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Former Lord Mayor: ‘towering intellect with the common touch’ dies after short illness

Former Lord Mayor: ‘towering intellect with the common touch’ dies after short illness

🕔20.Apr 2015

Mick Wilkes, a former Lord Mayor of Birmingham and a Liberal Democrat councillor for Hall Green who has died after a short illness, was a man of towering intellect with the common touch, says Paul Dale.

He came into politics to promote the old fashioned virtues of service to the public because helping others less fortunate than yourself was the right thing to do

One of the youngest ever Professors at Birmingham University, Wilkes wore his considerable brainpower lightly and treated everyone as if they were his equal, which of course they were not.

His love of and absolute passion for Birmingham shone through in a most successful year as Lord Mayor in 2009-10, and before that he had been a combative chairman of the main scrutiny committee known for his forensic approach in dissecting the big issues of the day and an unwavering refusal to bow to political pressure by producing sanitised reports.

Mick really came to the fore as scrutiny’s thorn in the flesh of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition from 2004 until he retired in 2010. Much to the horror of the coalition’s leadership, in particular Tory council leader Mike Whitby, Wilkes tore into pet projects such as the new Library of Birmingham and the Amey Highways PFI deal exposing their financial shortcomings.

Having seen off a plan to build the new library on split sites, something he branded ridiculous, he went on to expose the fragility of the library business case which he noted to be “a very poor piece of work”. He told a scrutiny committee:

As things stand at the moment, we have no design for this building, no architect and no project manager and it is due to open in six years.

Yet we are quite specific about costs. This is a point that gives me a little bit of bafflement.

Almost ten years ago he warned a promise by the council’s leadership to underwrite the cost of the new library could have serious implications for services if the project ran heavily over budget. Other spending priorities could be squeezed if additional funding for the library had to be identified.

Wilkes lived long enough to see his financial predictions come true. The Library in Centenary Square is now operating under vastly reduced opening hours and almost 100 jobs have disappeared after the council declared it could not afford the running costs.

He may also have taken grim satisfaction in learning recently that the council is facing the possibility of legal action with Amey over a long-running who-pays-for-what row over the PFI contract.

He pre-empted the Kerslake Review into the council’s governance capabilities by running a scrutiny inquiry into devolution and the district committees which he found to be starved of cash and simply not working.

He was a big supporter of plans to re-introduce a municipal bank in Birmingham, although the scheme never got off the ground after the council deemed the idea would cost too much money. He also attempted to stop the spread of mobile phone masts, particularly near schools and housing.

Mick Wilkes was also a leading expert on Lord of the Rings and chairman of the Birmingham Tolkein Group. His wife of 42 years Vivienne is a principal organiser of the annual Middle Earth weekend at Shire Country Park.

Picture: Birmingham Mail

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