The elected Mayor debate at the Ort Café last Thursday was a thought-provoking event, organised by Steve Beauchampé and Andy Goff and sponsored by the Birmingham Press. Some feedback has already been given by Alan Clawley.

Debra Davis, former Head of Communications at Birmingham City Council, said that the future of cities is tied to economic prosperity and that needs leadership. She wanted to dispel the myth of Mayor as dictator and stressed that s/he would have to delegate and consult. Ms Davis also feared that if the referendum rejected the elected mayoral system, Birmingham would be placed at a disadvantage, though the implications of such disadvantage were not spelt out.

Les Reid, Political Correspondent for the Coventry Telegraph, an award-winning journalist, pointed out that one person would not be able to transform the city’s economy because there are macro national and international factors involved. He pointed out that an elected mayor would run the council, not the city and asked what a mayor could do, that a council leader could not. Several points made had been heard at earlier meetings and explored in the press and various blogs, so only one new reference and two questions are featured here.

1. City deals

Mr. Reid spoke about Manchester’s City Deal, which had been achieved under the current system and suggested that this was the path to follow. Localis, a think-tank, explains that Greater Manchester councils will be able to keep a share of the extra national tax revenues generated in the conurbation under the first city deal to be struck by the government. In December Nick Clegg launched the proposal, offering England’s largest cities ‘a menu of transformative new powers’, and Manchester’s deal refers to:

  • a Greater Manchester Housing Investment Board,
  • a business Growth Hub,
  • an extra 6,000 Apprenticeships
  • a low carbon hub 50/50 Joint Venture which will create a strong pipeline of investable low carbon projects.
  • acting as a beacon for high value inward investment from China and India in a unique partnership with London.

It is estimated that the whole deal will create 3,800 new jobs and protect a further 2,300 existing ones. Read more here.

2. Local councillors affected?

Afterwards a member of the audience asked whether the number of local councillors would be reduced. We looked at one of the useful LWM/BP fact sheets on display but didn’t find the answer there. Later it came, via Steve Beauchampé in the Birmingham Press,  quoting Cllr Michael Wilkes:

“Birmingham is Europe’s largest local authority, its 40 wards are served by 120 directly elected (to use contemporary parlance) councillors. But how long would this remain the case if the city’s electorate vote Yes in May’s mayoral referendum? Liberal Democrat Councillor Michael Wilkes, writing in his online blog last month, stated: “The City Council itself would undoubtedly be scaled down in the not too distant future to no more than 80, or possibly to as few as 40, seats. An electoral review is needed but this is under active consideration in other councils. For example Rochdale plans to reduce councillors from 60 to 40 and in Doncaster the executive mayor wants to reduce the number of councillors from 63 to 21.” Birmingham’s council wards are the largest in England, serving an average population of more than 18,000 people per ward. While a two-thirds cut in their numbers seems very unlikely, several councillors we have spoken with share Michael Wilkes’ assertion that there will probably be a smaller, but still significant, reduction in the reasonably near future.”

3. Questioning the basic assumption

Chairman Karen Leach of Localise West Midlands asked why one person would be more effective than a group, given that research finds otherwise. This assertion was new to the writer who looked around and found a reference to such research about online activity: “Subjective norms failed to affect intentions. Group norms proved to be important determinants.”

A parting shot – the privatisation agenda?

Finally Les Reid warned that there is a rhetoric of devolution and localism but we should look beyond that to what is actually done. For instance, the offer of greater financial advantage was not what it seemed: it would simply be restoring the 27% cut from regional development and the fire and police services. He asked if this drive for elected mayors is a search for “those who will play the government’s privatisation game”.