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Osborne set to back Greater Birmingham mayor… but only the brave need apply

Osborne set to back Greater Birmingham mayor… but only the brave need apply

🕔24.Jun 2014

In just under two weeks’ time George Osborne will announce the first allocations from his £2 billion-a-year Local Growth Fund, and the smart money is on the Chancellor choosing to set out his stall in Birmingham.

On July 7, Mr Osborne is expected to confirm how much of the £86 million that the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership requested for 2015-16 to deliver 52 regeneration projects will actually be handed over.

That’s important. But if the Chancellor does come to Birmingham, there may be more behind his trip than to merely confirm a successful bid by GBSLEP.

Could Mr Osborne be about to take the wraps off a Midlands version of his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ speech which he delivered in Manchester this week?

After all, the regeneration canvas painted by the Chancellor for “joining together” Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield would work equally well with Greater Birmingham, Coventry and Leicester.

In fact, he dropped a broad hint about his intentions, stating: “I’ll speak on other occasions of the huge opportunities for Birmingham and the Midlands.”

If he continues in the same vein, Mr Osborne will explain that the Government has to do far more to re-balance the UK economy, which is ludicrously over-reliant on London and the South-east.

He will talk about the huge importance of global cities where wealth is increasingly generated and explain why more must be done to help places like Birmingham meet their true potential by devolving decision-making powers and budgets to local leaders with a better grasp of local issues than Ministers and civil servants in London could ever hope to have.

He may even dangle before his audience plans to transform transportation across the Midlands. A huge expansion in local rail services and the Midland Metro tram system, linking the great Midland cities with each other and Birmingham Airport and HS2, perhaps?

He may talk about the advantages of agglomeration, where clusters of industries can feed off each other and create more and more business and jobs. Certainly, the West Midlands, given the way that it has embraced high-value manufacturing alongside its world-class universities, has huge potential for growth.

But, and there is invariably a but in politics, Mr Osborne’s dangling carrot comes with a rather sharp stick.

The Chancellor has made it abundantly clear that “serious devolution” is available, but only for cities or regions willing to move to a new model of governance by opting for an elected mayor.

This is what Mr Osborne had to say in Manchester: “London has the advantage of a strong, recognisable city leader.

“The haircut that is recognised all over the world. Boris Johnson.

“There are big advantages in having an elected mayor to represent your city. To fight your corner in the world.

“To have someone democratically accountable to the whole city who can deal with issues like transport or economic development or fighting crime.

“There’s no question that public transport in London has improved immeasurably since I took the bus and tube to school as a child, because you have had there a strong mayor who can integrate the roads and the busses and the rail and the tube and the river and the cycle lanes and so on.”

He cleverly took the trouble to head off opponents who worry about councils losing power to mayors by noting that this has not been a problem in the capital: “In London, the traditional boroughs all still there, and still have the same powers. But the powers that were held by quangos and by the national government are now held by an elected local leader.”

An elected Greater Birmingham mayor would not have to worry about dustbins, parks, road sweeping, social services, licensing and the many other daily tasks performed by local councils. A mayor would be concerned with cross-boundary strategic issues including transportation, economic development, housing and planning – and, crucially, would have the incentive to take tough decisions quickly, and access to devolved budgets.

The mayor’s prime task, to paraphrase Mr Osborne, would be to ensure that the great cities of the Midlands can collectively amount to more than the sum of their individual parts.

Certainly, it would be a big job for a big character, and only those brave enough to think they can find a way to forge the likes of the Black Country, Birmingham, Solhull and, perhaps, Coventry into a working partnership need apply.

But one thing is clear. The Government, having talked a lot about devolution, appears to be moving towards action. Labour, too, has set out its commitment to meaningful devolution. Much may happen between now and the General Election in 2015, it really is all there to play for as far as the Midlands is concerned.

Mr Osborne explained: “Wales has its own parliament, and can pass its own laws. But as the Centre for Cities point out, the economies of Manchester and Leeds are each individually bigger than Wales. But they don’t have a single leader who can speak for the whole area.

“I say it again. A true powerhouse requires true power.

“So today I am putting on the table and starting the conversation about serious devolution of powers and budgets for any city that wants to move to a new model of city government – and have an elected mayor.

“A Mayor for Greater Manchester. A Mayor for Leeds. With powers similar to the Mayor of London.”

Sadly, Birmingham’s past experience with the elected mayor issue does not point to any great confidence that Mr Osborne’s offer will be accepted. Twice in the past 12 years the city has rejected the idea, once in a consultative ballot and again in a formal referendum in 2012.

There is no indication, either, that the Black Country councils or Solihull and Coventry are any more sympathetic to an elected mayor than Birmingham. Prejudices are so ingrained around this divisive issue that Mr Osborne’s powers of persuasion may not be up to the job in this case.

Possibly the Chancellor will rely on the West Midlands coming round to his point of view when it becomes clear that metro mayors in places like Greater Manchester are making a difference. But it could take a very long time indeed for the Midland political establishment to change its mind and bite the mayoral bullet.

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