Birmingham: does not need an Executive Mayor
Ever since Oliver Cromwell, the English have been opposed to concentrating too much power in one person.
The Irish, Scots and Welsh were opposed even earlier. Joe Chamberlain was a very powerful mayor and achieved great things for Birmingham but he was an elected councillor and worked with the committee system.
Today the Leader of a big city is already extremely powerful. Under the existing system Birmingham Councils of various political leadership, working in partnership, have achieved, and are still delivering, big projects such as the National Exhibition Centre, the International Convention Centre, the National Indoor Arena, the new Library and New Street Station.
I know that some American cities have Executive Mayors (EMs) who are successful and some who have been corrupt. Why are we being compelled to always follow America or the Euro plan?
The local press keep campaigning that “we need a Boris”. Your readers will know that any such comparison is nonsense. London has 32 local authorities who deliver local services. When the old GLC was abolished a co-ordinating authority for the London region was needed so they introduced the Mayor. The Mayor has responsibility for Transport, Fire and Police in the London region while the local authorities are responsible for other services such as Housing, Education and Social Services.
By contrast in Birmingham the EM would not be responsible for Transport, Fire and Police which are organised regionally. He would have no regional authority. He would be responsible for the vast range of other services only in Birmingham.
I have established that Birmingham does not need an EM and that the comparison with Boris is misleading and irrelevant.
Some years ago we did hold a referendum in Birmingham and the people voted in favour of the Leader and Cabinet system. Ever since, the local press has campaigned for an EM. They spent large sums of money with articles almost daily but still they failed dismally to gain the necessary support. Recently Sean Simon, the leading Labour Wannabe EM says he has knocked thousands of doors but found minimal interest.
Of course the Wannabes want the job. At present the Leader receives £65000 and must retain the support of councillors to retain his job. The EM will no doubt take at least £100000 and will have the job for 4 years even if he/she proves incapable. He/she may also appoint many additional advisers from outside the local government civil service.
The extra cost is a factor but not the main reason to oppose the proposal. The biggest objection is the concentration of power in one person without let or hindrance. At present the Leader has to report monthly to his political Group and to the full Council. Similarly the Prime Minister has to retain the confidence of the House of Commons - thus Margaret Thatcher had to resign when she lost support. It is called Representative Democracy. Even in the private sector the CEO of a FTSE company has to account regularly to his Board of Directors
In contrast the EM will only be accountable to the electorate after 4 years and then only if he wants to stand again. A really strong press could help to hold him to account but unfortunately our local press now has a small circulation and fewer good journalists.
Local councillors will be increasingly marginalised. That may not sound a bad idea to some but access is important. People do come to their councillors on large and small matters and expect their councillors to be knowledgable and to help. In a city of a million people few, apart from the Great and Good, will have the opportunity to meet the EM whereas many talk to their councillors.
Lord Heseltine speaks eloquently of how Governments have for decades centralised power in London and that this Government is determined to decentralise power to EMs. I support the intention to decentralise so let us get on with it – devolve power to the Councils – there is no need to wait for EMs.
The Government have not told us what powers will be devolved – they want to discuss the matter with the EM. We are now face the ridiculous referendum to vote for having an EM not knowing what powers will be devolved – a pig in a poke.
Those who have enjoyed “Yes Minister” may doubt whether the mandarins will readily give up their control of the purse strings.
Lord Adonis denigrates Birmingham education and complains that it was like “pulling teeth” to introduce his bright new ideas. We can all sympathise with his impatience but it does take time in a democracy to convince a large and partly hostile education service. Besides, while our education results are not good enough, they are as good as the national average despite our large population with English as a second language; they are above the national average for disadvantaged children. Lord Adonis should pull the teeth of his friend the EM of Leicester which has very inferior results.
No doubt a local dictator would be good at making quick decisions but he might not always be omniscient or benevolent to all interests. The local press says the EM “Must be a Big Figure”. The likely candidates include the local party leaders so no change there! Even if the Big Figure does emerge this first time I doubt that they would continue to emerge in future when they experience the hard slog of delivering so many services with little glamour.
There has been no evidence of better governance under EMs – to date some like the monkey mascot at Hartlepool have done well enough while others like Stoke and Doncaster have failed. Is it not foolish to vote for a system with no evidence of improvement but with no way back?
I conclude that we do not need the cost, risk and disruption of a new system which concentrates too much power in one person and is not evidence based.
Of course the present arrangement is far from perfect. Public ignorance and indifference are perhaps the strongest cause for criticism. The most urgent need is to change the election cycle. Few except activists understand the present system whereby we have local elections in 3 years out of every 4. Instead we should have all out elections every 4 years. That would be simple and understandable. Candidates could campaign on a clear 4 year manifesto.
Because the process would be clear and understandable people would know what they were voting for and public interest would revive.