Opinion from Lord Digby Jones

Why I am not standing to be the Elected Mayor of Birmingham

Published Saturday 18 February, 2012

Birmingham will be holding a Referendum in May as to whether the governance of the City should change and whether there should be an Elected Mayor, running Birmingham with an appointed Cabinet, all accountable to the elected Councillors. I shall be campaigning for the change to happen and for both the Second City in the UK and the largest Local Authority in Europe to move forward to elections for an Elected Chief Executive in November this year.

If I were to stand as a candidate following a Referendum result that authorised a move forward to Mayoral elections, it would be as an independent candidate, neutral in the party political tribalism that has so diminished the capacity for change, for delivery, for improvement in Local Government all over the Country for decades. Party politics get in the way of true local accountability and its consequences; "safe" council seats (and especially "safe" or "shoe-in" leadership positions) should be anathema in local issues. Having a Leader of a City sitting there because he or she has done a deal in a smoke-filled room (or maybe that should be "smoke-free" these days!) to enjoy buggin's turn in places where one party or another is certain of victory because of the national political mood at the time or the local party dominance, is a disgrace and lets down the people in all respects. A party politically-independent elected Mayor avoids all that; she or he is there because the electorate approve of the person as a Leader, as a CEO and as a deliverer for them in their City regardless of what's going on in a particular Party, or in the rest of the Country or in the World for that matter.

But I have decided not to put my name forward as such a candidate and I guess all those kind people who have encouraged me to stand are entitled to an explanation, as are those who wish to report my decision or those who are just plain curious. My decision is based on three major issues:-

1. There should not be an election for a Mayor of Birmingham at all!

There should be the creation of the position (and the subsequent election) of a Mayor of the West Midlands Region. In Asia's Century, at a time when our region will succeed or fall on its ability to punch its weight around the Globe, when the people of the West Midlands will need serious clout in London, in Brussels and far beyond, when the hard-earned Council tax (or Business Rate) pound can yield better productivity and efficiency off a larger base, Birmingham (or Coventry or Wolverhampton for that matter) is too small. So, by the way, is Manchester (why not the North-West as a mayoralty? Liverpool, just get used to it) and Newcastle (be part of a powerful North-East mayoralty, Sunderland).

There are more people in the West Midlands than in Alex Salmond's Scotland. Why should devolved Government be the prerogative of the Celtic fringe and London?

Two of the key infrastructure assets for Birmingham aren't even in the City. The NEC and Birmingham Airport are in Solihull!

Tata, the hugely successful owner of Jaguar Land Rover, are creating a thousand new jobs by building a brand new engine plant in Wolverhampton and fifteen hundred new jobs by expanding the Land Rover plant in Solihull. Investments in Birmingham? I bet it looks that way from Mumbai but of course neither are in the Birmingham mayoralty. Any Mayor of Birmingham would be campaigning all the time to get overseas investment into the ... err ... Region!

All the big issues, all the big spend are regionally driven. A Birmingham CEO would be spending time trying to do deals with other Mayors in the West Midlands rather than with overseas investors, or police, transport or educational chiefs. 

2. What is the new Mayor going to be the boss of exactly? If all education, all transport (budget and projects) and all policing are not under executive control (aided by an appointed cabinet of experts and fully, constantly accountable to an elected Council) then it will be a non-job. Wouldn't it be marvellous if the Mayor stated that Birmingham (or the West Midlands was to be the first place in the UK where adult illiteracy and innumeracy was below ten per cent?! (it's two per cent in Karnataka, India by the way).  The transport hub of the Nation? The boss can only worry about New Street Station!

3. "No Taxation without Representation!" is a cry which has echoed down the centuries from the Boston Tea Party to the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The businesses of Birmingham are big taxpayers through the Business Rate. Their ability to employ people and generate much-needed tax revenues is directly affected by the actions of a Local Authority or a Mayor. Yet they have no say whatsoever in the choosing of a Leader; they have no vote; they endure taxation without so much as a whiff of representation. Many of the businessmen and women whose businesses are in Birmingham and who help make Birmingham great don't even live within the City limits. They are devoid of any choice at all. How unfair is that!

So those are my reasons. The decision has been a difficult one since I am a Brummie through and through and I care deeply about my City. Poor leadership, factional party politics, a diminishing skills base, a young population ... and China wanting our lunch and India wanting our dinner, have all led to Birmingham badly needing sorting out and being led back to the self-help greatness that the Cadburys and the Chamberlains would instantly recognise.

I will always carry the name of my City in my title with enormous pride and I shall continue to bang the drum for Brum in London and around the World, directed by the newly-elected Mayor of Birmingham, if she or he approves ... mind you ... just try and stop me!