On mayors and other leaders

Alan Clawley considers what it might mean to have an elected mayor in Birmingham.

Like all elected politicians elected mayors like to have visible results to show their electors what they have achieved in their term of office. Success in social services, child protection, youth work, careers advice, elderly day care and all the other vital, but largely invisible, services that may be provided by the authority that is run by the mayor are of little use in this respect.

What elected mayors need are big public building projects, new libraries, road improvements, spruced-up railway stations, and lots of shiny new office blocks for all to see.

Pompidou Centre

Pompidou Centre

The mayor of Paris, Georges Pompidou, was a prime example of mayoral megalomania. The famous art gallery designed by Piano and Rogers with the plumbing on the outside that was built on the Place de Beaubourg in 1977 is even named after him.

Even if someone was elected who was interested in low key services one fears that he or she wouldn’t last long in the job. Labour Councillor Theresa Stewart became the first female Leader of Birmingham Council in 1993 promising an end to prestige projects but by 1999 she had been replaced by Councillor Albert Bore who is credited with driving through the International Convention Centre, the Hyatt Hotel, the National Indoor Arena, Brindleyplace and The Mailbox whilst he was chair of the powerful Economic Development Committee. During his most recent stint as Leader he initiated the plan to build officer towers in Paradise Circus and a new Central Library in Eastside. He successfully broke the ‘concrete collar’ at Masshouse Circus before he was in turn replaced by Councillor Whitby as Leader in 2004.

Mailbox - rear

Mailbox – rear

Council leaders already behave like elected mayors in Birmingham.  Whenever the present Leader gets the chance he boasts about his Big City Plan, his highly visible and over-sized new Library of Birmingham (not yet the ‘Whitby Library’), and his superficially improved New Street Station. His City’s three star credit rating that allows him to borrow more money to refurbish his predecessor’s industrial-scale National Indoor Arena. But what can he say about his failed child protection service?

Mike Whitby at start of construction of Birminghams new central library

Mike Whitby at start of construction of Birminghams new central library

So it’s hard to see what different it would make if Mike Whitby were directly elected.  We are stuck between a rock and a hard place when we vote in the referendum next May.

If we say ‘Yes’ to elected mayors we can vote for other mayoral hopefuls such as Carl Chinn and Digby Jones whose ideas on such vital issues as the closures of care homes for the elderly or the restoration or cuts imposed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition are as yet unknown to us? If we vote ‘No’ we will get what we have now with the leader of whatever party that is in control running the council with little or no resistance from elected councillors of any party.

It’s a gloomy outlook. Party politics came about in local government as a means of getting decisions between competing independents and factions. It then became a way of offering the electorate a variety of approaches to running a city. The working people could vote Labour and the ratepayers could happily vote Tory without having to get involved with the tedious minutiae of municipal politics; but now a cosy consensus exists between Labour and Conservative parties on the City Council. Most of the time they agree to carry on with the major capital projects started by each other because they can’t undo what their predecessors started. They can only reverse existing policies that haven’t made much progress, like the ‘iconic’ Richard Rogers Library in Eastside that was part of Labour’s failed ‘City Of Culture’ bid in 2003.

Public opinion has turned against party politics and there is much talk of having an elected mayor who is not tied to any one party. This is said to free the mayor to ‘bang heads together’ and get things done regardless of party power bases. Committees are said to be the enemy of decision-making although we still trust the biggest committee of all, the House of Commons, to make our laws – and we don’t even directly elect the Prime Minister.

Directly elected mayors are supposed to make our city better governed, but when Birmingham was said to be the best-governed city in the world, it was run not by a directly-elected mayor but by a corporation – headed by businessman and councillor Joseph Chamberlain. A detailed account of this period is worth reading in Victor Skipp’s book, ‘The Making of Victorian Birmingham’. Skipp tells us that Chamberlain’s method was to ‘think big, to sell his ideas to the council and the public, and then to implement them on borrowed money’. That sounds familiar today. His biggest idea was ‘Corporation Street’ but the rest of his legacy consists of public services like gas, water, electricity, trams, buses, baths, and parks.

So, whether a leader is elected or becomes leader by luck or coincidence, it’s character, personality and life experience that really counts – whoever sets out to be the city’s elected mayor shouldn’t feel obliged to promise us those grandiose projects to get elected. I for one will be happy if she (or he) concentrates on the more mundane aspects of city life.