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Birmingham Mayor must be ‘first among equals’ in West Midlands, says Labour

Birmingham Mayor must be ‘first among equals’ in West Midlands, says Labour

🕔09.Jan 2012

An elected mayor of Birmingham must be able to lead local government across the West Midlands as well as have the ability to control all Whitehall investment coming into the city, a Labour Party policy document is demanding.

In its official submission to the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Birmingham Labour Board makes the case for a mayor with the “financial freedoms to deliver economic growth, jobs and prosperity”.

Controversially, the paper calls for the Mayor of Birmingham to take the lead on strategic regional local government bodies, and act as a “first among equals” among leaders of the six other West Midlands councils.

The paper argues that the Mayor of Birmingham should chair the Greater Birmingham-Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership in order to deliver significant economic development and also become chairman of a new Public Transport Commission covering most of the West Midlands.

Other powers proposed for the mayor include:

  • Ability to raise revenue from Tax Incremental Funding  schemes, based on borrowing to fund economic development against new business rate income in Enterprise Zones, and implementation of so-called ‘bed taxes’ on hotel rooms.
  • Complete freedom on deciding council tax levels, without the need to hold a referendum.
  • Appointment of a Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner to take control of policing in Birmingham.
  • An Employment and Skills Board, chaired by the mayor, and the ability to close and replace failing Birmingham schools.

The policy document bears a striking similarity in parts to demands issued at the beginning of this month by Sion Simon, a former Labour MP for Erdington, who is seen by many as the front runner in the race for his party’s mayoral nomination in Birmingham.

Mr Simon also set out proposals for the mayor to chair the Greater Birmingham-Solihull  LEP as well as the Integrated Transport Authority and an Employment and Skills Board. He demanded powers to close failing schools and the ability to create more Enterprise Zones.

Labour’s official policy response was compiled over several months by local party leaders including Sir Albert Bore, who is challenging Mr Simon for the mayoral nomination, and Hodge Hill MP Liam Byrne, who is leading a national Labour policy think tank.

The third Labour mayoral contender in Birmingham, Gisela Stuart, the MP for Edgbaston, is also a member of the board and helped compile the document. Mr Simon, however, is not a member of the board and played no direct role in producing the paper.

The Birmingham Labour Board’s responses, as well as Mr Simon’s efforts, are likely to re-awaken historic antagonism in the West Midlands, where council leaders have been suspicious of what they see as Birmingham attempting to flex its muscles. An attempt to form a Local Enterprise Partnership covering all of the West Midlands collapsed after the Black Country councils and Coventry made it clear they did not wish to join with Birmingham.

The Labour Board’s document states: “Delays and inconsistencies in the strategic planning process have often frustrated the delivery of strategic priorities in Birmingham whereas, in London, the powers of the Mayor are of major benefit with inward investment and development.

“An elected mayor will have a unique mandate from the residents of the city and this needs to be reflected in the personal responsibility of the elected mayor, particularly for large scale property developments and infrastructure.”

It goes on to spell out how the Mayor of Birmingham would take control of public transport across the West Midlands, and the benefits that would flow: “There has been a long-term inability to speak with ‘one voice’ on transport infrastructure matters in the West Midlands that has undermined and continues to undermine the region’s economic competitiveness.

“An elected mayor in Birmingham would need to be given a voice and role on transport matters to ensure that Birmingham becomes the effective engine of the West Midlands economy that it should be.

“Although the region has an Integrated Transport Authority, operating through an executive body, Centro, the strategic transport governance for the region is relatively weak. In particular, the key operators of national road and rail networks – the Highways Agency, Network Rail, and the Train Operating Companies do not really participate in regional transport governance.

“We propose the creation of a Mayor’s Transport Commission which would combine the transport governance of the LEP areas, ideally Black Country and Greater Birmingham, a combined population of million people, chaired by the elected mayor but also including local authority leaders from the LEP areas. This body would set a framework for regional decision-making and prioritisation on transport infrastructure.”

Transport funding from the Regional Growth Fund would go to the Mayor’s Transport Commission under Labour’s plans and the commission would act as the body to which Department for Transport funding could be devolved.

The document goes on:  “In effect, the Elected Mayor of Birmingham becomes ‘first among equals’ with local authority leaders from the LEP areas. The gain for the mayor’s colleagues is) the devolution of RGF budgets to the commission and securing Network Rail and the Highways Agency at the table, something the Integrated Transport Authority has been unable to achieve.”

In a section on education, the document calls for the mayor to be given powers to appoint an Education Commissioner with a remit to improve school standards, federate schools into networks with a particular specialism, coordinate post-16 city education and skills strategy, create a coordinated work experience and apprenticeship system in the city, and intervene to stop under-performance within schools.

The paper argues that the mayor should be given significant intervention powers to force through greater co-operation and budget sharing between the city council, health trusts, and hospitals.

It states: ”The elected mayor must be empowered to insist on joint approaches and to direct resources in a single, focussed way, ending the current potential for duplication or diffuse efficacy through lack of co-ordinated investment.

“An important success measure for any elected mayor will be their ability to use their strategic powers to properly co-ordinate service provision to vulnerable and elderly adults. An elected mayor will need to have the commissioning powers to shape private and third sector provision and support and stimulate voluntary and community interventions that will contribute to a preventative agenda.”

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