In January 2012 I wrote to the Departmnent of Communities and Local Government with my response to their consultation on a directly elected mayor for Birmingham. Here’s the text of my letter:
The proposal to establish an elected Mayor for the City of Birmingham is one that offers exciting possibilities for city and the wider West Midlands region. The prospect of creating fresh mechanisms of local governance, which allow for reinvigorated, effective local leadership and a repatriation of powers to localities, is one that I hope the people of Birmingham will fully embrace when they vote in the referendum this May.
Birmingham is unique amongst the initial twelve “mayoral cities”. Geographically, it covers a much larger area than other cities, taking in a population of over a million people and encompassing a degree of demographic diversity far more marked than is the case with other English cities. Its public sector budgets are, in turn, of a far greater scale. The City Council alone accounts for £3billion a year.
In turn, our city sits at the heart of the UK’s second most populous conurbation, providing the central driving force behind the West Midlands’ economy. The key questions facing Birmingham, whether in terms of economic development, of educational attainment, of crime and security or of transport infrastructure are as much regional questions as they are city-wide ones. Therefore, it is inevitable that the newly elected Mayor of Birmingham will be expected to exercise a degree of regional, rather than strictly municipal leadership.
The allocation of additional powers to Birmingham’s elected Mayor has to take strong account of this regional dimension. You will be aware that the Birmingham Chamber of
Commerce made a similar point in its response to the consultation, recommending that the Mayor should take the lead roles on both the Local Enterprise Partnership Board and the Integrated Transport Authority. The ability to meaningfully influence both of these policy areas would be essential to the success of otherwise of an elected Mayor.
I believe that the elected Mayor should also be given wider powers to drive innovation at a regional level, making use of assets and resources in a manner that secures longer term benefits. There is already some innovative work being piloted in the region. Two vital strategic developments for the region’s transport network: the Black Country Rapid Transit system and the Wolverhampton Interchange are being supported via the Tax Increment Finance generated through the redevelopment of the former Longbridge car works in south Birmingham. A Mayor would be uniquely placed to drive further regional innovations of this kind and should be given the financial flexibilities in order to do so.
Local budgets, especially those directly accountable to local government, remain far too tightly constrained by measures imposed by successive Governments. These controls have stifled innovation. The election of a Mayor is a chance to carve out a new settlement, giving a directly elected and accountable City leader direct control over how money is spent and how public sector assets can be deployed in a more creative way. The ability to pool resources between different public sector agencies, borrow against future tax income and to develop a longer term budget strategy will all be essential in this regard.
Questions of public safety and the security of key locations are very important for Birmingham and the wider region. As the nation’s second city, Birmingham plays host to national party political conferences, major business events and has been the venue of key international summits such as the G8. Later this year, the city will provide the base for the US Olympic Team. We are the home to vital national services such as the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine and the heart of the country’s transport infrastructure, with key strategic sites such as Spaghetti Junction and New Street Station.
Given these circumstances, it will be impossible for the elected Mayor of Birmingham to avoid being drawn into security and policing matters. Indeed, I would argue that such questions will inevitably form a large part of the mayoral “in-tray”. Yet at the same time, the governance of the policing system itself will be undergoing major change with the introduction of elected Police and Crime Commissioners. This poses a significant challenge and it is clear that the relationship between the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner and the Mayor of Birmingham has to be a strong and productive one.
I believe that if this is to be the case, then the Mayor has to be given the means of exercising direct influence over the policing of the city. In the short term, this will mean formally recognising that the Mayor, or their nominee, should serve as the Deputy Commissioner for the West Midlands region. Responsibility for localised crime and community safety budgets, such as the Community Crime Fighting Fund, should also be transferred from the Commissioner’s Office to the Mayor. In the longer term, I would argue that there may well be a case to be made for merging the offices of Police Commissioner and the elected Mayor into one, directly elected and accountable body.
Educational attainment is one of the key challenges facing Birmingham. As a city, we continue to let too many of our young people down, by not equipping them with the skills and aptitudes they need to compete for employment. Equally, we have failed to properly link the needs of business and the wider economy with our education system. This has to change and an elected Mayor would be in a strong position to give this issue the direction and leadership it needs.
Whilst this could in part be delivered by the “soft power” of encouragement and negotiation, I would argue that the Mayor should be given the power currently enjoyed by academy schools to vary up to a quarter of the curriculum. This would enable the creation of a specific “Birmingham curriculum” that would offer an unparalleled opportunity to close the gap between the needs of the local economy and the skills base of the local population. It would also enable stronger links between business and education, harnessing the power and creativity of both sectors in a manner that would improve life chances across the city.
An elected Mayor will mark a new era in the history of our city. It will be a chance for
Birmingham to finally “punch its weight” on the national and international stage. Most importantly, it will also be an opportunity for Birmingham to recover confidence in its ability to run its own affairs and find genuinely local solutions to some long standing economic and social problems.
It will be clear to you from the representations you have received from across the City, from politicians, from business and from residents, that there is a real appetite to make this change happen and to make it count. All we need now is the range of powers to turn those aspirations into reality. I trust that the Government will look favourably upon the representations it has received from Birmingham and equip the elected Mayor with the tools to do the job.