“The best governed city in the world”. That was how Birmingham, newly elevated to full city status, announced itself to the globe back in the 1890s. Self-confident, determined and assertive, Birmingham’s civic leaders set new frontiers for local government and created a legacy that would endure for the best part of a century.
Fast forward to the present day, though and things look rather different. Yes, the portrait of Joe Chamberlain still hangs on the Council House wall, looking down on the latest generation of City Councillors, who in turn reference his record in appropriately hushed and reverent tones. But for the citizens of Birmingham in 2011, “best governed city” is not a description that would immediately spring to mind.
Grappling with huge budget pressures, the present City Cabinet lurches from crisis to crisis. Social care services under pressure. Children’s services under notice to improve. A housing department slammed by auditors. An education system that is failing to give too many youngsters the start in life they deserve. Less second city, more second best.
As a Labour MP, it would be easy for me to lay the entire blame for this record of failure at the feet of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition that has run the City Council since 2004. To be fair, there is enough evidence to condemn them. Poor leadership, lack of vision and a preference for dithering over deciding has marked their term of office and they deserve to be brought to account for their failures at the elections in May.
But, having represented one of the city’s constituencies for nearly 15 years, I cannot avoid the fact that the problems of governing Birmingham run far deeper than the failures of a single administration. The system itself is no longer fit for purpose.
Every day, my office receives letters, emails and phone calls from residents, complaining about remote, unresponsive and unaccountable council services. Frequently, these are people at the end of their tether, having spent weeks trying to wring answers out of a byzantine bureaucracy in which nobody takes ownership of problems.
All too often, there is no accountability when things go wrong. The system makes it easy for politicians to hide behind the officials. Take, for example, the current round of budget “consultation meetings” being carried out by the Council. These meetings are supposed to be involving local people in some of the tough decisions about the Council’s services and spending priorities. But the Cabinet Councillors who will be taking the final decisions haven’t been going to these meetings. They’ve sent the officers instead!
It is not just day-to-day services that are suffering because the system is broken. The absence of clear, accountable leadership has left the city lagging well behind its competitors. We have no Ken Livingstone, or indeed even a Boris Johnson, to speak up for Birmingham’s interests on the national or international stage, to bang the drum for our businesses and persuade investors to come and create jobs and wealth here. A city with an increasingly young population and a stubbornly high unemployment rate desperately needs a strong voice to secure its economic interests.
Of course, Birmingham’s problems will not be solved overnight by the election of a mayor. Deep seated problems, like the absence of any social mobility in some of our wards and the huge skills gap that keeps many of our citizens locked into unemployment and poverty, require a mammoth effort by many different agencies.
But what a mayor can bring to this is coherence and leadership. An elected mayor will be uniquely placed to take these agendas forward, as they will possess both a democratic mandate that other agencies lack and the opportunity to articulate a clear vision for the city’s future that others can understand and share.
Next year we have an opportunity to rid ourselves of a system that has held Birmingham back. It is a chance to renew the city’s tradition of bold leadership and ensure that Birmingham is ready to face the challenges of tomorrow. We need to do more than genuflect to Birmingham’s legacy as “the best governed city”. We must make it a reality once more.
Gisela Stuart has been the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston which covers the wards of Bartley Green, Edgbaston, Harborne and Quinton since 1997. An effective campaigner, she’s as happy exposing the flaws of the European Union as she is the council and what’s more – she gets the job done. Gisela can be found on Twitter at @giselastuart