John Lewis supremo turned powerful Tory mayor Andy Street will spearhead a rethink of city centres as fears mount over the decimation of retail.
Health services and business start-up hubs should be based in ailing urban centres, the West Midlands Mayor told HuffPost UK, while he argued disused shops should be transformed into new homes for young people.
His vow to turnaround high streets comes as a new report revealed 50,000 retail jobs have disappeared so far this year, with retailers buckling under the strain of Brexit-fuelled inflation, soaring business rates and a dip in consumer confidence.
But Street, who rose from a trainee at the upmarket department store giant to become its chief executive, has said he will pioneer efforts to “repurpose” town centres away from retail over the next ten years.
“I’m very clear that we cannot do the King Canute and stop the technological change - that is happening and the nature of jobs in retail is changing,” he said.
“But the problem is not just a retail problem. It is a town and city centre problem.”
In recent weeks, House of Fraser has put more than 6,000 jobs at risk with its store closure plan, while Poundworld has plunged into administration, placing a further 5,100 roles at risk.
Even the John Lewis Partnership has issued a profits warning and said that the company will close some of its Waitrose stores in the coming months.
Street, who spoke to HuffPost UK as part of the organisation’s week in Britain’s second city, said retail will not disappear completely, but that politicians should redouble efforts on providing housing and public services in central locations.
“In Birmingham, everyone wants to come in to the city centre and have the big retail experience - and this will be one of the most resilient places,” he said.
“But we got to think about new ideas. It has got to be about community hubs and start-ups and bases for entrepreneurs.
“A lot of young people want to be in the city centre. It’s probably where public services should probably be delivered - so why haven’t we got more of the health services coming to where there are customer flows.
“There has to be more leisure and entertainment because that is how people are spending their money, but we also need to think about how people might want to live in town and city centres.
“It may surprise you but I am quite an optimist about this. If we really think about how we repurpose our town centres.”
When confronted with claims that emerging retailers, such as Amazon, which is creating thousands of jobs at warehouses in the UK, were providing lower quality jobs, Street was bullish.
“There is definitely an issue around working conditions, the national minimum wage is able to address that to some extent but it is a gross oversimplification to say that about Amazon.”
He said the firm was investing in technology, IT and online marketing roles. “There are some good, high-quality cutting edge jobs,” he said.
The West Midlands Mayor was also challenged on claims made by Birmingham people to HuffPost reporters about the issues that affect their lives in the city.
Some people told our journalists that integration between black and minority ethnic communities and white British communities had stalled.
It came as a new report showed that British white people are soon to become the minority in Birmingham while nearly 50,000 residents in the city cannot speak English.
Street railed against claims diversity was “a problem” for city leaders to solve and said it helped Birmingham win the bid to host the next Commonwealth Games in 2022.
As Brexit loom, the city has a “responsibility” to lead the way on integration, he added.
While admitting that many West Midlands councils and business boards still do not represent Birmingham’s population, he said: “Is super-diversity a problem? No, it is a huge advantage.
“The reason I wanted to be mayor of the West Midlands is that there is something at stake for Britain here.
“We are on the front curve of how Britain is changing.
“We have got to show the rest of the country how to make this a success, and I honestly believe there is a responsibility on all of us to do that.”
He added: “One of the reasons we were able to persuade the Government and the Commonwealth Games Association that we should host the Commonwealth Games is that this is the place that represents the future of the Commonwealth.”
The city’s diverse communities formed part of Street’s bid to bring a Channel 4 base to Birmingham, he said, adding: “This is the place that represents modern Britain.
“It is a huge advantage and we have to get the story of that right.”
Street was also challenged about some disturbing street harassment against women in the city by some men.
He said he considered the behaviour a “hate crime”.
It comes as Labour table amendments to legislation in the Commons that would categorise misogynistic behaviour as a hate crime, something which the Government currently opposes.
The question came after one woman told HuffPost that she no longer felt comfortable out night clubbing because she was repeatedly targeted by men.
“I think I would describe it as utterly depressing and I find it quite horrid to hear that is actually going on in our city,” said Street.
The police can do more, he added.
“That is a form of intimidation, so it is an offence, obviously,” he said.
“West Midlands Police have been really good about this in encouraging people to come forward with any version of hate crime.”
Street has said he will lead a “clean air revolution” in Birmingham as new figures show pollution is causing as many as 800 premature deaths a year in the city.
Birmingham City Council is consulting on proposals to bring in chargeable emissions zones, but Street said public transport in the West Midlands had been under-funded for 30 years - and stood at a seventh per-head of the investment of London.
He said: “The council have said there will be a stick element here, with the charging piece, but we have got to have a carrot there as well and that means offering people an alternative to the car.
“We have got to improve our public transport.”
Street, alongside other city region mayors such as Manchester’s Andy Burnham, has vowed to tackle homelessness after government statistics showed it had doubled since the Tories came to power in 2010.
He said it was “very striking” how voters continued to raise the issue with him, adding: “I think it is wrong and is something that politicians and other leaders have to get together to solve.”
“You can never do enough,”
He said that while the rough sleeper numbers for Birmingham had plateaued against a nationwide rise, he had secured a £10m grant for a housing project to provide 225 new locations for street homeless.
“Every year this is measured, the number of rough sleepers in Birmingham went down slightly when it went up nationally by 17% and many big cities it is going up faster than that.”
But Birmingham is fighting a war on another front - violent crime.
In recent years, the city has witnessed the biggest rise in knife crime outside London – and has had more than double the national average for gun crime, according to the Office of National Statistics.
Street, who hopes to take on the powers of a Police and Crime Commissioner should he be re-elected in 2020, said he has confronted ministers about giving police in his area more cash.
“There is not sufficient funding for West Midlands Police and I have said that to ministers last year,” he said.
But Street sees the creation of new jobs and an uplift in the economy as key.
“I think there is enormous scope for prevention work,” he said. “If we can improve the economy of the region, fewer people will be tempted into crime.”
Birmingham backed Brexit, albeit by a slim 50.4% margin. The West Midlands as a whole, however, recorded a resounding 59.3% Leave vote - the highest in the country.
Immigration is an issue that remains high on the agenda for people HuffPost reporters spoke to during their week in the area.
Street agreed that the Government had failed to address people’s concerns about immigration in the wake of the Brexit vote and repeated that he advocated an independent immigration policy for the UK.
Where he departs from Theresa May’s policy, however, is on the issue of international students, a group he said should be taken out of the official recorded immigration numbers.
“It’s not Home Office policy and I want to see that change,” he said.
“The more international students that come the better. They will go back to their home countries and sell the story of Birmingham.”
As ministers clashed over what direction to take on Brexit, Street also told HuffPost UK that those, such as Boris Johnson, who continue to back the Theresa May should “get off the bus.”
Street also called for May to face down “utterly wrong” MPs who backed a ‘no-deal’ scenario.
“I would tell them that they are utterly wrong and that they could do damage to the country, and I would say, whatever they agree tomorrow, that they should all get behind it and implement it,” he said.
“Because, frankly, the country is sick and tired of politicians arguing on and on about this.”
It comes as Midlands-based Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) sounded the alarm over a bad Brexit deal that could potentially cost the car-maker £1.2bn in profit and investment.
Street as full-throated in his support for Business Secretary Greg Clark.
Clark went out to bat for firms in Parliament after Foreign Secretary Johnson reportedly said “f*** business” when asked about warnings about the economy and after Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt called Airbus’s warnings about Brexit doom “completely inappropriate”.
“I think Greg’s view on this is spot on right,” he said. “Business generates the wealth that we all share - that’s why there has been more jobs created here.
“It is absolutely necessary that the government hears what matters to business.
“I think also that business has to speak up. When I was CEO of John Lewis, we always tried to do that, and I think it is absolutely right that business speak up and be listened to.
“I don’t think they should always be deferred to but they must be considered.”
The senior Tory was also asked about the most pressing issue of the day - the World Cup.
“I think we will win on Saturday,” he said, as England prepared to take on Sweden on Saturday afternoon.
“What I saw on Tuesday (in the England vs Colombia match) was a team of incredible mental resilience.
“What the commentators said was that this is a battle of the mind more than it is a battle of sport - and I think that was right.
“That is the battle that the England team has lost and lost and lost in previous World Cups.
“What I saw on Tuesday of Gareth Southgate and his team was great optimism and I think there is a very good chance of getting a semi-final berth and then all bets are off after that.”