Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pickled red-herring

What is the point of making voters in a dozen cities up and down the country elect Lord Mayors without dismantling the whole local government system and starting again?

Eric Pickles, the Cabinet Minister responsible, is determined to foist these small-town Boris Johnsons onto us whether we want them or not.

Yet there is no sign his alleged reform, supposedly giving great power to elected mayors, will be of much benefit to the cities which get them.

The guinea pigs for this grand scheme are Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield.

In his generosity, Mr Pickles is prepared to let other cities go for elected mayors as well.

Wolverhampton, for example, could have one if it really wanted but I don’t hear the crowds clamouring at the gate to be granted this special privilege.

Apart from a few professors of local government and professional politicians, I don’t know anyone who wants elected mayors. It’s not exactly a burning issue down the Ferret & Firkin.

Even if elected mayors were a good idea in theory, they’re pretty pointless without wider changes.

Take Birmingham, for instance. It has 120 councillors costing the taxpayer £2.6 million in allowances and expenses.

It also has a Chief Executive on £233,000 in salary and pension contributions not to mention the other 13 officers who pick up six-figure salaries.

What’s going to happen to that little lot if an elected mayor takes over? You won’t need 120 councillors for a start. The London Assembly gets by with just 25 members.

Admittedly the capital has a layer of local authorities beneath its Assembly but then it is much bigger.

The Pickles dozen would be quite capable of functioning efficiently with a quarter of their existing councillors.

Actually they would do an adequate job on a quarter of their councillors without the additional fuss of an elected mayor.

The cities certainly won’t need all their councillors when the mayor has the power and takes the decisions. There won’t be anything for the average councillor to do so why not get rid of them?

Mr Pickles has no plan to cut the number of councillors. He says councils could do so if they wanted – but can you imagine that happening? Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

Equally, why would councils need chief executives and senior officers when an elected mayor and his cronies are in place?

Mind you, they won’t come cheap. Boris Johnson bags £140,000 a year and doubtless these smaller-city bosses will demand something similar.

One of the assumptions behind the plan for elected mayors seems to be that it would increase democracy and improve the quality of the people who run our cities.

What are the options in Birmingham?

Sion Simon would have us believe he gave up his place as Labour MP for Erdington so he could run for mayor of Birmingham – a decision he made even before there was officially a vacancy.

He could be challenged for the Labour nomination by the veteran group leader Sir Albert Bore.

Mike Whitby, who has been council leader for the last six years, must be in with a chance but Tory leader David Cameron says he wants someone outside politics to do the job.

That means ex-lawyer Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham, must be in with a shout. He was briefly in the Labour Government but somehow managed to avoid joining the party.

Apparently the suggestion is he stands as an Independent. But would the other parties give him a free run? And, if they did, where’s the democracy in that?

Before they can vote for any of these potential candidates, the electors must first decide if they actually want elected mayors.

Without real reform of the whole system, it must be questionable whether it’s worth it.

Will mayors really have any clout? Most Governments – including this one – talk about devolution and localism but when it comes to parting with cash or power, they decide Whitehall knows best after all.

Councils are told how to spend their money. It goes on schools and social services mainly. That won’t change.

And what is the point of supposedly powerful mayors being kings of their little castles when the Government is also setting up Local Enterprise Partnerships which will cross council boundaries?

Mayors won’t want to see their influence diluted by dealing with these new quangos.

The Coalition is feverishly trying to paper over the cracks emerging from its decision to axe development agencies like Advantage West Midlands by introducing LEPs.

These supposedly business-led bodies will die of neglect if elected mayors take over the big cities.

What self-respecting captain of industry would want to devote time and energy to them when the mayor of the biggest place on the map is too busy to be bothered?

No doubt all this is the result of Mr Pickles’ time as leader of Bradford Council, where he manipulated a hung council to ensure the Tories clung onto power.

The one-time “Beast of Bradford” thinks he’s giving us radical reform. Sounds more like pickled red herring to me.

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