Chamberlain legacy for Birmingham - Mayoral election

The 3rd May could be an interesting day for Birmingham as the local election could see the Tory-Lim Deb coalition give way to a new Labour council.  The council is currently slenderly controlled by the Tories and Lib Dems and a win of five seats for Labour should see Labour retake control.

Claire Spencer, chair of Birmingham Fabians, is cautiously positive about Labour's prospects. She tells HuffPost UK that "mathematically speaking its very likely that the council will become Labour". She highlights the fact that it'd only require "4 or 5 seats" for Labour to take control.

Perhaps most excitingly for Birmingham's residents is the chance to decide on whether they want an elected mayor.  Perhaps is the key word here as it should be noted that local council elections often fail to excite many so the opportunity to choose a Brummie Ken or Boris may either excite the public or be viewed with scepticism.  With the public aware of Ken and Boris in London the decision to create a Directly Elected Mayor may be viewed on the powers a Brummie Ken or Boris could wield and what improvements would be made to Birmingham or it might be the personalities involved which influence whether people want a Mayor.

Our greatest Mayor, although not directly elected, was Joseph Chamberlain who as Mayor gave Birmingham the reputation of being the best governed city in the world with civic improvements that left the town “parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas and watered and improved”,  His improvements together with public and private money for libraries, municipal swimming pools and schools, the enlargement of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and construction of the council house and Victoria Law Courts left a legacy that continues today and a benchmark for politicians to the present.

But what would a Directly Elected Mayor be able to do in Birmingham?  In London the Mayor of London has control over the Police and Transport for the 33 different councils in the 33 separate boroughs.  Birmingham's Mayor in contrast will not have control over the transport which will remain with the West Midlands Public Transport Executive (CENTRO) while police control with be allocated to the new Elected Police Commissioner.

An Elected Mayor would have co-decision powers, shared with the Council, which would relate to budget setting and policy but proposals could be overruled by a two thirds majority of Councillors.  A Mayor would also have some exclusive powers which would be quasi-judicial powers over planning and licensing and employment and legal decisions for example.
A Mayor could also appoint nine councillors to the cabinet in a cabinet system and also delegate powers to them as individuals or as as a cabinet commitee or subcommittee of the cabinet committee.
This isn't to say further powers could not be given to elected Mayors and December 2011 saw the Cabinet Office 'Unlocking Growth in Cities' prospectus entice new powers and funding for cities that demonstrated strong and accountable leadership and effective decision-making structures - in essence more power for those cities with elected mayors.

The risk is however that voters on 3rd May will be voting on the 'promise' of an elected Mayor who may get more powers if people vote for a Mayor.  The powers would only be forthcoming in a 'city deal' with Whitehall.  There may even be a backlash to this idea with some considering cynical attempts to impose mayors on cities with the requirement of mayors for more powers and a bargaining council between the Prime Minister and councils with Mayors in a biannual "cabinet of mayors".

The idea of a Birmingham Mayor has however galvanised interest, certainly from key Birmingham politicians, with Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne stating he would leave frontbench politics if Birmingham votes for a mayor and leave Westminster altogether if chosen as Mayoral candidate. 

Mr Clark said the announcement was a big coup for the “yes to mayors” campaign. “The fact that he would rather be mayor of Birmingham than in the shadow cabinet underlines that to be mayor of one of these cities is a huge job.” Lord Heseltine has described it as a “more demanding and more exciting job than half the cabinet”.

The experiment with local democracy and more powers that an elected mayor will bring can only be good for Birmingham.  There are risks for Birmingham and there are issues in how we might deal with removing an incompetent Mayor but I feel a mayor is something to improve Birmingham that we cannot afford to miss and a mayor should allow us to continue the progress Birmingham has made in regenerating.  The excerpt below from Edgbaston MP Gisela Stewart on why Birmingham needs an elected mayor highlights for me the importance of the proposal in leading the city in regenerating and being a focal point that while not necessarily achieving Chamberlain's achievements in one term of office might help bring about such achievements through their leadership and legacy.

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. blog has a nice article regarding the pros and cons of an elected mayor:


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