Dear Editor, At a time of severe reduction in the ability of local government to provide essential services, the mayoral debate is a luxury few of us can afford.
Lord Digby Jones is right when he points to the contrast with London’s elected regional government.
The limited change a local elected mayor represents cannot tackle the region-wide problems of regeneration, employment, transport and planning that affect Birmingham, but are much bigger than the city’s ability to resolve.
London has both local boroughs (some with elected mayors) and a regional elected tier of government (the London Mayor and Assembly) with enough independence and scale to make a difference to these strategic challenges.
Of course Birmingham needs to be fully recognised as the West Midlands’ capital, but acceptance of this would be damaged by the election of a city mayor claiming special rights to “lead” for the whole region.
The leaders of Wolverhampton, Sandwell and the rest of the region are not likely to say “yes of course Albert/Gisela, whatever you want”.
On the contrary, the suggestion that elected mayors will somehow assume such a role is a recipe for conflict and confusion. This will add more Black Country-versus-Brum splits to the damage done by the Government’s replacement of the West Midlands-wide regional development agency with weak and competing Local Enterprise Partnerships bearing little relation to real employment and transport needs.
A case for an elected mayor can be made on the basis of granting our city the sort of financial and legal powers enjoyed by European or American cities – but these are not on offer.
Contrast the vague Government promises of a few crumbs from the Westminster table if Birmingham votes for an elected mayor, with the additional £3 billion for housing and regeneration alone given to the Greater London Assembly.
It is no accident that a campaign for an elected regional government has recently revived in the north of England. The debate about over-centralised Westminster government is back on the agenda. More powers for Scotland and Wales gives urgency to the need to rebalance government across both the UK and England itself. This means genuine devolution of power to elected regional bodies, able to do for the English regions what London’s elected government does for its population.
We may end up with an elected mayor in this city – but what we really need is a regional democratic voice able to speak for the West Midlands and tackle the big economic and social challenges in partnership with Birmingham as the regional capital.
Chair, Campaign for the English Regions (CfER)