What do we want? A Greater Birmingham Regional Assembly! When do we want it? Now! So says Steve Beauchampé.
There’s a dynamism and vibrancy to Scottish politics: the rise of the SNP and demise of Labour, devolution and the impending transfer of further powers from Westminster to Holyrood, the referendum, high voter turnouts (including suffrage for 16-18 year olds) and the ongoing debate over independence. Scotland’s an exciting place to be as it becomes increasingly likely that we are witnessing the birth of a new nation.
The roots of all this can of course be traced back to the referendum on Scottish devolution in 1997 and the subsequent establishment of the Scottish Parliament, its’ chamber modern, light and welcoming and its’ members elected by a system of proportional representation.
There is no such dynamism or vibrancy to politics in Birmingham. Lifeless and moribund would be a more accurate description, with low voter turnout and a strong sense of disengagement amongst most of the general public. Our city council has been decimated by Whitehall austerity cuts and is all but in special measures following the recent Kerslake report. London-based private companies increasingly deliver its services and most major infrastructure decisions remain dependent upon central government approval. Things don’t appear to be much better in other parts of the West Midlands either.
But hold hard, some serious devolution for our region may be just a shot away. Last week Chancellor George Osborne announced a new deal that would see up to £2bn of expenditure a time transferred from London to city regions, and several council leaders, led by Birmingham’s Sir Albert Bore, have been working to establish the combined authority required by Osborne before any powers can be devolved, with transport, housing, skills and social care all on the transfer list. This could be exciting, the rebirth of meaningful local democratic engagement in the political process.
Yet Osborne has gone and spoilt it all by insisting that these powers must be devolved through the office of a regional (sometimes called metro) mayor, even though just three years ago the mayoral route was soundly rejected by voters in both Birmingham and Coventry.
For some mayoral cheerleaders, that frisson of excitement at who might be the recipient of all that lovely power will soon dissipate once they see not a Birmingham and Black Country Boris (heaven forbid!) but the likes of Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson (catapulted into office on the back of the support of a derisory 5.3% of Birmingham’s electorate) a string of failed former MPs, some (possibly) soon to be redundant Euro MPs and the truly deluded all allowing their names to go forward.
Let’s consign this mayoral hokum to its rightful place in the dustbin of history. Let’s reject the notion that in a democracy just one person can – or should – ever be allowed to take decisions on behalf of a conurbation of around three million people, that one person can understand, represent and address those people’s priorities, needs and hopes, that they can create and implement a vision for our fast changing region and its youthful population.
So here’s a ‘radical’ alternative, which I set out as a draft proposal. Let’s create an assembly, a Greater Birmingham Regional Assembly. Let’s populate it with around forty elected representatives, including MPs and the elected leaders and opposition leaders of each local authority participating in the combined authority.
Seats would be allocated by proportional representation based on the percentage of votes each party accrued throughout the Greater Birmingham combined authority at the most recent general election. Existing council chambers would be used for assembly meetings (but with a centralised secretariat based in an existing council building), with public access and opportunities for direct involvement via such mechanisms as Q and A sessions. Debates and decision-making should be as open and transparent as possible.
Although a Leader and Deputy Leader would need to be elected by assembly members (most likely along party lines) there would be no Cabinet-style system. Responsibilities would instead be allocated via something akin to Westminster’s Select Committee system.
Such an assembly might initially meet just a few times per year, but as additional powers were transferred from Whitehall, the work of the assembly would naturally increase, along with the frequency of its meetings. The running costs of such an assembly would be met from the budget devolved from Westminster (and could be expected to be no greater than those incurred by the current Whitehall system).
Of course, there’s really nothing radical at all about this proposal, unless you’re George Osborne. Because if democratic, accountable, proportional representation-based devolved governance is ok for Scotland, then our region should expect, and be granted, nothing less.