and international destinations, but perhaps this will change due to the virus crisis. The high-speed train (the so-called HS2) is now the stellar example of this regeneration effort: it was approved by mid-February short before the virus crisis and there was some resistance in local and national groups. Will it go through as planned in this climate of unprecedented uncertainty? Andy Street says so in relation to a city that is moving ever so gradually away from the psychological grasp of its industrial past, the nineteenth century moment of the “workshop of the world,” as it was then known. Blitzed in the war (9 Aug 1940 to 23 April 1943), there is still evidence of the brutalist architecture that was the fashion in the 1960s and 1970s, now making claims to reach a desirable heritage status. The bleak period of the city is probably the decades leading up and passing through the 1980s as it moves, or tries to move, ever so gradually away from a decaying post-industrial identity to a firm and sound tertiary sector of valid employment options for the native, young and restless mostly in hospitality, entertainment, university sector and the like. The Commonwealth Games (a kind of reduced scale of the Olympic Games, which is the sports and cultural legacy of the British-Empire) are coming to Birmingham in 2022: how will the city be then? Birmingham is not a pretty city now. It is nonetheless a city with character and a strong sense of self close that is close to a working-class ethos perhaps morphing into something else. The Brexit vote won by a small margin and there are strong Brexit areas in the local-government area. The talk by the Major is one of incessant revival and regeneration. It is today a young city encompassing a substantial diverse or BAME population that will challenge conventional understandings of Britishness. The transcultural Asian food of Indian inspiration known as “Balti” originates from Birmingham and one can hear a rich variety of accents informing the local “Brummie” dialect. There is something of an undying self-deprecation here firmly in place.
Annie Benton, photographer.
Its Mayor, Andy Street (Conservative Party), https://www.andystreet.org.uk/is currently in the extended year of his first term (local elections were postponed due to the covid crisis). Robert Shrimsley from the Financial Times calls him “England’s preeminent Conservative outside Westminster.” The official talk of “levelling up” of the regions by the Boris Johnson government goes certainly in Andy Street’s direction. In the interview, the Mayor makes clear his high-energy advocacy of frictionless trade as it will help the dual regeneration of city and region, seemingly not one without the other. He brings our attention to key projects in the city centre, whilst being perhaps too cautious about his own Government. Would Andy Street be this street-level dimension of the more local and more communitarian conservatism proposed by the former adviser to Theresa May, Nick Timothy, a Birmingham native and self-declared Aston Villa fan? Would this be the face of the new conservatism coming back to life under Brexit and covid conditions in the immediate future?
It is probably not the right moment to voice doubts and criticisms as we go through the Brexit negotiations and the peak of the covid pandemic that is hitting the West Midlands particularly hard. Perhaps the most significant Mayoral figure in the so-called “Red Wall” area of the country associated with the Tory Party, Andy Street talks strictly the business talk. He worked for John Lewis (2007-2016) before running for Mayor. So, it is about a 4-year career and counting. His is or was a Remainer profile, which he now understandably wishes to put under the hat and the umbrella. The unmitigated desire is for a “bounce back” of the city and the region under a national emergency crisis that will not be easy to handle nationally and locally. Inspiration will have to come from many places. A significant presence in the city is the University of Birmingham, where I worked for two years, and where I got to see the sorry configuration of the “modern languages” in Britain. Most football fans will recognize teams such as Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton. Classical music fans take pride in the top-of-the-game construction of Symphony Hall, its City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is one hundred years old, its current director is the young conductor from Lithuania, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla who joined in 2016. Heavy-metal fans will know of the group Black Sabbath and the recognizable figure of Ozzie Osborne emerging out this still vastly unpretentious, mostly self-effacing if not entirely working-class city undergoing real-life challenges as we speak.
Annie Benton, photographer.
1. What is the constitution of the West Midlands Combined Authority? What are its salient features? Are we talking about an administrative region built around the second city of the UK in terms of population?
The West Midlands Combined Authority brings together seven different cities, towns and boroughs in the UK’s second most heavily-populated area – Birmingham (the UK’s Second City), Coventry, Dudley, Solihull, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. The Authority has direct influence over housing, transport and skills, but also fulfils an important role in enabling collaboration between the member boroughs, resulting in a more strategic approach to the economy and industry, as well as social issues. The Mayor’s role is to be the figurehead for that huge area, to lobby for investment and to help bring together all the different areas in the West Midlands to work as one.
2. What is the branding of Birmingham and/or West Midlands inside Britain and outside? How does Birmingham compare to other cities in the U.K.?
I think the perception of the West Midlands is changing within the UK. This was one of the Britain’s industrial powerhouses, and like many former industrial areas it went through a tough period, as we shifted to a more service-based economy. That has all changed now, and the West Midlands is reinventing itself as an innovative, diverse and forward-thing place, where the economy has grown faster than any other UK region outside of London. We have a young population, and have enjoyed record levels of investment and housebuilding. It’s a place that is looking to the future, not the past, and the fact more Londoners moved to the West Midlands than anywhere else in the country reflects that.
Fernando Gómez Herrero, photography of the Hollywood Monster
The Studios "Ask Andy" Poster Meeting, Birmingham, 13 Feb 2020.
3. What does the region look like now, compared with 20 or 40 years ago? What about its future projection?
Well, back in the 1970s and 1980s the region was at the height of de-industrialisation. The West Midlands had been one of the UK’s industrial heartlands – it’s of course the place where the Industrial Revolution started – and manufacturing and heavy industry provided mass employment for local people. When much of that heavy industry closed down it led to a period of decline. But in the last few years I think we have seen a bit of a renaissance. We have seen huge investment. We have new transport systems being built all across the region. Parts of the centre of Birmingham would be unrecognisable to ‘Brummies’ of 40 years ago because of the scale of regeneration. For instance, I suspect Birmingham’s redeveloped New Street Station, and the Grand Central shopping centre above it, would leave them speechless! Across the region we are also building record numbers of new homes, often on old industrial sites – removing the scars of the past. I want that this renaissance to continue and I’ll be working to bring in even more investment to make it happen.
4. What is the top investment in the region? Perhaps the HS2 must be top?
HS2 is undoubtedly the biggest investment on the table, and we have already seen benefits from it, in terms of businesses choosing to set up here. But there are lots of other major investments, including new hospitals, new transport systems and housing that will transform how local people live and get around the area. We struck a £350 million housing deal with the Government - which has resulted in record housebuilding – and hundreds of millions of pounds are being spent on a new Metro transport system. We are even re-opening old railway stations that have been shut for decades.
Fernando Gómez Herrero, photographer.
5. What are the challenges of the region in the context of Brexit Britain?
I have made it very clear that, as the manufacturing and export capital of the UK, the economic success of the West Midlands relies on frictionless trading. It is crucial therefore that the deals struck between the UK, the EU, and other countries are both tariff-free and delay-free.
Fernando Gómez Herrero, photographer.
6. How does Andy Street explain Brexit to the readers of La Vanguardia in two or three sentences, taking into account that a pro-business agenda splits between leave and remain with top-capital (City of London, Financial Times, etc.) mostly going for remain?
I think you’re over-estimating me if you think I can sum up such a complex subject in a few sentences! Brexit was clearly a divisive issue for the entire nation, and the closeness of the referendum result illustrated just how split people were in their views. However, I have always maintained that the important thing was to honour that result, and move onto ensuring our exit from Europe was smooth and that the important partnerships, ties and shared values that we have built up with our neighbours remain.
I must also add though, that the divisive effect of Brexit has currently been washed away by the unity we have seen in the face of the coronavirus. The reaction of the people of the West Midlands to the crisis – the way they have looked after each other, and supported the NHS – has been inspirational.
Fernando Gómez Herrero, photographer.
7. How does Andy Street explain the current configuration of the Tory party under Johnson compared with previous incarnations (Thatcher, Major, Cameron, May)?
Well, first of all, let’s not forget the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has redrawn the political map of the UK. I think the result in last year’s General Election reflected a wish for a more positive kind of politics, and people felt the Prime Minister offered that. This meant real movement in the Brexit process, which was followed by the announcement of massive investment plans in areas like health and transport.
Obviously, COVID-19 has interrupted much of those plans, but the Prime Minister and the party has shown the kind of calm, science-led leadership that I think people needed in such a national emergency.
Andy Street and Fernando Gómez Herrero (Birmingham, 13 Feb. 2020).
8. What is the situation of covid-19 in the West Midlands area? What are the projections and timeframes? What would this mean or do to HS2?
The West Midlands has been hit hard by coronavirus. In terms of deaths this is the second worst area in the UK, behind London, which is perhaps not surprising given our huge population. I have been hugely moved by those who have lost loved ones, and my heart goes out to the thousands of families who are mourning.
There are positive signs that the UK may have reached the peak of the outbreak. In the West Midlands the huge NHS Nightingale hospital, at the National Exhibition Centre outside Birmingham, was created in just a few days by local businesses and the military to add extra capacity for the health service. So far, those extra beds have not been needed, which is surely a positive sign. We have a long way to go yet, but I have been inspired by the way the West Midlands has handled this crisis, and I’m confident that we can not only survive it but bounce back.
In terms of HS2, I think it is too early to talk about specific timelines, as all our concentration must remain on defeating COVID-19. However, the planning and budgeting process is moving forward. In April the Government gave Phase One the notice to proceed, meaning contracts could be signed and construction work can start properly. I have said that as we consider ways of lifting the lockdown, the construction sector should be one of the first activities we look at, as it is an industrial activity that can still respect social distancing.
Reuters / Eddie Keogh / Pool
9. A recent report suggested the economic impact of Covid-19 will hit the Midlands hardest. What are your thoughts on this?
This lockdown is having a profound impact on our regional economy and it is true the research suggests we could be hit harder than anywhere else. But it is also clear that the lockdown will soon start to be lifted, so it’s crucial we are ready for that and have a clear roadmap to navigate our way through this difficult time. A recovery action plan is to be drawn up specifically tailored to help the West Midlands economy bounce back quickly once restrictions start to be lifted. By preparing now, I’m confident we can secure a successful reboot of our economy and accelerate growth in key sectors. It’s also important that the West Midlands has a clear voice in the recovery plans being drawn up by Government, and I will continue to lobby for that to happen.
Annie Benton, photographer