Why the No-Vote was Right for Birmingham

Dr. Andrew Coulson

What a relief to wake up on Friday morning, 4 May 2012, and know that Birmingham will not have a directly elected mayor.  It was a most ill-informed referendum. The media, the business community (both Birmingham-based and national) and the government campaigned in favour. But the case against was hardly made at all until very close to the referendum, so there was little real discussion of what the new post would actually involve, or its advantages and disadvantages.

If it had gone ahead, it would have been the most divisive administrative change ever to hit the West Midlands. For London advocates of an elected mayor, it was presented as a new leader, able to speak for the whole West Midlands. That is not how it would have been seen in Dudley or Wolverhampton. The new mayor would also, probably sooner rather than later, have fallen out with the councillors elected to represent Birmingham wards, whose democratic mandate would be at least as strong as his or hers. If the council was controlled by a political party different from that of the mayor, that would have been a given from the start. But even within one party, sooner or later there would have been disagreements.

The job was impossible – to take over everything that Birmingham City Council and to influence every other organisation or group in the city. So every parent who could not get a child into a school of choice would have come to the mayor. So would the relatives of every patient that could not be discharged from hospital because suitable care arrangements were not in place.  Or every young family with a housing problem. There is no way one person could respond to that level of pressure. It is hard enough to understand the different cultures of the city – North and South, inner city and suburban, the highly complex racial geography.  There is nothing to be gained from trying to run everything that happens in Birmingham through one person, since however much he or she tries to delegate the buck will stop there and people will know it and soon get disappointed and frustrated.

Some of those arguing in favour of a mayor have no faith in councillors, and conclude that the biggest challenges would face chief officers. They should look carefully at what they wrote: do they really believe in a democratic process in which all the politics runs through one person?  or is their agenda to try and take politics and choice out of local government altogether?

A mayor of Birmingham was presented as the same as or similar to the Mayor of London. But Boris Johnson has virtually no powers, and only one major service to run. That is why mayors of London get so involved in public transport, and have time to promote economic development, regeneration and the Olympics. The services that affect people day by day are mainly the responsibility of the London boroughs.  The proposal for a mayor of Birmingham should have been presented as comparable to the Mayor of Newham – and there could then have been a realistic discussion as to whether having one would make a difference and how a mayor of Birmingham would relate to the Black Country or neighbouring counties.

There were no safety valves. At least a Leader can be voted down by a vote of no confidence in the Council meeting, or at the AGM. The city could have been stuck with a disastrous mayor for four years – becoming the laughing stock of the whole country, and an object of pity, and with no way out.

So now the newly empowered Labour administration in Birmingham will have to demonstrate that it is more effective than a mayor can be. Not an easy task given the general lack of discussion of the difficulties a mayor would have faced, and when the previous administration has partly lived off balances, and run the head office capacity of its departments down to the bare minimum or less. There are bound to be crises and failures, and some very difficult decisions to be made. The good property is that Labour’s showing in Birmingham was so strong that the party is almost guaranteed office for four years.

The sad reflection is that a case can be made for a directly elected mayor, not of Birmingham, but of the West Midlands, either as the city-region defined by the seven metropolitan districts, or as the whole standard region including the four adjacent county areas. That would have made the West Midlands like Boris’ London, and the resulting mayor might have had sufficient clout in London to bring jobs and training opportunities to the region, deliver the investment needed in public transport and deliver the coordination between the regional arms and agencies of central government and local agencies and trusts.

Dr. Andrew Coulson is Lead Consultant on Overview and Scrutiny at INLOGOV,University of Birmingham, with wide experience of Overview and Scrutiny.  He has recently launched one of the first assessed qualifications on the subject.  His further research interests include partnerships and governance, economic and environmental strategies, and local government in Central and Eastern Europe.

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