Monday, December 12, 2011


I'm an unashamed convert to the idea of an elected mayor for Birmingham. I believe that we need a single point of contact that has a credible mandate drawn directly from the people of Birmingham so that they can go into bat to get the best deal for our city from government and other national and international partners and investors. We need someone able to make decisions, lead on action - and to be held directly accountable for those decisions and their performance, in the way that a council leader isn't.
This isn't a party political issue, even though I remain very critical of the poor quality of civic leadership shown by the current occupants of that office. When Birmingham needed leadership over the summer rioting, Mike Whitby was invisible, pushing his deputy out instead, but the problems are systemic and not entirely Whitby's fault - he just exemplifies them.
Even as an aspiring council candidate, I can see the weaknesses of the current model at both ends of the spectrum. The council is very slow to change and innovation is stifled by a bureaucracy with a fixed mindset and that all too often feels happiest within the comfort zone of their silo. We know that these are difficult times - the most challenging in a century - for our city and we need local government that is agile, responsive and capable of change to suit local circumstances. Birmingham City Council likes the 'one size fits all' mentality, for that offers security and simplicity, but that doesn't fit the needs of our diverse communities. 
Regionally, the council often adopts an 'Our Way or No Way' approach, which drives away other authorities that should be our partners. Why there should be a Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership and a second one for Birmingham defeats me - our futures are tied together and cross-border working is absolutely crucial to both sides of the West Midlands. We need to look beyond our borders into how we should - how we must - provide regional leadership.
Much as the other boroughs may dislike it, Birmingham remains the powerhouse and has the potential to develop global credibility that will enrich the whole region, but Birmingham's leadership needs to recognise that it has the responsibility to head a partnership, not dominate our neighbours. We really are all in this together.
For me, there are two arms to this strategy. Firstly, a yes vote next May to a city Mayor and secondly increased devolution to genuinely localise services. Here there is a political point to be made - the Tory/Liberal Democrat administration adopted the localised model that Labour offered in 2004, but failed to drive it forward as Labour intended, to bring all services right down to the lowest possible operating level consistent with efficiency. The closer you are to your people, the more responsive you have to be. That's why I'm a big supporter of the ward and constituency committee process - instant local visibility of decisions taken.
Richard Burden wrote a fine piece for LabourList a few days ago and it is certainly worth a few moments of your time to read it. Cllr Phil Parkin, a relatively sane Tory from Sutton Trinity ward, is also a supporter and makes the sound point that aside from the councillors in the Cabinet, formal councillor influence on strategy is strictly limited. A separation of executive power might actually lead to greater influence for councillors through the scrutiny system, which may find even more freedom to hold the mayor to account. 

Thursday saw Nick Clegg dangle the carrot of more powers for mayors or local authorities, although he did add the caveat that these powers would be dependent on local leadership being up to the job. Whether that is code indicating the expectation that these powers will go to mayors is up for question - some think so, others think that these powers will be devolved to local authorities in due course. One thing that is clear is that central government wants to have a single point of contact when they need to talk to Birmingham and Birmingham will benefit from having a single voice, with a clear, city-wide mandate able to speak for our needs.
The No campaign is laughably poor. John Hemming is fronting it with all the charm of a bulldozer, appearing on the Politics Show to warn that the public might vote in a lunatic who could only be removed through sectioning under the Mental Health Act. At the moment, short of criminal behaviour or serious personal financial problems, we can't remove our councillors or even our MPs, no matter how consistently embarrassing they might be or how often a judge might criticise their performance.
Aside from that, it is a little insulting to the electorate - some of whom voted for Mr Hemming - to suggest that they would be taken in, over the course of a six month campaign in the full glare of the modern print, broadcast and social media, is rather hard to believe. Similarly, John worries about a 'power freak' - which is a little rich coming from someone who was in the House of Commons for a matter of months before announcing his candidacy for the leadership of his party, let alone a man who remains in tight control of his party locally and expects to be their candidate for mayor, despite his opposition to the existence of the post. Their website offers speakers to oppose the move to a mayor, but wants to set the rules of the debate in terms of the size of the panel and representation from others. There is an argument to be had about whether the mayor is a good move or not, but the No campaign isn't making it. Even the website is titled Vote No to a Power Freak - which isn't actually an option in the referendum, last time I checked. 
Compare and contrast the amateurish nature of the 'No' campaign to the 'Yes' team's more professional offering, which offers a far more positive starting point to the campaign.
Birmingham is not broken. It is a city with a great history and the potential for an even greater future - we just need to make sure that we have the right people and structures to help write the next chapter. A vote for the mayor next year is a step on that road and all journeys have to begin somewhere. 

1 comment:

Bob Piper said...

That really is terribly sad. It reminds me of those Italians who fell to their knees to praise Il Duce because he would be a strong leader with a strong voice in Europe... and make the trains run on time.

The notion that Birmingham would have responded better to the Summer riots if there was a Mayor is truly laughable John. Can I just say the words "Tottenham" and "Boris" to expose that piece of nonsense.

As you are an aspiring councillor... all I can ask is aspiring to what? Perhaps the most depressing thing to me is the way the argument for concentrating power into one person is promoted as being about democratic accountability.

The establishment took a bit of time to get around the inconvenience of the universal franchise. They shifted national power to unelected and unaccountable bankers and civil servants in Brussels and Strasbourg, and shifted the balance of power away from elected local councillors to celebrity Mayors. All in the name of modernisation. Frankly, I see no difference between the meglomania of Burden, Bore or Hemming. To my great relief, I don't live in the City... although when the next shift away from democracy emerges in the form of City Regions, no doubt we will also have an opportunity to be turkeys voting for Christmas.