Really impressed by what I saw of Bass FM during my visit this week. As well as entertaining and informing local listeners, in partnership with the Bass Festival, the station provides a safe, legal environment for presenters, researchers and technicians to learn, and hone, the art of running a radio station. Crucially despite the professionalism it’s got the right kind of ‘edgy’ feel to set it apart from mainstream radio. Broadcast on 87.7FM in the Birmingham area, and found on the web here, Bass FM will be on air until 30th June. We could really do with something like this (i.e. proper, music lead local radio run by local people) as a permanent fixture – surely that could work in a city the size of Birmingham?
The new administration at Birmingham City Council has obviously been working for some time on their plans for how the city is governed. It’s good that they’ve taken power with the energy and determination to – at least on the face of it – shake things up and run the authority differently. Whilst I’m proud of a lot of what we achieved over the last eight years, I wouldn’t pretend for one minute that the systems we had in place were perfect. However, this new approach – of no longer having Cabinet Members tied to one department, but rather, having them working ‘across’ the council to direct policy – means we no longer have a figurehead at the council for Leisure, Sport and Culture.
I think this is a huge mistake, though I would love to be persuaded otherwise. It strikes me that L,S&C is a ‘department’ that really benefits from having a focal point for national and local organisations to deal with, someone to champion the sector and take the flack for when things go wrong. I chaired the corresponding Scrutiny committee last year (now ‘deleted’), and worked on the ‘Music Birmingham’ report, and time and time again it came up that a clear, single point of contact at the city was essential in terms of knowing who to lobby and ask for support and advice, whether it was in terms of funding or dealing with other council departments.
And that was at a time when we had one politician overseeing the portfolio. Now it seems we have the following: the Deputy Leader – sharing with the CM for Commissioning, Contracting and Improvement – responsibility for management of assets and grants; the CM for Social Cohesion and Equalities overseeing major community and cultural events of citywide, regional or national significance and, potentially, the relevant District Committee Chairmen looking after community arts, libraries, and the local sport and leisure service. This is far too confusing and doesn’t offer the clarity that I believe many people involved in arts and culture in this city are looking for.
I’m sure the new administration recognises the importance of the creative industries sector in this city. After all, city based cultural organisations contribute over £270m to the region’s economy every year – though of course, with the right level and quality of support, this could be so much more – and the strength, or otherwise, of our cultural offer is one of the key drivers for people deciding whether or not to stay in or move to our city. And I’m not interested in making party political points out of this issue. However, they need to identify someone in the city council to champion arts and culture, ideally at cabinet level, and they need to do it soon.
Sutton Trinity Ward Committee meets at 7.30 p.m. tonight, in the Crush Hall, Sutton Coldfield Town Hall.
Items on the agenda include:
- An update on Sutton Coldfield Library
- Consultation on the cycling/walking route through Sutton Coldfield
- An update on the Business Improvement District proposal for the town centre
With the mayoral referendum less than a year away, it’s good to see the nascent ‘no’ campaign start to get itself established and argue the case against elected mayors. Whilst I don’t agree with their arguments, being firmly in the ‘yes’ camp and believing that an elected mayor would be beneficial for Birmingham, this is, nonetheless, a hugely important issue and something that I hope residents in the city will debate and feel involved in.
By its very nature, of course, the ‘no’ campaign will be negative; focussing on the risks of what might happen should we decide to try something new. And negativity is certainly the theme of the campaign’s arguments so far.
A fortnight ago, it was John Hemming MP arguing, perversely, that we should ‘Say No to an Elected Dictator.’ Quite how a mayor, directly elected by residents in Birmingham to implement a manifesto that would have been publicly scrutinised during an election campaign, can be called a ‘dictator’ is beyond me. Besides the fact that there are checks and balances in the system (planning/licensing regulation for example), I think it unlikely that councillors and central government would have much tolerance for a dictator. And they’d certainly struggle to be re-elected, either by their colleagues as a political candidate or by the public at the ballot box.
And today, Roger Godsiff MP implores us to vote against ‘trendy’ plans for an elected mayor, focusing on the campaigns in Stoke and Hartlepool and ignoring the success of the system in London – a city that, surely, we see ourselves as being more closely affiliated with. And is he really suggesting that having an elected mayor in London is a ‘gimmick’ or is the capital to be allowed dispensation on account of its size and importance?
He also argues that a mayor would leave councillors powerless, concentrating power in the hands of one person. Whilst the Localism Bill does need to clarify the role of councillors under the new system, it’s evident already that there will be plenty for councillors to do. They can still run for mayor, of course, as demonstrated by the Labour Leader Sir Albert Bore, one of the few declared candidates so far. They will still have the opportunity to serve in the mayoral cabinet, with the current draft of the legislation proposing that at least two councillors will sit on the executive. And with a stronger leader there will be a need for a better resourced scrutiny function with more sharply focused analysis of policy. And that’s not to mention the increasingly important role that councillors will have in their wards as power is shifted from central government to local neighbourhoods.
I sense that this will be the core argument of the ‘no’ campaign: that a powerful leader will ride roughshod over democracy and sideline elected members. And I’m confident that the public will see through it.
Sutton Coldfield’s Town Centre Partnership will be hosting a free networking event on 24th May, at Oscar’s Restaurant, 5 Manor Road. With nearly 40 attendees at last month’s meeting, the event is a great opportunity for local business leaders to make new contacts and raise their profile.
To ensure your place, please confim attendance by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively, contact me via this blog and I’ll make sure your details are passed on.
Date: Tuesday 24th May
Time: 5.30pm – 7.30pm
Venue: Oscar’s Restaurant
Some good news on the job front this month, with two recent announcements set to lead to a number of employment opportunities in the city. The development at New Street Station and the opening of a new 250,000 sq ft John Lewis in 2014 – one of the retailer’s largest stores outside of London – will create 900 jobs, 650 of them at the store itself. And the proposed redevelopment of Paradise Circus, which will link Southside with the main city centre, should lead to over 10,000 jobs. Together with healthy returns at GKN and a surge in sales at Jaguar Land Rover – both of whom have a number of regional suppliers on their books – it’s seems that there’s at least some good news out there in the midst of these very tough (and uncertain) economic times.
The move to Local Enterprise Partnerships has not been an easy one.
It was always going to be messy, changing from a regionally based, very bureaucratic, business support body to a number of, hopefully, more flexible ones. And the media has been drip feeding ‘who’s fallen out with who’ stories since the region’s local authorities were first written to at the end of June, and invited to submit proposals for the new partnerships.
To some extent this was inevitable, given that there isn‘t a prescribed model for LEPs, and that they will take multiple forms to suit particular local circumstances. This is, after all, what localism is all about. However, it hasn’t been the coalition government’s finest hour, with the lack of clarity over the future for RDAs, and the apparent infighting between ministers, giving the impression that policy was being made on the hoof.
The dust, thankfully, is beginning to settle. Birmingham, for example, has announced that it will be forming a partnership with neighbours such as Solihull, Tamworth and Lichfield. This makes perfect sense, particularly given that Solihull’s main economic assets, such as the airport and he NEC, are already linked with the second city. And of course a number of people in Solihull, Tamworth and Lichfield, will work in Birmingham. With skills and training forming such a key element of the new partnership arrangements, there’s a ‘bottom up’ logic to this particular LEP that should stand it in good stead in the years to come.
Now the new partnerships are coming together, it’s time for the government to give some more details about how they will actually work in practice. We know that local businesses will now be on an ‘equal footing’ with local authorities, and the preference for the new bodies to be led by someone from the business community is to be welcomed. And we know that they will be democratically accountable local people through their local councils. It’s also apparent that the LEPs will have a role in determining local issues such as planning and housing, transport and infrastructure, employment, enterprise and supporting business start-ups.
However, at the time of writing we are still awaiting the White Paper on the government’s approach to sub-national growth. What we do know is that the LEPs will not inherit all the functions previously held by the RDAs. Regional Spatial Strategies have already been abolished, inward investment looks set to be coordinated on a national level by UK Trade and Investment and business support will be transferred to the centre.
There is much still to be decided, however, with the inward investment functions of the RDAs potentially being inherited by local councils, should they make a convincing enough case.
Of course, there’s unlikely to be any central funding for the new bodies and quite how effective they can be without adequate investment is of concern. They may end up inheriting the land banks of the RDAs, when they’re formally abolished in 2012, but running costs will have to come from cash strapped local councils pooling resources. The RDAs cost over £2.3bn a year, so it’s pretty clear that there’s an economic imperative to setting up the new structures.
The LEPs, then, will have to adopt a private sector ’can do’ attitude right from the off and first in their sights should be attracting investment from the new £1bn Regional Growth Fund. Launched next year to support the economies of those regions most hit by public sector cutbacks, as well as those with the most potential for private sector growth, it’s vital that the West Midlands makes a convincing case for substantial financial assistance.
In many ways this will be the litmus test for the new LEPs. The deadline for applications should be by the end of December this year, with a view to decisions on successful bids being announced by the end of February 2011. By then the new LEPs, spearheaded by business leaders, democratically accountable and reflecting natural economic boundaries, will be firmly established and officially recognised by the government.
Our diverse region, which has a GDP of £94 billion and a population of 5.2 million, will have a number of flexible bodies in place, then, ready to fight for investment and support. For the first time local businesses will be right at the centre of the policies and plans to steer us out of the economic downturn.
Well, there may have been limited consultation before the (218 overt, 72 covert) ‘Project Champion’ cameras were put up, but everyone’s falling over themselves to want to talk about it now. Tonight sees a meeting at the Bordesley Centre called by the Chairman of the Police Authority, and entitled ‘Trust and Confidence in Policing’, the Police Authority itself is being investigated by Thames Valley Police (with regards to its role in commissioning the project), and lawyers at Liberty are no doubt busy preparing their case supporting their call for a judicial review.
And today the city council has kicked off an Overview and Scrutiny review which will attempt to answer the question: ‘Is the installation of large numbers of CCTV and ANPR cameras concentrated in specific areas beneficial and justifiable?’ It intends to do this within twelve weeks, after which it will report to the city council, and make recommendations to the Safer Birmingham Partnership….which, as it happens, is in the midst of conducting its own review.
The council O&S committee has certainly got its work cut out, especially as it intends to consider imponderables such as the ‘what are the moral concerns of the local authority, residents and police’ with regards to CCTV. Of all the ‘facts’, however, around surveillance cameras – the UK is one of the most watched nations in the world, the technology doesn’t eliminate crime, it merely displaces it – the review might also want to consider a 1992 Home Office report, which confirmed what we probably all instinctively know about the importance of keeping residents involved when we want to spy on them. The survey’s not exactly recent, but, given the proliferation of cameras over the last 18 years, I bet we would hear even stronger views today. If we dared asked the questions, that is.
The majority of people, it found, felt that the government shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions permitting the installation of CCTV in public places. Nearly three quarters felt that ‘these cameras could easily be abused and used by the wrong people’ and a significant number felt that ‘in the future these cameras could be used to control people’. Further, that the people in control of these systems could not be ‘completely trusted to use them only for the public good‘. Telling councillors (as I understand it) that the primary purpose of the Sparkbrook cameras was to reduce crime and disorder, when the funding was coming entirely from the terrorism and allied matters division of the Association of Chief Police Officers, was clearly not the way to keep a sceptical public on side.
So what’s the process by which Birmingham might get an elected mayor then? Because however many times I read through the snappily titled ‘Draft Communities and Local Government Structural Reform Plan’ I still can’t quite figure out how it’s going to work and the usually helpful people at CLDG are not answering my emails.
Power, according to the Plan, will be taken away from Whitehall and put into the hands of people and communities. And the Localism Bill, the mechanism for this huge transfer of power, will pave the way for 12 cities to have elected mayors from May 2012. So, Birmingham could get a (political) mayor in less than two years time.
But what about the referendum? Well that, it appears, is to come afterwards, perhaps a year or two after the first mayors are elected. It will be a ‘confirmatory’ referendum and contrary to what I’m sure most people are expecting, the ’in favour’ threshold could very well be set much lower than 50%. The government, it appears, is keen to avoid the embarrassment of Labour‘s Regional Assembly referenda, an exercise in the transfer of power which spectacularly failed to ignite public interest.
My guess is that the current leaders in these 12 cities will be renamed mayors in 2012, and that an election won’t take place for a good few years afterwards, certainly not until after a referendum regarding the new posts. All should become clearer in November, when the groundwork for the Bill is done and ’options’ are developed for the transition to mayors. It’s starting to look more and more, though, that Birmingham will get an elected mayor regardless of whether we actually want one or not. Which is not quite the localism that many of us would have had in mind.