Executive Mayor – Can we afford it?

In less than two weeks Birmingham voters will be asked to hand power to an Executive Mayor. I’m one of those sceptical voters, yet to be convinced.

 

My first concern is the cost. This could prove to be a very expensive gamble.  How much will the mayor get? Not the £16,000 we pay a councillor or the £65,738 for an MP. Will it be the £144,000 paid to Boris in London or our present Chief Exec’s package which is more than we pay the Prime Minister? This is going to cost big time and that’s before we come to deputies, chiefs of staff, smart new city centre offices, administrative officers, cars and a publicity budget. We’re probably looking in the region of £3M.

There are no new powers and if devolution is the aim, it’s perfectly possible to reduce quangos and transfer additional functions to the council and save money. But on the key issues: Transport is a regional function, why should the other districts (Coventry could also have a Mayor) defer to Birmingham? Policing will be the responsibility of the new Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands. Why should he/she bow to Birmingham’s Mayor? And, development and regeneration powers are largely in the hands of Andy Street’s LEP. Who will be pushing to make Birmingham Mayor top dog?

Some argue it will bridge the national/local political divide. That divide wasn’t much in evidence when men like Sir Neville Bosworth and Sir Richard Knowles ran the city in the 80s. They were men of vision whose plans to reinvent Birmingham succeeded because of their guile and determination. It’s about vision and leadership not new structures.

There are those who stand to benefit from such a move. It’s likely to sweep away the irritation of local councillors and community groups who make life difficult for some business interests, supermarkets and other developers. It’s consistent with government’s desire to limit planning controls and neutralise issues like environmental impact, greenbelt and public open space. The Prime Minister is enthusiastic and for government it means only convincing one person. Perhaps that’s why we aren’t been given an obvious Yes/No question but a loaded one which fraudulently pretends it’s a choice between councillors and the public deciding.

I fear the losers will be the ordinary people of Birmingham. They’ll be saddled with an expensive new set up over which they’ll have even less influence than they have at present. It’s hard to understand how such a concentration of power is consistent with ideas like localism and the Big Society. If there is a yes vote, irrespective of turnout or majority, decision making previously in the hands of an elected council will fall to one individual. That’s how to limit local democracy and local consent. It means asking people to pay more to have less control over their own lives. At a time when there’s widespread disillusion with politics and an obvious need to strengthen communities, this looks like a move in entirely the wrong direction.

By Steve McCabe

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