Julia Higginbottom Speech from Brum Debate event 15/4/2012
Welcome to the beautiful and hallowed place of the Town Hall Birmingham, a fitting place to have this debate.
The Town Hall opened in 1834, when Birmingham was at the forefront of the protests for national democratic reform, It was an important symbol for the City of Birmingham and was the place where local government met until the Council House opened in the 1870s. Since then it has been a centre for debate with politicians and prime misters such as Joseph Chamberlain, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Clement Atlee, Neil Kinnock and Margaret Thatcher all speaking here in this hall.
And whilst writing this speech I have thought a lot about how I ended up here and who I am, to be standing here on this hallowed stage, asking YOU to imagine a future under an elected Mayor, asking YOU to change the way we govern our city?.
And my story is relevant as it is the typical story of most Birmingham residents. I am a 40-year-old mum of 2 and small family business owner.. My children have been schooled here, and my business has flourished here. My business like most businesses has it ups and downs and like most suffers from a lack of market opportunities, skills and finance. I have been frustrated as the costs of running my business are escalating whilst our market shrinks, shifts or is being overregulated, with little sense of where we fit into city’s plan or even a sense of where we can get help and be supported or even valued by the city.
I work in digital media and received wisdom is that we should have followed the talent drain to London, Manchester or Bristol because the job offer and quality of life are seen as more vibrant and exciting.
So why didn’t I? Instead I did the opposite: I have worked and lived in Birmingham for 14 years, moving here from Bromsgrove to Balsall Heath. This move has really inspired me, through connecting with the amazing stories that Brum doesn’t tell easily. We live in a well established community that is caring, complex, diverse and troubled and the inspirational people I have met and the stories I have heard have somehow led me to this grassroots, non –partisan campaign that resonates with the civic mindedness of this great City.
Joseph Chamberlain’ story is my inspiration in this..He became mayor of Birmingham at the age of 37. He was not what would now be called a career politician. He had spent his early life running family businesses – trading in ironware and shoes. But his experiences equipped him well for civic life. After just three years as mayor, he was able to boast quoting Augustus that he had left his city “parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas and watered and improved.”
His influence is still evident today, from the parks that jewel the city, to the fine architecture of the buildings on Corporation Street and the University. And his legacy is more than physical: he’s become a symbol of what good local government can achieve, and inspired generations of people who believe in public service in their city. This belief is echoed daily by the councillors working in our communities who too have chosen this path of public service and for this they should be nurtured and empowered. Chamberlain represented a particular brand of leadership that we need again, to inspire in this city today and in the future. He was an individual who assumed the captaincy and accountability of this city, exercised broad powers, and set a clear personal vision. The Yes to Mayor Campaign believes this vision has been lost and that an Elected Mayor will bring a new vision and visibility to the city, and can help elected councillors and us, the citizens of this city to become braver, stronger more cohesive.
Today, the great challenge before us is one of economic growth, jobs and sustainability. The battle for Britain’s prosperity will be won or lost in our cities. It is a challenge on a global scale. Birmingham, whilst being the second largest city economy in the United Kingdom, is only the 71st largest in the world. The world’s economic power is shifting from West to East, North to South. Where, when it comes to competing for the brightest employees and the best investment, you don’t just have to compete with Bristol, but Brasilia too. Our cities have great strengths and a proud history, but they need to fight harder than ever to be heard in world that is changing. Vigorous local leadership is becoming more important as each new challenge emerges.
The Minister for Cities Greg Clark, said this when he came to Birmingham:
“It is self evident that each of our cities is distinct and unique. Bristol and Newcastle, Manchester and Leicester, they all have different ambitions, different assets. No team of ministers or officials in London – no matter how bright or well-intentioned – can devise one set of solutions that fit these very different circumstances. To achieve their ambitions, to fulfil their potential, cities need to take charge of their own destinies. The drive must come from within, not without.
Where we can see strong leadership, complemented by clear accountability to local people, we in central Government are ready to help cities do things their way. Our great cities should not be run as branch offices of central Government. This may turn the established order on its head, but it’s time that Whitehall knew its place. Let Birmingham be Birmingham”.
After 18months of talking to and negotiating with many about this I believe that the Localism Act and those in government genuinely want to begin devolution in England, and are ready to give executive powers including tax raising, budget controlling and infrastructure to the cities. Powers that are right and necessary to solve each city’s needs, letting us have the increased freedoms we need, tailored to our individual circumstances. We can all contribute to defining what these powers should/could be; leading to a more open and transparent governance of our city.
And you might reasonably ask why not just give those powers to the existing Council model. You could indeed do that, but for me it comes down to this vital difference:
Local leadership can come in many forms. Look at the council producing plans for the city centre, securing improvements to New Street Station, and getting the new library underway. The new Local Enterprise Partnership, (whilst not yet really hitting it’s stride like other LEPs) did secure the involvement of Andy Street – the MD of John Lewis – one of Britain’s most outstanding business leaders in one of Britain’s most admired companies. So we have some big shiny baubles highlighting the City. But how is this addressing the structural unemployment, the riots and severe deprivation in parts of our community. How do we solve those less sexy, bauble poor, problems? Will we end up redeveloping the City to the extent we push out more socially deprived Brummies into at best forgotten corners or at worst ghettos?
And how about the perception of the council itself and its’ staff, seen by many as not such a great place to do civic business with and isn’t even in the top 100 places to work in the UK . Should it not have that aspiration for it’s staff and clients, us Brummies.
The Big City plan is a “Masterplan” with little evidence of where we the residents fit into it. It imagines a future of redeveloped splendour but has no room for the barnacles of social exclusion and community disintegration and no cohesive plans of what to do with them. It makes the centre strong but forgets the power of the communities outside the ring road and fails to invest in them, their infrastructure and their leadership.
Some forms of leadership are better suited than others in helping cities reach their full potential. The experience, both in this country and abroad, suggests that the leadership model with the greatest promise of all is the elected mayor.
Research undertaken on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2005 found that the democratic mandate provided by directly elected mayors has “provided a basis for a stronger, more proactive style of leadership than other models.”The world’s great cities have mayors who lead for their city on the national and international stage, attracting investment and jobs. Look at the cities that Birmingham is twinned with: Chicago, Frankfurt, Lyon, Milan and my birth town of Johannesburg. All led by an executive mayor.
I believe that mayors can help all us Brummies achieve our full potential too.
You may see this as rhetoric, however:
- Mayors have clout – a personal mandate to speak truth to central Government, to argue for the interests of those they represent.
- Mayors are visible – with a profile that makes them natural ambassadors for their cities, especially when it comes to attracting investment as well as visible leaders to their communities.
- And with a four-year term, mayors have the space to think for the long term, to make tough strategic decisions, to get public and private sectors working together effectively.
In short, I believe that mayors have the greatest potential of any leadership model. To those who worry that these proposals represent an imposition on communities – I would say that, on the contrary, referendums give people a chance to look at the evidence and decide for themselves. Some will say that our reach for awareness has not succeeded far enough but we have tried hard to engage and will continue to do more to referendum day and beyond,. All we are hoping to do is inspire the debate…and enable the citizens of Birmingham to engage with the governance of their own City.
With one of the youngest populations in Birmingham, we are looking too at what a Youth Mayor could do to energise and engage young people within this process.
And if we say Yes, The new mayor should be in place sooner rather than later to get on with the job, with a strong public mandate and a dialogue started before they take office. We, as a grassroots campaign have been able to influence that this process and the conversation needs to continue – and make this a day that we hope will be a landmark in the shift of powers and influence from Whitehall to our communities.
In the end I believe Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute, to making something extraordinary happen. A directly elected Mayor chosen by a majority of Brummies with a clear manifesto and mandate could ignite our inner potential. It isn’t a quick fix and certainly on it’s own won’t be the great remedy for all ills that some might offer. It instead offers us the once in a generation opportunity to show that we need our voice to be heard, to start a process that may need to go further or be re evaluated from time to time. More importantly than that if we don’t get something approaching this kind of change, I believe we will continue to fail to retain our skilled staff, attract investment and new workers, continue to disenfranchise young people within our community and more importantly fail to empower our citizens to own their choices and their right to a high quality of life. There is much to praise about what Birmingham and Brummies, new and old have achieved and we have a solid foundation with a plentiful civic resource in our residents to build on.
And as someone who found themselves on this stage because like so many others I care about this City, I believe that empowering others to interact and engage with the governance of our City is the core of this Campaign.
And so I ask you to ask not only What a Mayor could do for you, but also what WE Brummies could do with and for a Mayor? Now it’s over to you. This May, you will have the chance to have your say. Now is the time to seriously weigh up what a mayor can do for your city, and so I welcome today’s debate as just such an opportunity.