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Birmingham’s appointment with history

Birmingham’s appointment with history

🕔24.Apr 2012

* Birmingham Skyline from the west Selfridges ...

The political scene in Birmingham could be transformed over the next six months as the city moves slowly but surely towards being governed by an elected mayor.

On the other hand, it could be a case of more of the same if voters reject the idea of having a mayor in a referendum.

Paul Dale examines the timetable, and the perils and pitfalls ahead.

May 3: One-third of Birmingham City Council seats will be contested at the local elections.

Voters will also be asked whether they wish to move from a council leader and cabinet system, which is the current arrangement, to a mayor who would be chosen once every four years directly by everyone in Birmingham who is registered to vote and bothers to do so.

May 4: At about 4am on Friday May 4, the final city council election votes will have been counted and we shall know whether various opinion polls predicting a dreadful night for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were accurate. Since Labour requires a net gain of only four seats to win an outright majority, it seems highly likely that the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition that has been running Birmingham since 2004 will be out of office.

The counting of votes in the mayoral referendum will begin at 2pm on May 4. Depending on turnout, a result is expected by 5pm. The poll is to be run on a straight first past the post system; in other words if the yes camp gets most votes it wins, if the no camp gets most votes it wins regardless of how many people vote.

What are the likely consequences of the elections and referendum?

A Labour victory at the elections will see veteran politician Sir Albert Bore returned as council leader eight years after losing office to the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Should Labour fail to gain the four seats required, the coalition will carry on.

If the referendum delivers a yes vote, Sir Albert will be council leader for six months until a mayoral election is held on November 15. He is, however, backing both horses since he is the ‘running mate’ of Hodge Hill MP Liam Byrne, who wants to be the Labour candidate for mayor. If Mr Byrne does become mayor, Sir Albert will be his deputy.

If the referendum delivers a no vote, the council can decide either to continue under the leader and cabinet arrangements or to switch back to a system where decisions are taken by committees and ratified by the full council. It is unlikely that a Labour-controlled council would decide to bring back the committee system.

What would happen if Birmingham says ‘no’ to an elected mayor?

If Labour were in control without a mayor it is certain that Sir Albert Bore would find himself challenged for the Labour group leadership, and therefore for the council leadership. Quinton councillor John Clancy has already said he would try again for the top job, and there may be others.

Most commentators believe that Labour will pick up at least 10 seats on May 3, possibly a dozen or even more off the back of a huge swing against the Conservative-Lib Dem Government. There may therefore be as many as 70 Labour councillors, making it difficult to predict with any certainty whether Sir Albert could survive as leader.

As a general rule in politics, the larger a political grouping the harder it is to instil discipline. The city council Labour group was large from 1999 to 2002 but was constantly buffeted by rows between left and right over policy, which resulted in regular challenges to Sir Albert’s leadership.

Labour will enter the council elections with the most comprehensive manifesto for years. But pledges to create jobs, build 70,000 new houses and attract inward investment will almost certainly require some form of Government assistance, whether in terms of cash or regulatory powers

Ministers have dropped broad hints that cities opting for mayors can expect freedom from some Whitehall controls and will be given additional money-raising powers. The prime minister has promised to establish a ‘cabinet of mayors’, giving cities direct links to the heart of government. However, Ministers have suggested at the same time that cities rejecting mayors could be allowed to sign up for special City Deals, if they can convince the Government that they are responsible enough to be handed additional powers.

Therefore, the biggest challenge for Birmingham if it rejects a mayor will be to find ways of unlocking from Whitehall the funding that is bound to be thrown at cities with mayors. If, for example, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds vote for a mayor, Birmingham might find itself in a position of weakness when bidding for Government funding and asking for additional powers.

What will happen if Birmingham says ‘yes’ to an elected mayor?

A yes vote will trigger a process leading to an election for mayor on November 15. An election for West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner will be held on the same day.

The timetable leaves the main political parties with relatively little time to select police and mayoral candidates.  Labour will shortlist candidates on May 16. Ballot papers will go out to Birmingham party members on May 25. Hustings meetings must be concluded by June 10 and the ballot will close on June 13 with the result declared on June 15, leaving the successful candidate exactly five months to campaign.

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are yet to announce the process by which they will select candidates.

Potential candidates for mayor so far are Sion Simon, Gisela Stuart and Liam Byrne for Labour, and Mirza Ahmad and Desmond Jadoo as Independents. Tory city council leader Mike Whitby is expected to seek the Conservative nomination, while deputy council leader Paul Tilsley is emerging as a likely contender for the Liberal Democrat mayoral nomination.

What might happen in the transition period between May 3 and November 15?

There will be many opportunities and some threats during a six month period in which Birmingham will be breaking fresh ground in its political history. Whether or not the transition from leader-cabinet system to elected mayor runs smoothly depends largely on the commitment of politicians and council officers to make the change happen.

The recent Warwick Commission report on elected mayors had much to say about the challenges of transition, and the arrangements that would have to be put in place to ensure proper scrutiny of the mayor. Clearly, neutral council officers will have to prepare transition plans for the mayor while still being employed under the outgoing political administration. This will be made more difficult by not knowing the identity of the mayor until November 15.

Some of the officers, including the Chief Executive, are likely to be in the position of knowing that they will be out of a job as soon as the mayor takes control. This in itself may lead to tensions and perhaps a reluctance to draw up effective transition plans.

The Warwick Commission suggested the following safeguards:

  •  Transition plans prepared by officers under the outgoing structure and administration should not constrain the incoming administration in detail or culture. Induction should be planned to provide basic elements of information on the constitution, finance and existing organisation but not in such a way that it imposes non-statutory processes on new mayors.
  • The transition needs to be drawn up in consultation with official candidates, where possible, to enable as smooth a transition and induction as possible.
  • Mayors need to be able to appoint cabinet members and advisers – open to a full scrutiny and overview process – that would together create an effective leadership team with the right balance of skill, knowledge and wisdom.
  • The election of mayors could provide an opportunity to considerably strengthen the existing scrutiny and overview process, with councillors more focussed on delivering visible and effective scrutiny and less constrained by the party discipline of the local party leader.

How likely is it that the relationship between the mayor and the council will be harmonious?

Nothing is certain in politics, but it seems highly likely in the current political climate that the person who succeeds in getting the Labour nomination to stand for mayor of Birmingham will become the city’s first directly elected mayor. One caveat to this argument involves the appearance of a charismatic Independent who can inspire the electorate by appearing to rise above party politics. We can only wait and see whether that person ever emerges.

The pre-eminence of the mayor and his ability to select a cabinet without seeking approval from a political group is certain to trigger potential for strife among city councillors. The council Labour group has always jealously guarded its right to choose cabinet members and committee chairmen through elections, thus depriving the Labour group leader of the right to select the council executive.

Many backbenchers already feel powerless under the leader-cabinet system, and are likely to regard themselves as even more hard done by under a mayoral system. A mayor, even a Labour mayor, will need to watch out for the consequences of the Localism Act, which allows a two-thirds majority vote in the council chamber to reject the mayoral budget and could effectively render the mayor of Birmingham powerless.

At the moment, almost half of Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors receive special responsibility allowances in recognition of jobs they perform – cabinet members, scrutiny and regulatory committee chairmen, constituency committee chairmen and others. How likely is it, with a mayor in charge, that half of a 70-strong Labour group will be awarded with lucrative allowances?

Sir Albert Bore has attempted to tie in the new mayor by declaring in his party’s election manifesto that a Labour-led council will devolve more powers to constituency committees. This would presumably not be a problem if Liam Byrne becomes mayor, as he helped to write the manifesto. If Sion Simon becomes mayor, however, there is absolutely no guarantee that he will stick to a manifesto that he did not write.

No one should be under any illusion that the relationship between Mayor Simon and Sir Albert Bore will be an easy one. Simon’s first task as mayor is likely to be to promote Labour opponents of Sir Albert to cabinet status, including Quinton councillor John Clancy. The extent to which Sir Albert, as leader of the Labour councillors, and Sion Simon as mayor can bury their differences and work together could be a key indicator of the success or failure of the first few months of mayoral governance.

Three immediate problems facing the mayor

How much should the mayor be paid, and who decides on a figure?

The leader of the council receives allowances of just under £70,000. The chief executive has a salary of about £200,000. The mayor’s pay packet might be pitched somewhere in between, but anything above £100,000 is bound to attract criticism in a city where unemployment and social deprivation is among the worst in Britain.

Whatever the mayor decides to do, he or she will be open to attack from opponents of the mayoral system. It is probable that the council’s independent remuneration panel, which recommends the rate of councillors’ allowances, will be asked to come up with a figure for the mayor’s salary. But there will be only one person making the final decision – and that is the mayor, unless of course two-thirds of the council vote against.

Does the chief executive stay or go?

Under the Localism Act, the mayor can assume all of the powers enjoyed by the chief executive. This will allow the mayor to hire and fire the council’s chief officers.

Sion Simon has already stated that council chief executive Stephen Hughes will have to go. It is highly likely that if mr Simon is mayor Mr Hughes’s departure will be sooner rather than later, possibly even on November 16th.

Where will the mayor be based?

The location of the mayor’s office, and the size and cost of running the operation, could represent something of a political minefield. Sion Simon has stated that he will deliberately not be based in the Council House, wishing instead to mark his status as the leader of Birmingham rather than the city council. But new offices, even if they are leased, cost money and could be seen as a wasteful excess given the vast amount of vacant space at the Council House.

The mayor will want to make sure that the set-up costs of his office are more than outweighed by savings accruing from getting rid of the chief executive and other officials. But redundancy costs from re-organising the top level of council administration are bound to be large.

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