Metro Mayor: Your stage awaits….
One of the criticisms of the campaign to be the first elected Mayor of the West Midlands is that there is little to choose between the five main candidates and that the debates are all a bit too “nice,” writes Kevin Johnson a week before the Birmingham Public Debate.
There may be a degree of truth in that, but as I stood with the candidates minutes before the Coventry Public Debate last Wednesday at the glorious Coventry Cathedral, I was pleased that was the case. We reflected on events happening in Westminster and together decided there was no reason not to continue with the event. Indeed, proceeding with a political debate in a prominent building was even more important than it had been at the start of the day.
The Cathedral’s Sub-Dean, The Reverend Canon David Stone, welcomed us and led us through a minute’s silence in recognition of the death of the, as then unnamed, policeman and other victims. Andy Street briefly added his thoughts on behalf of all candidates as agreed prior to the Public Debate starting.
Coventry is well known to have a significant opposition to the idea of a Metro Mayor, the WMCA as well as to HS2. Those feelings were much in evidence on the night. So, it should be fertile territory for UKIP’s Pete Durnell. It will be interesting to see if he collects the votes of those opposed to such policies in areas like Coventry on 4th May, or whether they stay away on polling day.
The biggest area of disagreement between the candidates standing on the steps to the Chapel of Unity last Wednesday was on planning and how to tackle issues around the supply of land for housing and employment. The big questions are on protection of the ‘greenbelt’ and whether the Mayor and WMCA should have a spatial plan backed by statutory force. Siôn Simon is calling for such powers immediately, with others suggesting, to varying degrees, they might be required in time.
If the currency of elections was enthusiasm rather than votes, Andy Street and his campaign might be running away with it by now. Attending the launch of his ‘Renewal Plan’ a week or so ago, it reminded me of those heady days leading up to the election of Tony Blair in 1997. Very orchestrated planning, heavily branded, message focused (‘the man with the plan’) and attended by lots of energetic supporters – with a noticeable representation of youth and diversity – complete with Andy4WM t-shirts.
Mr Street has received an endorsement from the influential Bagehot column in the Economist which has pleased his campaign team:
And it matters nationally, because this mayoralty may be the one that decides the future of devolution in England. In an over-centralised, economically polarised country, the emergence of powerful elected officials overseeing wide urban regions is the best hope of solving crises in living standards, productivity and housing.
Yet neither Andy Burnham (a gloomy opportunist) in Manchester nor Steve Rotheram (a hard lefty) in Liverpool looks likely to do that on their patches. Mr Simon is more promising than either, but a win for him would nonetheless be a blow to the ambition with which the metro mayoralties were created.
A victory for the dynamic Mr Street would make Birmingham a beacon of municipal assertiveness. So Bagehot urges West Midlanders: don’t vote Conservative, vote Street.
Mr Street has received favourable national coverage of his campaign, benefitting from his high profile role as former boss of High Street favourite John Lewis and as the only Tory in with a chance of winning one of the big city region mayoralties.
So, his planned appearance at a Times Red Box debate in Birmingham is no surprise, but Mr Simon’s agreement to participate one-on-one seems a departure from the Labour candidate’s approach to the campaign, not least in view of the positive coverage The Times has given his Conservative rival.
The other main candidates are not happy with their exclusion from that event, or from tonight’s Citizens UK Mayoral Assembly at the University of Birmingham.
Beverley Nielsen, the LibDem candidate, will speak at a rally organised by EU in Brum later today as Theresa May triggers Article 50. The event will be held at 5.30pm in Victoria Square, outside the Council House.
Ms Nielsen says:
Wednesday 29 March marks the beginning of the negotiation period. Until the EU and the UK have a final agreement, we are still members and everything is still up for grabs. It gives us two years to make clear to everyone the dangers of leaving, and to turn things around from the ultra-hard stance this Government is taking.
We understand that the referendum result in the West Midlands wasn’t on our side, however, over a million people here voted to stay – and their voice simply isn’t being heard by Westminster. If we also add into the equation the fact that EU nationals living here couldn’t vote on an issue that clearly affects them, I am convinced the result would undoubtedly have been different.
As the mayoral election is a local election, it gives EU citizens living here the right to vote and I encourage everyone to let their voice be heard. Voting for the Lib Dems at the Mayoral election sends a message to show the distaste many people have for a government who have steadfastly refused all attempts to sort out the status of citizens who have lived here for years, or decades. We cannot afford a brain drain in education, nor to lose staff in healthcare, just two of the side effects of the referendum result we are seeing.
James Burn, the Green candidate, will launch his manifesto next week.
Meanwhile, Graham Stevenson, the Communist candidate applauded last week’s other news from Coventry on Wednesday with LTC owner Geely investing in the opening of a new plant. He used the opportunity to call for the nationalisation of bus companies.
This is good news for local jobs but also for air quality. But it begs the question when UK bus manufacturers will be following suit by moving away from diesel. Representing a hundred thousand bus workers some years ago, I worked globally with automotive employers to make the cabs of buses used in Britain a decent workplace for bus drivers.
I learnt that the biggest stumbling block was the auto industry’s customers – the bus operating companies, now run by billionaire bosses. They only want cheap costs and the maximisation of profits through high fares.
Last year alone, bus industry revenue grew by 3.8% at a time when inflation was running at around 1%. Taking the Big Five into Public ownership would save over £500 million a year at a stroke. Publicly owned bus companies look for a rate of return of about half that the private monopolies need.
A survey conducted on behalf of the Labour MP for Dudley North has “revealed” that Dudley residents want improving skills to be the top priority for the new West Midlands Mayor.
The survey of “over 5,000 residents” saw more than 36% telling Ian Austin that the new Mayor should make skills and training their top priority. Another 20% said that tackling unemployment should come top while 16% said the mayor needs to support businesses.
Residents were also invited to express their support for different mayoral policies, with “71%” saying they backed Siôn Simon’s plans for more health and social care funding.
In a finding that will astonish, excite or bemuse Mayoral campaign observers, three-quarters said they planned to vote in the upcoming mayoral contest. Mr Austin’s press release did not contain any information on the actual polling questions, sample or techniques.
The Birmingham Public Debate is being held at the Patrick Centre at Birmingham Hippodrome, courtesy of DanceXchange, in partnership with the Birmingham Mail and supported by the West Midlands Combined Authority, the University of Warwick, Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce and Centre for Cities. It takes place next Tuesday evening, 4th April.
Main pic: Coventry Public Debate, Coventry Cathedral, courtesy of Coventry Telegraph.
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