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Say no to the status quo

Say no to the status quo

🕔01.May 2012

The time for arguing among the chattering classes and political nerds is over. We’re at the business end of the directly elected mayor (DEM) debate.

By posting here, I run the high risk of talking to the same folk who are as passionate as I am about the potential for DEMs (or equally passionate against). I can only hope the message spreads to those who matter most – large numbers of Birmingham’s electorate who have not only not decided how to vote; but don’t even know they’ll face two ballot papers. That’s not to mention the vast majority who won’t bother to exercise their civic duty.

Let’s talk about the prize. Not about the Yes camp, hampered by a lack of clarity on powers and resources to run a campaign that cuts through. Nor the Naysayers, full of scare tactics and half truths.

Quite simply, if you want more control over the policies, people and budgets that would make your city a better place, then vote to change the way it is run. If you want Birmingham to have sharper identity on national and international stages – and the investment as well as prestige that goes with that – change the way Brum is governed. If you want to know more about what those acting in your name are doing and have better opportunities to influence and question them, go for a mayor.

Make no mistake; a strong Mayor of Birmingham will be a major national player. Within two years, he or she will possess more political capital than Andrew Mitchell, Philip Hammond or Eric Pickles and have better international access than any of our Council leaders have hitherto enjoyed.

At the recent Birmingham Forward debate, Sir Albert Bore said we need an act of faith here. He’s right. There’s not a definitive view of the endgame; the prize is far from crystal clear. The fact the Government is not exactly as one – civil servants as well as ministers – doesn’t help. It’s not even as simple as a Con-Lib Dem split; meanwhile the Labour approach has been muddled to say the least.

However, the direction of travel is only going one way, even if the road is bumpy. I’m convinced from all my work and conversations around mayors that the Government – notably the PM, DPM and Cities Minister – are determined about localism, especially when it comes to cities.

They are serious about localism and its political cousin: public service reform. As potential mayoral candidate Liam Byrne famously noted, there’s no money left. Ingenuity with budgets – and with financial mechanisms – is the only answer for years to come. They believe a DEM with a personal mandate and a clearly articulated vision is more likely to be innovative in pooling budgets and finding new ways of working.

Just imagine what Birmingham could do with more assets, greater freedom and real ambition in respect of housing. Surely, more control over skills funding could help make a start on our horrific worklessness levels. A mayor in the driving seat of transport policy across the city region could build on the slowly won successes of New Street and runway extension as well as HS2.

All these and more are within the grasp of a DEM. Some might be secured in a city deal, pitched by the GBSLEP in Westminster last week to be announced in mid summer. But only a mayor will be given a further bite at the apple.

The argument for mayors is now as much about expediency as principle. I believe in mayors. They are more visible; often show stronger leadership; are more accountable and can wield more power than simply the powers afforded to them.

If the principle doesn’t wash with you, I’m probably too late highlighting all the evidence and arguments, not least The Warwick Commission. If only on the grounds of expediency and on the basis that no one can seriously argue the current system works in Brum, a DEM is surely worth trying.

Imagine waking up on 17 November to hear Bristol and Leeds will join London and Leicester in having their champion regularly banging the Cabinet table in No 10; given direct control of more budgets and increased chances to make their city’s case to foreign dignitaries and investors. Think about how the good burghers of Southampton and Salford will feel as they negotiate city deals that go beyond the dreams of the so called Second City.

Believe me, it won’t feel good.

Mayors will not be an overnight success. As with all new mayoralties around the world, including London, the first mayor will do a lot of establishing work, preparing the ground for more powers for those who follow.

Status Quo have had more comebacks than the so called era of  ‘new politics.’ It might not feel like it, but be in no doubt Thursday presents an immense decision. This is not a constitutional nicety or a policy wonk’s fantasy. The choice is about leadership and vision; the freedom to exercise them and acquiring the means and tools to deliver on them.

If you can, vote. To your less politically inclined friends, family and colleagues – tell them what’s at stake and urge them to visit a polling booth. Now is not the time for the status quo.

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