In May of this year, the eleven largest cities in the country will be given the opportunity to vote in a referendum on having an elected mayor. Potentially, elected mayors can make a greater contribution to achieving successful economic, social and environmental outcomes in their cities.
Before the referendum, we will be asking a number of local politicians for their views on the proposals to have an elected mayor for the city of Birmingham.
B31 Voices: Why is this issue being raised at this time?
Siôn Simon: Because on 3 May, just a few short months away, there will be a referendum.
Voters will be asked:
“How would you like Birmingham to be run?
By a leader who is an elected councillor chosen by a vote of the other elected councillors. This is how the council is run now.
Or by a mayor who is elected by voters. This would be a change from how the council is run now.”
B31 Voices: How would Birmingham benefit from having an elected mayor?
Siôn Simon: When Advantage West Midlands was wound up last year, the Government took back all of its property and assets. However, in London they got to keep the assets of their equivalent organisation. And that’s because nobody stood up for us here, but in London the elected Mayor didn’t let the Government get away with it.
Growing up and going to school here, battling with the council bureaucracy as a Birmingham MP and as a citizen, I’ve seen how the current system lets us down: employment, skills and literacy, economic growth, life expectancy, social services, housing – all areas in which we under-achieve compared to other British cities. Just last month (Jan) a new report showed that two different parts of Birmingham have the highest levels of child poverty in the UK.
We are being let down by the council, which doesn’t work, and national Government, which doesn’t care. We need change. We need stronger leadership and we need solutions that work for Birmingham made here in Birmingham, not in London.
We’re starting to see that national Government is more likely to hand over powers, that’s both decisions and budgets, to cities with an elected Mayor.
But even without those powers, the transformational change is about having someone who was chosen by the people of Birmingham to represent them and to stand up for our city. An elected Mayor is an instantly recognised person, and their job it is to provide strong leadership. How many people in Birmingham can name the leader of the council or the chief executive?
The elected Mayor must take responsibility, instead of hiding behind layers of bureaucracy. They must be able to bring people together to get things done, even knock heads together when it’s for the benefit of the people of Birmingham. Being elected by the people gives a Mayor the mandate to take action on behalf of our city. They are responsible to the people, rather than a few dozen councillors, which means greater transparency and accountability. If they don’t do a good job, they’ll be kicked out at the next election.
B31 Voices: What powers would the mayor have? Would powers be taken away from elected councillors, especially cabinet members?
Siôn Simon: I’ve spent the last 18 months talking to thousands of Brummies about their hopes for our city. Many have said that not only would an elected Mayor need to do a much better job than the council, but that they would need extra powers too.
The Government held a consultation at the end of last year about the power elected Mayors should have. I submitted a 20 page response. You can read that, or the four-page summary, here.
I argued that many of the powers and budgets that currently lie with the national Government and other agencies in London, from the DWP, to housing, transport and the Arts Council, must be devolved here to Birmingham. I believe that solutions that work for Birmingham should be invented here in Birmingham.
But, as I said, it’s not just about the formal powers, but the informal powers that a Mayor has from being elected by the people. And a good, confident Mayor will trust the people of this city and push out power to them and their communities. This would lead to an enhanced role for city councillors, who understand the needs of the communities they serve.
Councillors must also have a much stronger scrutiny role in a Mayoral system than they currently have.
There is no proposal to reduce the number of councillors. It is a myth.
B31 Voices: What about the costs?
a) Of a referendum
Siôn Simon: Referendums will be held in 11 English cities on the same date as the local elections. The estimated cost in Birmingham is £322,000, which will come from central Government. (Localism Bill .pdf)
b) Would the mayor be salaried?
Siôn Simon: Yes.
c) Of reorganisation?
Siôn Simon: This would depend on how the elected Mayor organises the new administration. If I were the elected Mayor I would remove the role of the chief executive and guarantee that administration costs would be lower over the term than under the current system.
B31 Voices: What would be the process for selecting candidates?
Siôn Simon: Within Labour it will be a one member one vote postal ballot of all members of the Labour party in Birmingham. Other parties will select their candidates according to their rules, and independent candidates may also chose to stand.
B31 Voices: How long would the term of office be for the mayor?
Siôn Simon: Four years.
B31 Voices: If the public voted Yes to an elected mayor, when would the first election be?
Siôn Simon: 15 November.
B31 Voices: Will you be standing to be mayor yourself and why?
Siôn Simon: Yes, but this isn’t the time to talk about candidates. Now is the time to talk about the difference an elected Mayor could make in Birmingham and why people should vote yes in a referendum. I stood down as the Labour MP for Erdington in 2010 specifically to campaign for Birmingham to have an elected Mayor. It was my experience as an MP and Minister that lead me to realise that we need change in our city. And since stepping down, over 18 months ago, I’ve devoted my time to meeting thousands of individuals, stakeholders and businesses to find out what people want from an elected Mayor. I believe that 2012 will be an historic year for our city.
Many thanks to Siôn for answering our questions and providing a comprehensive insight into what an elected mayor might bring to Birmingham and how the system would work.
Would you like to see an elected mayor in Birmingham? Are you happy with the way things are run now? We’d love to hear your views.
The ‘No’ campaign – “Vote No to a Power Freak”