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Why Solihull's green belt is in firing line

Also why a communist is standing for election, how the Tories deal with anti-Semitism and why council officials get big pension payouts

The declaration last week that Labour’s Siôn Simon is targeting Solihull’s green belt when it comes to planning 300,000 houses the West Midlands must build over the next 15 years sparked fury from Conservative rivals.

It signalled that the West Midlands mayoral race had come alive with some very clear divisions opening up – Tory Andy Street has pledged to protect the green belt, which will no doubt please voters in his party’s heartlands of Sutton Coldfield and Solihull.

Meriden MP Caroline Spelman said Solihull borough’s green belt had already bore its share of development with the airport and NEC, HS2 and the M42 motorway junction.

She warned Mr Simon not to ‘cherry pick’ land to meet other areas’ housing shortages.

The trouble with this is that with HS2 and the UK Central development around the airport on the way, it is almost inevitable the nation’s house builders will be applying the full force of their lobbying efforts to open up more sites. After all, UK Central will only be a half-hour train ride from central London.

And the other problem is that Mr Simon probably does not mind that people in the leafy parts of Solihull are offended – they are unlikely to vote Labour anyway. Certainly in recent elections those that have rejected the Conservatives have switched to the Lib Dems or Greens.

It has also been suggested that this type of approach might also play well in the parts of Birmingham and Coventry bordering Solihull – places where Labour can pick up votes. After all, many may aspire to owning a house in Solihull.

Far from being an off-the-cuff attack which could backfire, it was perhaps the sign of a shrewd politician hitting the target.

The Communists really are back

Birmingham Mail
Communist West Midlands Mayor candidate Graham Stevenson

The arrival of Communist candidate Graham Stevenson onto the ballot paper has shaken things up a little.

He insists the Communists have, after their collapse in the late-20th century had a bit of a rethink, regrouped and are now coming back with an appeal to the ‘millennials’ (under-35s) who feel they have been stuffed by the older generation – with low pay, insecure jobs, high debt and no chance of buying a house.

This is certainly a large part of the demographic which propelled Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership. Those Labour members are also unhappy to find that their candidate Siôn Simon is no friend of Mr Corbyn and very much sits towards the centre politically.

Comrade Stevenson would not comment on what he called the “Labour party’s internal grieving” over the issue. But given that the Communist Party is not challenging in other mayoral elections across the UK, one wonders if they would have bothered if Labour had selected a candidate from the Corbyn wing.

Swift action from Tories

Birmingham Hall Green by-election Conservative candidate Obaid Khan forced to resign for party over offensive twitter posts

Over to the local council by-election in Hall Green where a second candidate has been exposed as sharing offensive or anti-Semitic material on social media.

Labour’s first choice candidate had to withdraw last month but luckily for them a replacement was found and put through in time.

The Conservatives were less fortunate as details of offensive tweets by candidate Obaid Khan emerged only after the April 4 deadline for candidates.

Therefore, despite being asked to resign from the party and having all support withdrawn, his name and former party affiliation remain on the ballot paper.

What is striking is how quickly the Conservatives handled this – from the offensive posts being reported it was barely a few hours before it had been investigated by the powers that be and action taken. The issue is now dead (unless Mr Khan by a bizarre and unlikely twist of fate gets elected).

Labour could learn a thing or two given the months and months it has taken to deal with the Ken Livingstone issue and continued appearance under the media spotlight.

This should be sign that town hall pay and pensions need sorting out

Big Brum

Former Birmingham City Council strategic director of place Sharon Lea has appeared on the annual ‘town hall rich’ list after being paid £414,000 in the year of her retirement – 2015/16.

Of course the situation is complex – her salary was a well-publicised £150,000 per year and she only worked for a third of that year – taking £50,000.

The list is compiled and published by campaign group the Taxpayers Alliance who appear keen on rolling back the state.

The remainder was a pension contribution of £363,000 – no doubt topping a final salary fund which has been built up over her 40 years service and was still in deficit on her retirement.

With a high-profile job, most recently on the front-line of rolling out the controversial wheelie bins and introducing garden waste charges, Ms Lea came in for much criticism during her final years with the council.

But this appears to be an indictment not of her but of a pension system, often described by critics as gold-plated, which with rare exceptions now exists only in the public sector.

It used to be that the nice pension was compensation for what are often very testing but underpaid jobs.

Birmingham City Council has the turnover of a major national, or even international corporation, but its top staff earn a fraction of the cost of those inhabiting FTSE 100 boardrooms – and children and old people suffer when the council gets things wrong.

Perhaps the pension scheme should be rolled back – but equally shouldn't we be paying senior council staff more, not less – especially if we want well run efficient services?

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