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Birmingham Chamber gets behind mayor, but council still in la-la land

Birmingham Chamber gets behind mayor, but council still in la-la land

🕔25.Jan 2012

It is symptomatic of the way that Birmingham has failed to debate the matter of an elected mayor in any convincing sense that the most influential gathering to discuss the issue to date was organised by the business community, rather than the city’s political leadership.

The Chamber of Commerce finally came off the fence and proclaimed its backing for a mayor in the presence of Local Government Minister Greg Clark, Tory grandee Lord Heseltine, former Labour cabinet member Lord Adonis and the elected mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby.

It is true that there are still concerns about the powers a mayor of Birmingham will get, and the extent to which strong Government hints about devolving Whitehall budgets will actually be delivered, but the Chamber’s council of members voted overwhelmingly to campaign for a mayor.

They were joined by fellow business organisation Birmingham Forward, which is also backing a mayor providing sufficient powers are forthcoming from the Government.

Where when this was all happening was the leader of Birmingham City Council, Mike Whitby?

Coun Whitby, a Conservative who has been in control of a Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition since June 2004, chose to attend a meeting of the West Midlands Joint Committee instead.

This is a body made up of leaders of the seven West Midlands councils, which has no executive powers whatsoever. Indeed, if anyone had wanted to dream up the absolute antithesis of elected mayors, the West Midlands Joint Committee would suit admirably, steeped as it is in the disastrous local government boundary changes of the mid-1970s.

Any ‘decisions’ that it does make with regard to strategic matters – economic redevelopment for example – have to be ratified by each individual council cabinet. The council leaders do not have powers to take regional decisions themselves, they can only do so with the agreement of their cabinet, which for the most controversial decisions will probably also mean gaining the backing of a political group.

The process, naturally, is extremely time-consuming and it can often be difficult, if not impossible, to reach any agreement given the ingrained suspicions that exist between Birmingham, the Black Country and Coventry.

Still, that is where Mike Whitby thought he could best spend his time – dwelling in a talking shop of the past, rather than engaging in debate about the future.

Coun Whitby’s stance is typical of most of the city council and can be summed up as one of placing fingers in ears, shouting la, la,la loudly, and pretending that nothing is happening.

And yet, something is happening. Birmingham will vote in a referendum on May 3 which will decide whether this city is to have an elected mayor, and if the answer is yes an election to choose the mayor will be held on November 15.

To be brutally honest, Coun Whitby’s uncertain stance probably doesn’t matter too much. The chances of Birmingham returning a Conservative mayor in the current political climate would seem to be remote, even so you would think the country’s oldest major political party might at least have a stab at finding a candidate to run the city’s largest city outside of London.

Eleven years ago, Coun Whitby was at the forefront of a campaign to prevent Birmingham from having an elected mayor, or an “elected dictator” as he put it then. His closest political allies have recently been laying the ground for a Damascene change of tack, dropping hints that Mayor Mike might be a good idea.

In a statement commenting on the Chamber conference, Coun Whitby sought once more to support the idea that greater powers should be given to cities like Birmingham, but only to council leaders. He said: “Clearly the Government have recognised that cities will play a major role in the future of the UK growth agenda, and to do so they need powerful leaders. This is a concept I have always endorsed, and will continue to support.”

However, he also managed to broadly hint that he will be taking a great personal interest in the referendum result. His sitting on the fence stance was described as “outrageous” by Lord Adonis, while Coun Whitby’s own spokesman was unable to give any indication as to when his boss might decide whether or not to run for the Conservative mayoral nomination.

In truth, Greg Clark did not tell us anything we did not already know. This was an opportunity for cities like Birmingham to take charge of their own destinies, but the drive must come from within, he said. The world’s great cities all have mayors leading on the international stage. Birmingham needs a mayor to give it clout.

He came as close as he dared to declaring that a mayor of Birmingham will be able to choose from a “bespoke” system of powers, including devolved transportation , direct control of Whitehall budgets and responsibility for delivering skills training and apprenticeships. The considerable assets of the Homes and Communities Agency would probably be transferred to the mayor.

“All these things are available. I would hope and expect that a mayoral campaign would make it clear to the Government what powers you want to have,” Mr Clark added.

Tellingly, the sharpest point came at the end and was delivered by Labour mayoral hopeful Sion Simon, who claims to have knocked on hundreds of doors and spoken to upwards of a thousand people since declaring his candidacy over a year ago. It was all very well for groups of business people to chatter on, but an abject failure at national and local government level to engage ordinary people on the mayoral issue could prove to be its undoing, he claimed.

A glance around the room made Mr Simon’s point for him. Granted, you would expect a largely business audience at a Chamber of Commerce meeting, but even so the audience was dominated by middle aged men in suits, with a smattering of women and a small number of delegates from the ethnic minorities. It was not representative of Birmingham 2012.

One of the greatest challenges for the mayor of Birmingham will be to say to the usual suspects ‘thanks for what you have done in the past’, while pro-actively engaging a younger and more representative breed of Brummies to take the city forward. Well, that’s my opinion, and I count myself as one of the middle aged usual suspects.

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