Amid all the fanfare over a new combined authority covering the Greater Birmingham region, I have heard from several dissenters complaining that it is ‘undemocratic’ or that there should be a referendum .
But this would be the worst possible thing to happen, and could spell the end of local government because only apathy and incomprehension would win the day.
There has been a steady support for this idea that any changes to constitutional arrangements should be the subject of a popular vote. The success of the Scottish independence referendum, the Greek bailout vote this week and the growing excitement over the up-and-coming EU referendum will have convinced many that this is the way to go.
The trouble is that these successful referendums are over fairly simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions on issues with which everyone is very familiar.
I suspect for some, a gut feeling about the French or Germans will dictate which way they go on Europe – just as warm or negative feelings about the English swayed a few Scots last year. And the Greeks simply said ‘no’ to a guarantee of continued austerity.
Under these circumstances, the issues are given a good airing in the national media and no one can complain they were not given, or do not have easy access to, the information on which it is necessary to form an opinion.
Almost 85 per cent voted in Scotland last year. But does anyone seriously believe a combined authority vote would capture the public imagination in this way? It would be a dud and suffer from confusion and a low turn out.
The elected mayor referendum suffered a similar fate in 2012.
The experience in major cities was that around a third of voters turned out – Birmingham was below the average with just over 27 per cent.
The voting public were slightly more engaged with the AV referendum a year earlier – with a 41 per cent turnout – but that was a national poll, rather than regional. Even then, there was a widespread view that many did not (or did not want to) understand the arguments or new voting system being offered.
It will also be interesting to see what level of engagement there is with the postal referendum on a proposed Sutton Coldfield Town Council currently under way – I suspect the result may be similarly disappointing despite the best efforts of those involved.
So we should let the council leaders, elected by councillors who are elected by people, and Government get on with this – they have a clear mandate given in general and local elections just two months ago. It is not direct democracy, but it is democratic.
A referendum on a combined authority or ‘metro mayor’ would be a complete disaster and would allow our big city rivals like Manchester to stride even further ahead while our region tears itself apart.
Sir Albert's diary woes
Birmingham council leader Sir Albert Bore doesn’t believe that he should publish his daily diary of meetings, engagements and events even though the Queen and Prime Minister make theirs available for public consumption.
Quizzed over the matter during council questions he replied that he has many confidential meetings with potential investors and a private life and will only share those details with his own staff.
During his answer Mrs Bore, councillor Victoria Quinn, shouted out that even she does not get to see his diary.
Quite why a public diary could not be published with those sensitive matters redacted was not made clear.