The local government elections on May 3 are likely to mark the end of an era in Birmingham.
If a referendum to be held on the same date steers the city in the direction of having a mayor, the annual contest to choose 40 of the 120 city councillors may never again enjoy the same prominence.
The mayor, who will be elected once every four years by 720,000 registered voters, will call the shots in future. The mayor will: choose a cabinet, draw up a budget, take important strategic decisions and also assume the role of chief executive with direct control over the officer corps.
City councillors will still have an important scrutiny and regulatory committee role, and probably will be given the task of overseeing delivery of devolved local services at constituency level.
Those who complain that councillors will have nothing much to do under the new system should consider that Birmingham’s 10 constituency committees handle combined budgets of almost £100 million and, under plans put forward by Labour, will take control of a wider range of services including housing management, refuse collection and street cleaning as well as libraries, sports centres, swimming pools and neighbourhood offices.
Labour, at least, has had the decency to issue a detailed manifesto setting out what the party intends to do if it wins enough seats on May 3 to take control of the council. And since a net gain of only four additional seats is required, the prospect the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition being booted out of office after eight years seems pretty much a given.
As for the coalition, or progressive partnership as council leader Mike Whitby would say, no city-wide manifesto has been published yet for May 3 by the parties, either jointly or separately. For certainly the second year running, possibly three years, Birmingham Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have not had the decency to tell electors what they would do if they were to win the election although I suppose ‘more of the same’ would sum it up.
There may be localised mini-manifestos put out by the two parties highlighting issues at community level, although I have not seen one, but to the best of my knowledge there is no policy document for Birmingham, or if there is it is locked away and being treated on a need to know basis.
This is a stunning example of the way political groups sometimes take the voters for granted, and has no doubt contributed to a public mood-swing that will manifest itself in a ‘yes’ vote in the mayoral referendum. Such a blatant refusal to engage in the democratic process does, in its own way, rather make the case for having an accountable elected mayor.
A call to Coun Whitby’s office seeking clarification went unanswered. An appeal via Twitter prompted an answer of sorts from Moseley Lib Dem councillor and cabinet member Martin Mullaney, who proclaimed that the “Council Plan” is the coalition’s manifesto.
A good try, but the Council Plan is a weighty statutory document running to 225 pages which all local authorities are obliged to produce. And while it sets out in great detail the council’s budget and how £100 million savings are to be achieved, it could not in any sense be described as voter-friendly. There is, incidentally, no mention of the Council Plan on the homepage of Birmingham City Council’s website, although it can be accessed via the search engine.
The irony here of two political groupings, where the majority view is that an elected mayor will be a power freak, failing to publish an election manifesto upon which they can be judged is almost too great for words. Will Mike Whitby, once vehemently opposed to mayors, who has performed the most excruciating of U-turns and now plans to run for the office, publish a manifesto? He will have to come up with something pretty original to convince observers that his conversion is based on nothing more a last desperate throw of the dice to remain in power.
It is inconceivable that a mayor seeking re-election for a 13th year as the leader of Birmingham, as Coun Whitby does, would breezily dismiss any idea of having a manifesto and would avoid a policy launch where the press or, God forbid, members of the public might ask questions.
If the referendum on May 3 does usher in a new system of governance, all of the main political parties will have to get used to operating differently. The council leader-cabinet system will continue for six months until the mayoral election on November 15, with the new mayor taking control the next day.
There is a clear possibility of friction developing between the mayor and the constituency committees, particularly over the more politically sensitive areas such as housing management and highways services. Friction could turn into open warfare if the majority political affiliation of the 12 councillors on a constituency committee does not match the political colours of the mayor.
Were Birmingham on November 15 to elect a Labour mayor, for example, the winning candidate would have to cope with Tory-run Sutton Coldfield with its £8.2 million budget and Liberal Democrat-run Yardley with an £8.5 million budget.
If we assume a Labour landslide on May 3, then the party may take control of eight constituency committees. But with a third of city councillors re-elected every year, the political complexion can change and could fairly quickly tip the balance of power in several constituencies back towards the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.
Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore insists there should be few differences of opinion, since the manifesto he has put forward for May 3 will act as a “policy bedrock” for an incoming mayor.
Strangely, Sion Simon, who is competing against Sir Albert for Labour’s mayoral nomination, appears to have played little or no part in compiling that manifesto. Indeed, Mr Simon published his own list of proposed policy pledges a week before Sir Albert which in turn had no input from the city council Labour group.
It emerged then that neither Mr Simon’s camp nor Sir Albert’s camp was aware of each other’s policy launches, which were originally planned for the same day. I don’t suppose I am alone in thinking that the six months from May to November are going to produce some remarkable politics in Birmingham, although perhaps not quite as positive as the Labour Party might expect.
- Mike Whitby photobombs No10′s mayoral launch – and PM promises a cabinet of the mayors (thechamberlainfiles.wordpress.com)
- Mike Whitby turns full circle to run for Tory elected mayor of Birmingham (thechamberlainfiles.wordpress.com)