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‘Low skills blight lives’: Richard Parker on his mayoral ambitions

When Richard Parker recounts his career history, he casually mentions he was asked by the Japanese government to advise them after the 2011 earthquakes, and helped reform housing in Northern Ireland in the wake of the Troubles.

These projects were normal for someone who brushed shoulders with senior leaders across the world during his time as a public finance accountant and partner at PwC.

But he considers his next challenge as the most important yet: running for the position of West Midlands mayor against the Conservative Andy Street, who has held the post since its inception in 2017.

“It was that previous experience and the view that we hadn’t really delivered on the ambitions of the region that got me to talk to people about standing in this role,” Parker said. “I understand what makes this region tick, and where we need to do better.”

Parker is Labour’s candidate in the forthcoming mayoral contest, taking over from the Birmingham MP Liam Byrne, who contested it for the party in 2021 – and lost to Street who took 54% of the vote in the second round.

Street is a formidable opponent. The former John Lewis boss is popular in the region, and has worked hard to distance himself from the national Conservative scandals that have dominated headlines in recent years. As he frequently proclaims, he approaches the role as a businessman, not a politician.

But so does Parker, whose bid to be mayor is his first foray into frontline politics (although he previously worked as an adviser to the Labour government from 2010-15).

“I’ve had to get used to being the front person,” he said. “I’ve worked in business all my life but what I’m doing here is the most important thing I’ve ever done, and I truly mean that. I’m approaching this in a fearless way, not in a reckless way.”

Born in Bristol, he left school at 16 and returned to education a few years later to gain an economics degree, before moving to the West Midlands in the 1980s to begin his career in accountancy.

Parker says that second chance at gaining an education and skills was life-changing, and a big driver behind his ambitions in politics.

His campaign pledges include creating 150,000 new jobs for the region, which has some of the highest unemployment rates in the UK. He’ll do this, he says, by using the mayor’s adult skills budget in a more “focused” way, helping businesses better align with colleges and universities and creating a taskforce to help support businesses in the region to stay and grow.

“We’ve got a higher percentage of young people out of work than any other region in the country, and almost a quarter of our workforce have no skills or very low skills, which blights those people’s lives,” he said.

“It means they’re going to have lives of low pay, and all the anxieties and vulnerabilities that go with that. When I speak to people on the doorstep, it’s their loss of hope in getting a better-paid job that’s causing them more concern than the cost of living crisis.”

Richard Parker visits Petalite, a Birmingham based EV charger developer.
Richard Parker visits Petalite, a Birmingham-based EV charger developer. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

He has pledged to bring the region’s bus services into public ownership – as Andy Burnham has done in Manchester – giving him control of routes, fares and standards.

Parker also said he’ll pump mayoral funding into social housebuilding schemes and create mayoral offices in the Black Country and Coventry, to avoid a Birmingham-centric approach to his work.

He hopes his offer will tempt voters away from Street, who is promising to boost social housebuilding, particularly near transport sites, unlock brownfield sites for development and create Europe’s biggest technology festival in the region.

There’s also the issue of Birmingham’s Labour-led city council, which declared effective bankruptcy last year. Residents have just received their council tax bills, up by 10% from last year, and are having services reduced across the board – streetlights are being dimmed and bins will now only be collected only every two weeks.

Parker does not believe people are jumping to blame Labour for that, and emphasised that the Conservative government has cut £1bn in funding for the council over the past decade. “Taking that money out of our poorest communities at a time when they’ve been suffering most has been incredibly damaging,” he said.

Street has also had some setbacks in recent months. He was pushing for police and crime commissioner powers in the region to be transferred to the mayor – as they have been elsewhere – but after a high court challenge, the plan was abolished because of a lack of public consultation.

The Labour leaders of councils in the West Midlands also published an open letter of no-confidence in Street, which Parker said was a sign that positive collaboration across the region had broken down.

“I think there is a recognition in this region that it’s time for a fresh start, a period of renewal,” said Parker. “There is no other way to improve people’s lives or outcomes than giving them access to skills and jobs. My message is about hope.”