Amanda Ramsay reports on campaign for an elected mayor in Coventry ahead of the referendum this Thursday.
Living in Bristol, a city with a mayoral referendum this Thursday, it’s clear the May 3rd votes have split party political opinion, as it has across all ten English cities being offered the chance to change the way their cities are governed.
Coventry is no exception.
Leading the arguments for an elected mayor is Bob Ainsworth MP and the business community. Speaking to Left Foot Forward, Ainsworth points out it was Labour’s Local Government Act of 2000 that originally brought elected mayors onto the agenda in the UK.
A strong advocate for directly elected mayors, former Secretary of State and MP for Coventry North East since 1992, Ainsworth has confirmed he will seek Coventry Labour Party’s nomination if Coventry votes “yes”.
“The current model of local government doesn’t work in a modern society, being overtly focused on party politics in the city council; the fragmented nature of politics brings issues over controlling the bureaucracy.
“Elected mayors could transform city leadership, with a clear mandate, focused on delivering for people and acting as a conduit for partnerships with the various organisations involved in city government.”
With regional television news being dominated by the referendum in Birmingham, campaigners for a directly elected mayor in Coventry organised a public rally last Thursday but Ian O’Donnell, chair of the Warwickshire and Coventry region of the Federation of Small Businesses, reports a “lack of engagement in the city”.
There is a distinct worry amongst campaigners that if Birmingham votes “yes” and Coventry “no” that Coventry will become something of the poor relation. This is backed-up by academic research.
• Elected mayors: To vote or not to vote? 26 Apr 2012
• Elected mayors: let the referendum campaigns begin 26 Jan 2012
The Warwick Commission was started by Warwick University last year to investigate the track records and experiences of elected mayors around the world. Research director Professor Keith Grint points to an “intriguing aspect” that if Birmingham has an elected mayor but Coventry does not:
“Birmingham might begin changing significantly and move radically away from and faster than Coventry.
“If that is the case then Coventry will need to start thinking about doing something equivalent.”
“Whilst Coventry city council has improved over the last few years, Coventry is often the little voice overshadowed by its big brother.
“With Birmingham likely to go for an elected mayor this will only get worse, if we don’t also have a voice with an equivalent mandate.”
Echoing Ainsworth’s views, O’Donnell tells Left Foot Forward:
“I believe a Mayor could create the impetus required to make Coventry’s voice heard in the Midlands and to drive change in the city centre.”
However, the leader of Coventry city council, Councillor John Mutton, does not share this view:
“We did not need an elected mayor to attract the Olympics to Coventry, to build the Ricoh or to rebuild our great city after the war.”
Speaking to Left Foot Forward, Mutton, who was Lord Mayor of Coventry in the 1970s, said:
“I am totally against Coventry having an elected mayor. This has always been a progressive city, without having an elected mayor.
“We were the first city to introduce comprehensive education, without an elected Mayor, we are an Olympic City, hosting 12 football matches, again without an elected mayor.
“We have recruited major companies to Coventry, such as Severn-Trent. We are the world headquarters of major companies like Jaguar-Land Rover and I have recently had discussions with major developers looking to invest hundreds of millions of pounds into this city, all without having an elected mayor.”
Will Coventry vote for a change on Thursday? Says Mutton:
“Based on what people are telling us during our campaigning, I believe that Coventry people respect the present system and the majority seem to be saying if it isn’t bust, don’t fix it.”
A spokesman for the ‘Yes’ campaign, Darren Jones, thinks change is needed to reinvigorate the local economy:
“Coventry is a city with immense potential, it has been for years, but the trouble is that potential isn’t being released. It needs some ‘oomph’, a step change.
“Councils by their nature are risk averse, slow and tend to come up with compromise solutions. It’s time to move away from that.”
Lack of understanding amongst the electorate as to what an elected mayor actually means is cited as a concern by some, including Jones:
“The majority seem undecided and say they do not understand elected mayors; trouble is they don’t understand the current system either. On the whole there is apathy.”