Dear Editor, Birmingham University staged a debate on elected mayors on February 29.
In the run up to this the Vice Chancellor published an article in the University internal bulletin Your Buzz which suggested that the British state has been unusually centralised since the early nineteenth century and that elected mayors would correct this.
Birmingham is perhaps the best example of a city which shows this view of history to be wrong. It benefited from the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which created elected Poor Law Guardians to run the workhouses, and the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act which set up the modern elected bodies which ran the cities and allowed the massive growth of civic pride. The great Victorian Town Halls, Council Houses and other civic buildings are testimony to this growth.
The Vice Chancellor, David Eastwood, refers to “an increasingly inadequate rating system” leading to central control.
Joseph Chamberlain was not controlled by central government and his gas and water liberalism did not lack for cash. Right through to the rebuilding of the inner city slums and the Broad Street area, including Brindleyplace, the city finances have been adequate.
An elected mayor does not generate extra fund-raising powers, and one objection to the mayor proposal is precisely that government will not decide what powers the mayor will have, and thus the fund-raising facilities needed, till the vote has taken place. A pig in a poke is not the same as devolution of power.
The idea that Birmingham needs what is effectively an elected dictator who cannot be removed during the four years of office would have seemed absurd to the Chamberlains, and to more recent council leaders like Harry Watton, Sir Frank Price and Sir Richard Knowles, all of whom deserved respect and none of whom had any problem with working with a council that could remove them at any time.
The recent poor quality of the council leadership has more to do with the small size of the current civic elite and the lack of a real civic culture.
As the proposal to build a high speed train shows, Birmingham is in danger of becoming a suburb of London – no one in the city advocated the line. If Birmingham is to revive then it, like its football teams, needs to develop its brand strength. Having a virtual dictator in charge for four years is not sensible – and dubious history does not justify the move.