Saturday, September 03, 2005

Mayormaking

Paul Dale seizes upon the news of a Birmingham summit meeting with David Milliband, the Local Government Minister to push the cause of an elected mayor for the City. I think it is reasonable to say that Birmingham has yet to take its rightful place in the 'Premier League' of European Cities, but it has done much to take it into the Championship. It is also fair to say that the pace of regeneration has slowed a little since the glory years of the 90s,
'The problem is, not a lot has happened since the glorious age of regeneration, between 1985 and 1998'
but he rather dilutes his argument by continuing
'with the notable exception of pedestrianisation of New Street, the Bullring and a start on Eastside - all of which were planned in the mid-1990s.'
and relegating those three major projects to footnotes. Plans were made to take the regeneration further and to focus more on Eastside, with the new library set to take centre stage, but all that came to a crashing stop in June 2004. He also notes that the Town Hall restoration is under way, so that hardly indicates a complete lack of progress.
'It is tempting to blame the city council for dragging its feet, particularly since the change of political control, but the true picture is far more complex than that.'
When it comes to the library, the blame does lie squarely with the council. Paul notes that no application for funding was made during the first years of that project, which is entirely accurate. Actually applying for funding involves rather more than posting a letter to Downing Street asking for £x million. There is an extensive bid process to go through and the application must be thoroughly supported and extensively researched prior to submission to stand any hope of getting PFI funding. (I'm not a huge fan of PFI, but it is the only kid on the block at the moment when it comes to funding). From what I understand, the project wasn't far away from that stage in June 2004 and there was even an outside chance that it could have been resurrected following the consultants' report in February this year had the political will been with it from the Council House, but that wasn't to be. Once the council junked the existing plans, the whole process has to start again from scratch, so the odds on any library being built within the next decade have lengthened hugely.
Paradise Circus, a £1 billion scheme to cash in on Birmingham's booming professional services sector by delivering high-quality office accommodation and opening pedestrian links between New Street and Broad Street, appears to be going nowhere fast.
Fair point, but it is rather hard to redevelop the site with the rotting concrete hulk of the Central Library still atop it - so that's stalled for the foreseeable future too, unless the council decide to break up the central collection for short-term gain.

Anyway, all of this would be easier to resolve if we only had a mayor. Wouldn't it? Paul Dale and the government seem to think so.

Comparisons are often made with London and the effect that Ken Livingstone has had on city governance. The thing about London is that it is a city divided into 32 boroughs with their own individual set of councillors (not counting the City itself), yet there are overarching concerns about London as a contiguous whole. Here, having an overall authority in the GLA and a single leader for the city to run the pan-London functions makes absolute sense - abolishing the GLC was one of the more illogical and dogmatic actions of the Thatcher government, no mean achievement in a government that seemed to specialise in illogicality and dogma.

There it makes sense, but why Birmingham? The same problems don't apply within the city. We have a single authority with an existing corporate structure. There may be an argument for resurrecting the West Midlands council to handle the broad functions that operate across all the relevant council areas in the region - policing, fire and transport, for example - but that's not on offer. There have been a couple of articles about the mayoral proposal in the Birmingham Post lately, so it seems that the office is back on the agenda again.

Paul points out that
Other projects have become bogged down through a mixture of political uncertainty and the complexities of dealing with the many "partner" organisations that have a hand in running Birmingham. How many bodies, for instance, are involved with the proposed redevelopment of New Street Station? The answer would surprise and shock most people. There is the council, obviously, plus the Department for Transport, the Strategic Rail Authority's successor DfT Rail, the West Midlands Transport Executive Centro, the regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, the Government Office for the West Midlands, the City Centre Partnership and the owners of the Pallasades shopping centre.
Fair point, but that's always going to be an issue.
'Mr Blackett [Policy Director at the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry] said: "We held a seminar recently, attended by senior figures from the business world, and it is the case that having an elected mayor in Birmingham, a Mr Fixit figure like Ken Livingstone, has a real gut feeling and attraction about it." Business representatives feel the decision-making structure in Birmingham is complex, difficult to understand and a direct contributor to the delay in getting things done quickly, according to the BCI.'
Of course business people would like to only have one organisation to deal with - it would make their lives so much easier - but wouldn't actually resolve the core issue (short of electing a dictator). All the proposal would do is to add another tier to the structure - none of the functional agencies in the New Street example above would come under the mayor's office. Again, there is an argument for a regional executive, but still no argument for an elected mayor for Birmingham.

David Milliband adds that we need to decide
"What sort of relationship do you want to have with central government to help you make the most of yourselves? There are no holds barred.” This could include a directly elected mayor, said Mr Miliband. “The drive for decentralisation doesn’t stop with Scotland, Wales and London. I think many people outside London are looking at the Greater London Authority, and Ken Livingstone, and thinking ‘how do we have that sort of drive in our city’” It was also important that different parts of the region worked in partnership, he said.
Further pressure comes from Phil Woolas in a speech at the ICC on Friday (although he did stress that he wasn't expressing a personal opinion about the merits of mayors)
"Birmingham is interesting in important ways because it is by far the largest local authority in the country. If Birmingham did go for an elected mayor I think Manchester and Leeds would follow pretty quickly."
I just don't see what we'd gain by it. We already have a system where the executive is answerable to the electorate through local councillors and this would devalue their role and elevate the mayor to a worryingly centralised position of local power. For me, the answer to the problem lies in reinvigorating the power of local government and attracting bright people to the demanding job of local councillor, rather than considering a Birmingham 'beauty contest' to decide the mayor.

Additionally, local leaders need vision and an idea of where they want to take the city. This has been one of the most disturbing issues for me over the past twelve months, as I can't see any coherent thinking behind the policies and long-term thinking from the council. It may be that this is beyond me or it could just be that there isn't any coherence to be found. As there is a long lead-time on most major projects, so there is also a delay before the public see the damage that this vacillation and indecision does. I did see with Labour some thought about where the city was heading (although the Digbeth coach station cock-up cited by Paul Dale is entirely valid - why we can't have a decent transport gateway to the city eludes me completely).

My suspicion remains that Whitby and Hemming almost fell accidentally into control of the council and arrived unprepared with policies or plans for development. They were afraid of the bad publicity that accompanies change - for in any change and development, there will be elements that go wrong and Hemming knows above all the ammunition that mistakes provide to oppositions. In a general election year with Yardley looking vulnerable, bad publicity would have been disastrous. Accordingly, they chose to do nothing of any significance and actively shied away from the big projects with all their pitfalls. As an example, Hemming moved swiftly to cancel the contract signed by Labour to run a trial with wheelie-bins in various parts of the city. Dozens of local authorities across the country - those with outstanding records on recycling - run on the fortnightly collection system based around a wheelie-bin (one week rubbish, the next week recyclables) and it works. Because of unease whipped up amongst a number of vocal residents, the scheme was scrapped within days of the coalition coming to power, ensuring that suburbs are still blighted by damaged bin-bags leaving rubbish all over our streets and providing a ready food source for vermin and stray animals.

More than a year on and this has become a way of life - all the more as the May 2006 elections start to loom ever larger ahead. There's also the problem of the coalition itself - some of the policies of each side would be anathema to the other, so trying to enact them would shatter the air of agreement.

There's nothing a mayor can do that a decent leader of Birmingham can't, so let's ignore the pressure to elect one and get on with electing councillors who can select their own leader and exercise control over that leader.

1 comment:

Bob Piper said...

The 'Let's have a Mayor' lobby are afflicted with the Mussolini syndrome... so I suppose we shouldn't be surprised to see the Post & Mail supporting it. It appeals to the New Labour crowd because they hate local government anyway. We will shortly be faced with a proposal to massively reduce the number of councillors as the 'single-member' constituency tripe is pushed forward. What is stifling progress in Birmingham is the lack of clear leadership, which is part of the baggage of coalition government. Worth thinking about for those who want to push PR onto us.