Birmingham has a strong tradition of good local governance. On May 3 the city with the youngest population in Europe has the opportunity, through a referendum, to influence its future. I believe people in Birmingham will see a Yes in the Mayoral Referendum as a major chance to shape the Birmingham of tomorrow.
For eight years I have been the proud leader of Birmingham City Council (indeed, I am now the second longest serving leader in the council’s history). Over that time, with a strong team, we have achieved a great deal.
People in Birmingham are better off, with lower taxes and higher quality of life. The services provided to Birmingham residents have been overhauled, and over £500m of savings have been made to support reinvestment into the frontline.
We have increased Birmingham’s GVA by £2 billion, and delivered over £6 billion of public sector investment in infrastructure – which has in turn levered in over treble that amount in private sector investment.
Our automotive sector is enjoying a real renaissance and we have a strong mixed economy with leading professional, financial, creative, digital, health and visitor economies.
One of my proudest achievements is delivering a new central railway station for Birmingham – which involved pulling together £650 million of investment from a variety of partners.
The truth be told, however, the process was tortuous. Years were spent discussing funding before we were able to start work on site; the interaction with government departments was painful and no natural authority existed to speed the process up. I believe an empowered elected mayor, with the access to government and power to directly fund, could have done it quicker.
Indeed, the new governance structure around an elected mayor has the potential to open up enormous opportunity for Birmingham. The offer on the table from the Government, to deliver “a landmark in the shift of powers and influence from Whitehall to communities”, is radical.
As an experienced hand at city governance, I can sense a fundamental shift in how our great cities are empowered to deliver their full potential.
At this moment in time the imperative has never been greater – UK cities can deliver the growth that the UK needs. Birmingham stands at the forefront of that agenda, and an elected mayor could be the catalyst for the generation of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of new jobs.
A mayor’s natural power of influence and the power of access, correctly deployed, could be formidable. Whilst I am used to fighting for Birmingham’s interests, with both the current and previous governments, I know that the ‘clout’ and formalised access a mayor would enjoy could make a significant difference.
In many ways it is an unfortunate peculiarity of our current local government system that the role of ‘Leaders’ has never been naturally understood – particularly by businesses and the media.
The reality of the role of a “leader” can get lost – particularly with a media who all too often take a London-centric view and under-represent the importance of cities like Birmingham.
Had the situation been different for me over the last eight years I would have, I believe, increased not only my influence – but also my accountability.
Ironically, travelling internationally, I am always perceived as a mayor in ‘all but title’ when I meet with colleagues from across the globe.
Birmingham is twinned with Chicago, Frankfurt, Johannesburg, Guangzhou, Lyon and Milan – all led by an executive mayor.
Equally, I can appreciate the benefit of having a ‘city-wide’ mandate behind an elected mayor – as an ambassador empowered to talk on behalf of the whole city. An ambassador who would also have the powers, flexibilities and tenure to deliver the city’s priorities.
I have previously argued against a simple titular change from leader to mayor – what would be the point of that? However, the Government is determined to devolve real power and access to funding to city mayors – a change I welcome.
Birmingham has undergone a renaissance over the past eight years. The city has built a formidable base to drive forward its reputation, and drive forward the UK growth agenda.
If we are to ensure that this country grows a strong and stable economy, fit for future generations, then we need a profound shift in the economic and political geography of the UK. I discussed this very issue with the Prime Minister, David Cameron, this week – and like him I am very excited about the future.
The determination of the Coalition Government and the commitment from the Minister for Cities Greg Clark, in recognising the role that city leadership must play in determining a prosperous future for its citizens, enshrined in the powers of an elected mayor, is something I am excited about and support.
* Councillor Mike Whitby is leader of Birmingham City Council