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Birmingham’s best opportunity for greatness in 100 years

Birmingham’s best opportunity for greatness in 100 years

🕔02.May 2012

Here is a question for everyone who for one reason or another intends to vote against an elected mayor for Birmingham, or simply refuses to take part in the referendum: “When did local government last matter in this country?”

By that I mean when did town hall politics really matter?

When did national governments feel obliged to take any notice of the views of the people of, say, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Liverpool and Coventry about an issue of importance to people living in these great cities?

When did becoming a councillor amount to something in society? Were council meetings ever well attended? When did the turnout at council elections regularly exceed 40 per cent?

You probably have to go back to the 1950s to uncover such halcyon days – an era, incidentally, when major political parties recruited MPs through local business leaders and councillors, rather than relying on today’s career politicians who seem to know desperately little about life outside of the Westminster bubble.

I’ve spent 37 years following the affairs of some of the best known English councils, including Birmingham which is the biggest of the lot. It’s been a pretty dismal period, mirroring almost exactly the long, slow, sad surrender of local government to the handcuffs of Whitehall.

In 1975, the year I began my journalism career, a Labour minister took the first serious steps to control council expenditure. Tony Crosland famously declared ‘the party’s over’ at a speech in Manchester, although few people really believed him at the time.

Crosland’s immediate aim was to control council spending, which through a combination of national inflation and a ‘don’t care’ attitude to swingeing domestic and business rates bills, was rising uncontrollably. In order to do that, he had to start a process of exercising new controls over the rights of councils to run their own affairs.

It would be tedious in the extreme to go through the many controls on local government spending introduced by Labour and Tory governments since 1975. Suffice to say that England is generally recognised to be the most centralised country in Europe, with local authorities possessing few if any powers to break free from the Whitehall box.

Birmingham’s lack of a decent transportation system is, rightly, a topic of constant criticism. The answer is quite simple; give Birmingham the powers enjoyed by major European cities to raise cash through a variety of local means, including tax incremental funding, and crucially to invest in long-term solutions rather than patching up holes with bits of sticking plaster.

What, you may ask, has this to do with the rights or wrongs of an elected mayor?

The ‘no’ campaigners are making much out of the Government’s reluctance to spell out the precise powers to be given to a mayor, but this argument can be easily turned on its head by reminding the people of Birmingham that a referendum vote against a mayor simply amounts to struggling on with the existing system which by any measure of unemployment, poverty and education standards isn’t working well enough.

My colleague Marc Reeves has argued brilliantly against the dangers of being side tracked by a pointless argument over the democratic credentials of the mayor versus the leader-cabinet system, although I know my money certainly isn’t on the notion that fewer than 40 Tory councillors meeting behind closed doors (or, perhaps 70-plus Labour councillors after May 3) should be entitled to elect the council leader.

Let’s not forget, either, that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in Birmingham have consistently flicked two fingers at the electorate by refusing to publish local election manifestos even though they have been in power through a coalition for eight years.

Returning to the central theme of this blog, as far as the reluctance of the Government and the main political parties to campaign strongly in favour of elected mayors is concerned, I say this: “Well, they would be reluctant, wouldn’t they?”

The idea that a strong leader of Birmingham in possession of a clear mandate for change in a city of a million people would make the case for reform and additional powers loudly and clearly would not be to the liking of most Ministers or civil servants. A council leader, elected in an obscure fashion with no real democratic mandate, can safely be ignored in London. A mayor, with the support of hundreds of thousands of voters in his pocket, has to be treated with respect.

One of the side issues in Birmingham concerns the almost pantomime-like behaviour of Tory city council leader Mike Whitby, who once campaigned vigorously against “elected dictator” mayors until he saw the way the wind was changing and thought he’d fancy a crack at the job himself (oh yes he is, oh no he isn’t). Although it is tempting to laugh at such a blatant display of political expediency, there is also a serious issue here.

Whitby’s views began to change when, on becoming council leader in 2004, he went through the nightmare of attempting to obtain Government approval for the £600 million refurbishment of New Street Station. Securing the city centre Metro extension involved a similarly laborious process.

It is true that Whitby has always behaved like a mayor, because that’s his style, and he wanted to knock heads together at the Department of Transport. But because he was simply a first among equals in the Birmingham cabinet, and no one in London felt obliged to take much notice of him, he didn’t get very far at first.

He’ll hate me for saying this, but the New Street project didn’t really get up and running until Liam Byrne became West Midlands Minister and was able to push things forward at Government level. One advantage of having a mayor is the so-called ‘soft powers’ that allows influence to be exerted where it really matters. Birmingham would almost certainly have been able to resolve the New Street and Metro issue sooner if the city had been run by a directly elected mayor.

Think about other large regeneration projects that have never got off the ground. The Arena Central scheme, for instance. It’s claimed that this project has been stymied by the recession, but the truth is that it never really looked like going ahead even in the good times.

The process through which schemes like Arena Central have to go – via council officers, the relevant cabinet member or members, the council leader, then the full cabinet itself – is simply too cumbersome and long winded. With an elected mayor in charge, developers know where to go, who to talk to, and can get an answer quickly.

What it boils down to is this:

If you want more of the same and are content for Birmingham to plod along in relative mediocrity, vote against a mayor.

If you want to give change a chance with a fresh, radical approach to city leadership, then vote yes for a mayor. Birmingham hasn’t had such an opportunity for greatness in 100 years.

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