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Mike Whitby prepares for mayor campaign with new mantra: ‘Britain’s best bet is Birmingham’

Mike Whitby prepares for mayor campaign with new mantra: ‘Britain’s best bet is Birmingham’

🕔20.Mar 2012

There have been many attempts over the years to promote Birmingham and give the city some tangible sense of identity.

A few years ago it was almost unthinkable for an aspiring executive to be seen out and about without sporting a Be Birmingham lapel badge.

Since 2004, the mantra that must appear on almost every city council document is: “Birmingham, the global city with a local heart.”

Now the man who devised that slogan, Tory city council leader Mike Whitby, has come up with a new marketing idea. We will all be hearing a lot in the next few weeks of the slogan: “Britain’s best bet is Birmingham.”

If anyone thought that Whitby – whose Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is odds-on to lose control of the council to Labour following elections on May 3 – would be winding down and looking forward to a quiet retirement, they are very much mistaken.

He is close to confirming his intention to seek the Conservative nomination to run for Birmingham’s first elected mayor, and a major part of his campaign is likely to be devoted tothe importance of persuading inward investors to come to the West Midlands rather than London and the South-east.

That’s where the new mantra comes in. It is, according to Whitby, an attempt to persuade decision makers to see the Birmingham economy as the solution to the problem of boosting economic growth in Britain. The best bet for expansion, wealth creation and jobs is here in the middle of the country rather than in the crowded and over-heated economy of South-east England, the council leader believes.

He is talking in particular about the new runway extension at Birmingham Airport, which by 2014 will allow non-stop flights to China, India and the west coast of America for the first time.

Contracts have just been let for the project, with airport bosses insisting that a longer runway will allow under-utilised Birmingham Airport to take millions of passengers away from Heathrow.

The economic case will be even more compelling when the HS2 high speed rail line between Birmingham International and London is up and running, enabling passengers to move between the two airports in little more than 30 minutes. To put it into the words of airport chief executive Paul Kehoe, Birmingham becomes Heathrow’s third runway.

But, what if the Government caves in to the London lobby and allows Heathrow to have its third runway after all? Or, what if the much-vaunted ‘Boris Island’ London airport is built in the Thames Estuary? Either scenario could cause incalculable long term harm to Birmingham Airport and the regional economy, according to Coun Whitby, but he faces the fact that David Cameron is now actively considering proposals for additional runway capacity in the South-east.

Coun Whitby has been holding discussions with Downing Street officials about the powers that a mayor of Birmingham might enjoy. He says a “significant” relaxation of government controls is on the cards, with the mayor being able to “enjoy the same influence as a cabinet member, with direct access to the prime minister”.

Coun Whitby added: “If I was the mayor of Birmingham, I would be going to the prime minister and saying ‘look, there is an alternative because we can increase by 10 million the number of passengers using Birmingham Airport immediately at one per cent of the projected cost of building a third runway at Heathrow’. That is a very powerful argument and when you also have HS2 running, it’s just common sense to grow passenger use at Birmingham rather than expanding Heathrow.”

He continued: “I am talking to Number Ten about what the role of mayor really means. It is being implied to me that I would have direct access to the cabinet and the prime minister.

“It’s being made clear that the Government wants cities to grow and that mayors will be given meaningful powers to bring about economic development.”

The precise powers to be given to a mayor of Birmingham will be a matter for discussion between Ministers and the city’s first mayor, if a referendum on May 3 delivers a vote for change. A mayoral election is planned for November 15 alongside an election to choose a Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands.

It is unclear how many challengers Coun Whitby will face in a fight to become Tory mayoral candidate, or indeed whether anyone else in the party will attempt to get selected for an election that in the current political climate the Conservatives are highly unlikely to win. He confirmed that the Conservative Party is yet to confirm how it will go about choosing a prospective mayor, although a straightforward vote among Birmingham party members is the most likely outcome.

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