Amanda Ramsay takes a look at the debate in Birmingham on whether the city should have an elected Mayor and talks to campaigners on the ground.
With a debate tonight on the merits of an elected mayor for the city and polling cards arriving this week in Birmingham for the May 3rd referendum, Left Foot Forward’s Amanda Ramsay takes a look at the debate and talks to campaigners on the ground
With a lively campaign building-up in the West Midlands, Labour is definitely the main show in town, controlling the most council and parliamentary seats.
Campaigning for two years for a directly elected mayor is home-grown, former Birmingham Erdington MP Siôn Simon.
Championing this change to city governance has been something of a one-man mission for Simon, who told Left Foot Forward:
“Birmingham is a great city; there is no limit to what we can achieve. But this is a potential we don’t always meet as a city. I love Birmingham, I grew up here and was proud to represent it in Parliament, but sometimes I’m also disappointed that we don’t fulfil our potential.”
Former government minister Simon has approached his campaign with forensic precision. He wants to see more powers devolved to Birmingham and his vision as a mayor is carefully outlined in a summary document (pdf) submitted to the Department for Communities and Local Government during their consultation period, which closed in January.
Simon has also produced an impressive ten-point plan for the city. His ideas include a statutory duty on central government to pre-emptively consult the elected mayor on policies in which Birmingham has a strategic interest and role in delivering national policy outcomes (e.g. high speed rail).
Another Simon promise is to invest more than £100 million in small and medium-sized businesses in the city, by launching a Birmingham Innovation Bank.
• Elected Mayors: Let the referendum campaigns begin 26 Jan 2012
Spelling-out what else an elected mayor could mean for Brummies, he explains:
“If you go onto a street in Birmingham and ask who’s in charge of the council, few people know. That’s because the council leader was voted for, in secret, by a few other councillors. How can that be accountable?
“With an elected Mayor everyone in the city has their chance to choose, and they can hold him or her accountable and kick them out if they don’t make a difference after four years – something we can’t do now.”
His views are backed-up in a Telegraph poll just out today, showing only eight per cent of people can correctly name the leader of their local council.
Simon talks a good fight:
“An elected Mayor can go well beyond any formal powers by using the power of the mandate.
“It’s about taking responsibility, it’s about talking to the right people, knocking heads together if need be, and getting people to work together to get things done for the people of Birmingham.”
Jo Tanner, of the Campaign for Directly Elected Mayors, told Left Foot Forward today:
“In a sense, the debate has moved on in Birmingham from ‘should we have a mayor?’ to ‘what should our mayor do?’
“That’s not to say there’s an over-confidence in securing a Yes vote: there will still be a fight to get out every last vote. It’s more a confidence that Birmingham wants to be in that top tier – and in that coveted ‘second city’ position after London.
“It’s a confidence that civic leaders in Manchester should note well.”
This month Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) ruled that any MP selected as a mayoral candidate for the party must stand down from the House of Commons, which would mean a by-election, as Birmingham Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart has also declared an interest in standing for mayor.
Speaking to Left Foot Forward, Stuart acknowledges elected mayors may not be the answer for all cities but says the enormous size of Birmingham warrants a new style of leadership; that with ten city MPs, each one only has jurisdiction over a tenth of the city.
Strategically, she feels more overall “ownership” of the city is needed and makes reference to the market in the centre of Birmingham that feeds the majority of the city but which no one is taking on as a priority to improve. She talks of an elected mayor “dealing with the cracks” remedying the fragmentation of such a large conurbation.
Stuart sees chronic unemployment as the single most important issue, the hangover still from the joblessness of the 1980s, when thousands of skilled manufacturing jobs were lost and only partly replaced by unskilled and low-paid work.
“One third of under-24 year-olds don’t have jobs; resolve this and all other issues will be sorted.”
She also backs the Labour initiative launched by other mayoral hopeful Councillor Sir Albert Bore last Friday, the Birmingham Baccalaureate to better match skills and train young people for the local jobs market.
Calling for apprenticeships for all at last year’s Pragmatic Radicalism policy debate in Liverpool, Stuart outlined her idea:
“Every business employing more than five people would provide a mandatory apprenticeship place, with government support for those who do, equivalent to the education maintenance allowance (EMA) and a levy for those who don’t.”
And what of the other parties? Neither coalition party, who voted for these referendums in the first place, has declared a potential candidate.
However, John Hemming MP (Liberal Democrat, Birmingham Yardley) has launched a dramatic no campaign with comparisons of elected mayors to “dictators”, comparing the battle to stop a mayor being created to the battle against Hitler.
A source told Left Foot Forward:
“The Lib Dems are nowhere on this in Birmingham.”
With Simon’s common sense approach comes a stark warning though:
“We are being let down by the council, which doesn’t work, and national government, which doesn’t care. We need change. We need stronger leadership and we need solutions that work for Birmingham made here in Birmingham, not in London.”
• First time voters can register to vote here.