Originally Posted 2nd May 2012
In just under 18 hours voting opens in the Birmingham Mayoral referendum. Luckily for me I know quite a lot about the Birmingham Mayoral debate; I’ve attended events, read blog posts and local news articles, met potential candidates and personally heard from both sides of the divide. The vast majority of citizens of Birmingham, however, haven’t. The first time that most people I know heard about it (apart from for those exposed to my incessant chatter on the subject) was when their polling cards arrived. As well as being a pretty bad failing on the half of the council who should, whether they want a mayor or not, be committed to encouraging democratic engagement in the city it has led to a significant amount of confusion, misapprehension and frustration amongst my friends and colleagues. So, rather than talking at unfortunate bystanders, filling up facebook and twitter feeds and generally driving my friends and family nuts I’ve decided to do a brief as possible blog on the one reason that, above all else, I think we should have a mayor: accountability.
As some of you may know and some may be surprised to find out the city council’s annual budget is approximately £3.5billion. This, given that the population of Birmingham is around 1,036,900, works out as roughly £3375 per citizen per year. This is a vast amount of money. Up until recently the budget was even bigger, £4billion a year. Can you name any of the 120 councillors who decide what this mindbogglingly vast sum gets spent on? I can’t.
There’s no doubt that Birmingham has not been using its resources entirely efficiently over the past few years. Take for example the Birmingham city council website: back in 2009 the original estimated cost of overhauling the outdated design and moving more services online (in order, in theory, to save money) was £580,000. The final cost, taking into account delays in getting services up and running, was an estimated £6million. And then the council announced plans to outsource 100 IT jobs to India (a number later cut down to around 55 due to public outrage).
Now, we move on the current plans for the Birmingham metro. Don’t get me wrong, a council project that will create an estimated 1,300 new jobs is a great idea. Paying £128million (£75.4million from the Department of Transport, £52.6million presumably from the council budget) to connect two stations that are a fifteen minute walk apart, isn’t. Especially since the only other places the metro currently goes are Wolverhampton, West Bromwich and Wednesbury (Wolverhampton being a 17minute train journey from New Street anyway). Call me crazy but this doesn’t seem like the best possible use of public funds.
For every big spend in one area cuts have to be made elsewhere. As a keen women’s rights campaigner I’ve been shocked and horrified at the reduction in funds available for domestic abuse charities, especially when incidences of domestic violence have trebled over the last 18months (http://www.birminghampost.net/news/west-midlands-news/2012/04/30/number-of-domestic-violence-victims-in-birmingham-trebles-in-18-months-65233-30870775/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter). This is by no means the only area where cuts have been made but it serves to highlight my point: the way the council chooses to spend its budget really can change, and even save (or lose), lives.
Now, I haven’t highlighted these issues to condemn the city council: they have done a lot of good over the years and an elected Mayor will have just as much potential to cock up. The difference is if we don’t like what the Mayor does we will know who they are and we will be able to hold them accountable.
Right now we don’t know who is responsible for taking these decisions. If a Mayor messes up we’ll be able to identify the issue and vote them out at the next election. Councillors are essentially anonymous. We don’t really know who’s responsible for what. Mayors publish manifestos, councillors, for the most part, don’t. If Mayors breaks promises we know, if councillors do (if they made any promises in the first place), no one notices. We really need someone we can hold accountable when things go wrong so we can make damn sure that it does not happen again.
This might seem an oddly negative reason for electing a mayor, ‘we’ll know if they mess up’, but I think it is an important one and one that has not been largely touched on elsewhere in what I’ve read/heard so far. There are of course, many wholly positive reasons for voting ‘Yes’ tomorrow. These include, but are not limited to:
– – The Prime Minister is going to create a special cabinet for elected Mayors. If we have one they can gain influence in Westminster unheard of for our current city representatives and lobby for better provision for our city and the addressing of our cities issues. If we don’t, we won’t, where other cities will.
– – A Mayor will be mandated to represent the whole city, not just and individual ward, with a clear set of policies designed for the whole city, not just their immediate locality, so we can vote based on their plans for the city, not just the party they’re affiliated to.
However, rather than continue to vent my thoughts on this increasingly long and disjointed blog post I will direct you to some other posts written by people who are much more articulate, and have a much better understanding of the Birmingham political scene than I do:
Marc Reeves on an elected mayor’s ability to provide a whole City Vision:http://www.thechamberlainfiles.com/elected-mayors-its-all-about-the-city-vision-stupid/
Kevin Johnson on the need to shake up the status quo:http://www.thechamberlainfiles.com/say-no-to-the-status-quo/
And in the interests of democracy the ‘No’ campaign website:http://www.votenotoapowerfreak.org.uk/
In conclusion I don’t believe an elected Mayor system is perfection itself. Personally I like the idea of so called ‘metro-mayors’ or regional Mayors that oversee the strategic development of regions, not just cities (something the West Midlands could definitely benefit from). However this is not on the cards and probably never will be unless we take this first step (that is if it ever is). An elected Mayor is not perfect, but it is a better system than the one we have now. As the saying goes ‘things don’t move unless you push them’. For me, an elected Mayor for Birmingham represents the first big step towards making local politics, well, interesting. Last year’s local election saw voter turnout in some constituencies of Birmingham drop as low as 23.9% (Ladywood, 2011) and our city is routinely ranked in the top 4 in the UK for high rates of unemployment. We need to reengage the citizens of this great city in politics, and we need a strong, visible leader to help tackle the issues we face strategically and on a city wide level, as well as representing us on a national or even international basis. And I believe that if we vote ‘Yes’ to a Birmingham Mayor tomorrow, we might just get it.