Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart wants to be Labour’s candidate for the post of elected mayor of Birmingham. In a guest post for the Chamberlain Files, she urges Brummies to vote in favour of the change to the way the city is governed in next May’s referendum.
The story of Birmingham is a powerful one. Once famed as the centre of the industrialised world, its factories and workshops provided work for generations of Brummies, turning out goods that were traded and celebrated across the globe.
The city’s economic vitality was mirrored by an equally dynamic civic leadership, forever synonymous with the image and exploits of Joseph Chamberlain. Under “Radical Joe” and his successors, the city’s street map was dramatically altered through what would now be described as urban regeneration. New schools, libraries and bath houses were built to benefit the people. Utilities like gas and water came under municipal control, followed later by a municipal bank to hold the people’s savings. Not without reason was Birmingham proclaimed to be “the best governed city in the world”.
It is a story that remains a source of pride and inspiration to this day. The problem is that for present day Brummies, it is just a story. What we need is to recreate that sprit and give today’s citizens the space in which to make the most of their energy and determination.
Birmingham in 2011 faces some real problems. Even before George Osborne began to administer his dubious economic medicine, the city was grappling with some challenging economic issues. The end of mass industry, typified by the big employers in the automotive sector, hit Birmingham hard. High rates of unemployment and poverty scar many of the city’s estates and suburbs, despite the efforts of a succession of regeneration initiatives. Young people struggle to get on the job ladder, lacking the skills to compete and let down by an education system that has failed to equip them adequately for the challenges of the modern age.
These are serious challenges that require a leadership as dynamic as that which reshaped the Victorian City. The problem is that the City Council, as currently constituted, struggles to provide that leadership. For a start, it is saddled with enough problems of its own. Reeling under savage Government cuts to its budget, the present Council Cabinet lurches from crisis to crisis. The Council’s social care services are under intense pressure. Its children’s services stand condemned and under a formal Government notice to improve. The Housing Department has been slammed by auditors. The Second City seems to be saddled with the politics of second best.
There is an obvious temptation for me, as a Labour MP, to place the blame for this state of affairs entirely upon the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Councillors who have presided over the Council since 2004. There is certainly plenty of evidence to make a strong case against them. Weak leadership, a failure to develop or articulate a clear vision for the city’s future and a preference for dithering rather than acting when it comes to taking key decisions have been the unfortunate hallmarks of the current administration.
It would be an easy and politically convenient answer, but it would also be an incomplete one. After 15 years of representing Birmingham and serving its people, it is clear to me that the problems of governing the city and the lack of effective leadership have deeper seated causes than the failures of a single administration. The truth is that the system of governance is itself no longer fit for purpose.
This systemic failure manifests itself at all levels. As a constituency MP, I find my casework is overwhelmingly dominated by issues relating to local authority services. A cursory trawl through the emails, letters and phone calls I receive every week reveals a recurring theme, as residents vent their frustration about remote, unresponsive and unaccountable council services. More often than not, these problems come to my office after the constituent in question has spent weeks trying to wring answers out of a byzantine bureaucracy in which nobody takes ownership of problems.
What is striking about these cases is the lack of any real accountability when things go wrong. Failing services are the result of policy decisions. Policy decisions are taken by politicians. But we have created a system of local government in which it is all too easy for the politicians to hide behind the officials, rather than field the brickbats when services fail.
This kind of evasiveness has been all too evident during the Council’s recent Budget Consultations. These public meetings were announced with much fanfare as an opportunity for local people to get involved with shaping some of the tough decisions the Council will need to take about its services and spending priorities in 2012. Yet, when the meetings were held, where were the Cabinet Members? Nowhere to be seen! They had sent the officials to field the questions instead.
This lack of visible leadership damages the Council’s own services. However, it also has wider reaching consequences. In my view, it has stymied Birmingham’s capacity to punch its weight on the national and international stage. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, “if I want to speak to Birmingham, who do I call”? At present, this is a question that has no satisfactory answer.
This has been a problem at the best of times. In the current economic climate, it is potentially disastrous. Whilst London’s Mayor is out there banging the drum for the city’s businesses, bending the ear of Whitehall and lobbying investors in the private and public sectors, Birmingham is left without an advocate. This is not just wrong. It’s unsustainable.
I know full well that an elected Mayor won’t solve Birmingham’s problems overnight. The city has some deep seated problems that it will take time, effort and a long-term commitment by a variety of agencies to tackle. If you consider the challenges in some of Birmingham’s wards – whether it’s the absence of social mobility, poor educational attainment, the huge skills gap that keeps many of our citizens locked into unemployment and poverty – the massive scale of the task ahead is clear.
However, an elected Mayor will be uniquely placed to meet that challenge in a far more effective way. Possessing a powerful, democratic mandate, an elected Mayor will be able to give the visible leadership that the city has lacked for so long. They will have the legitimacy to “bang heads together” when services fail – and be accountable if things don’t improve. They will have the authority to tell Whitehall home truths and demand more powers from central Government. They will have the profile that ensures no one is ever again left wondering who they need to call, if they want to speak to Birmingham.
Next May, by voting yes to an elected Mayor, we have the opportunity to begin writing a brand new chapter in the story of our city. It is a chance to ensure that the city’s future equals its proud past.