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Business groups to back mayor as Government announces ‘Super Thursday’ election date

Business groups to back mayor as Government announces ‘Super Thursday’ election date

🕔18.Jan 2012

Birmingham  is on course for a ‘Super Thursday’ election in November when voters will choose a city mayor and a West Midlands police commissioner on the same day, Local Government Minister Greg Clark is expected to confirm next week.

The double election will happen if Brummies agree to back a mayor in a referendum to be held in conjunction with the city council elections on May 3, Mr Clark will tell a special meeting of the Birmingham Chamber.

The announcement is likely to coincide with a historic decision by Birmingham’s main business-support organisations to back the principle of an elected mayor, and to campaign strongly to ditch the existing council leader and cabinet system.

Mr Clarke will take part in a debate at the Chamber’s Harborne Road headquarters alongside an impressive cross-party selection of political heavyweights, including former Tory cabinet member Lord Heseltine, former Labour Transport Secretary Lord Adonis and the elected mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby.

Members of the Birmingham Chamber Council will gather shortly before Mr Clark’s arrival on January 25 and are expected to back a policy paper committing the organisation to support the switch to a mayor.

Fellow business organisation Birmingham Forward is also understood to be ready to throw its weight behind a mayor.

Birmingham Chamber has avoided coming down on either side of the debate until now, although the organisation’s 3,000 members were until recently sceptical about the benefits a mayor would bring. The neutral stance prompted criticism from pro-mayor campaigners.

At the end of June 2011, a survey found that only 36 per cent of member firms backed a mayor, 23 per cent were against and 41 per cent had no view.

But chief executive Jerry Blackett told me this week that it was time now for the business community to “get off the fence” and campaign vigorously for a city mayor.

Mr Blackett added: “If the policy paper is accepted by the 48 council members, then we will have enough time between now and May to make our contribution. We will be able to shout about why we think a mayor is a good thing.”

He is urging Mr Clark to be more forthcoming about additional powers city mayors may be given, although the Minister told MPs recently that no decisions would be taken until after mayors had been elected.

Mr Blackett said confusion about the difference a mayor could make would only reinforce the “apathetic” attitude that many people in Birmingham had to the issue.

He added: “They don’t know what they will be getting or whether it is a good thing or not..

“The balance of argument in our policy paper is for a mayor. We point to the advantages of a mayor, particularly under this government where strong local leadership is being heavily associated with having a mayor.

“They are not saying you can’t run a city without a mayor, but there is a heavy hint  that if Birmingham goes for a mayor then it will be a place that can do business with the government more easily.

“I hope Mr Clark will have something to say about mayoral powers before the referendum. He should give people something to contemplate.”

Out of the main political parties, only Labour has so far come forward with potential candidates for mayor.

Front-runner at the moment is former MP Sion Simon, who quit his Erdington parliamentary seat in 2010 to campaign to become mayor. He is joined by Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart and Sir Albert Bore, leader of the opposition Labour group on Birmingham City Council.

All three have responded to a Government consultation exercise by demanding wide-ranging powers for the mayor. These include the chairmanship of regional bodies including the Greater Birmingham-Solihull Local  Enterprise Partnership and the Integrated Transport Authority.

They are demanding direct control of Whitehall budgets destined for Birmingham, influence over the £7 billion of money handed to all public bodies in the city each year, control of skills training, the right to close failing schools and powers to establish Tax Incremental Funding schemes without first obtaining Government permission.

Similar requests for mayoral powers have been submitted to the Government by the Birmingham Chamber, which argued that the introduction of extended executive powers and budgets would be fundamental to the delivery of economic growth, jobs and wealth.

But in a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Clark said the Government would wait until after a mayor had been elected, and then ask them what powers they wanted.

Mr Clark said: “Where a mayor is elected we would expect that mayor to come forward with his or her own request for the powers they seek to take.

“Each one of our great cities is unique, with different needs, characteristics and ambitions. The Localism Act allows the Government to devolve the powers to any city that the city requests and that is the approach that we will take to new mayors.”

The Government’s move towards holding a mayoral and police commissioner election on the same day in November represents victory for an initiative first reported and promoted by the Chamberlain Files in September 2011.

Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart was instrumental in pulling together a high-powered delegation led by the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Rev David Urquhart, which met Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles to argue strongly that an election for mayor should be held as soon as possible after the referendum.

The intention of the Government had been to wait until May 2013 to stage mayoral elections in all of the cities delivering a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. The delegation argued successfully that unnecessary delay would result in a year-long power vacuum, with the council delaying important decisions until the arrival of the mayor.

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