The Birmingham hustings should be the first time in my 30 years in Birmingham where prospective Leaders are to be exposed to questions from the public. This should be an exciting time for Birmingham and I very much welcome this.
The decision by Sir Albert Bore to stand down from the leadership of the Labour Group and hence the Leader of the Council, is a watermark for our city. Sir Albert has led many of the major decisions, which have shaped our city over the past three decades – the NEC expansion, the ICC, the city centre revitalisation – all of which have underpinned the renaissance of our city.
But as always, it is time for a fresh approach. Perhaps some opportunities were not understood or grasped as firmly as they might have been. And of course Kerslake has thrown the spotlight on city leadership in a way, which has not been seen before.
So it is understandable that for the first time in the 30 years I have lived in the city, that there appears to be a wider, and greater interest in who our new “Leader” should and might be. What values will that person hold dear. What principles drive them to be Leader. And what agendas will they pursue.
Now I have to declare a large measure of self interest for two reasons
- Firstly, I worked for the Council since 1985 until I left in 2014. Latterly I was responsible for developing the city’s green agenda, and with Sir Albert’s support set up the Green Commission and developed a comprehensive Carbon Action Plan.
- Secondly, I remain intensely frustrated at the lack of awareness amongst a wide range of decision makers at both political and senior officer level, of the need for a spatially driven urban vision for the city. Indeed a vision, which embraces fully the whole conurbation, not just narrow city council self interests.
So I was extremely pleased that @NewsinBrum and @ImpactHub together set up the Leadership hustings for the 16th November. I will be there.
I have already posted a couple of questions on twitter. But I felt it would be helpful to the leadership candidates and citizens if I expanded on these.
- what is their urban vision for Birmingham & how will they shake up our out-dated planning system and engage with citizens?Anyone interested in the future of our city can’t fail to notice the supreme absence of any urban vision for Birmingham. While other cities have forged ahead with metro systems which help to integrate their urban areas, Birmingham appears to be satisfied with a mile and half extension from Snow Hill! It has taken decades of argument to get this far.
But what is also appalling in my view is the way in which Birmingham, and especialy some senior officers have turned their back on half of the conurbation – namely the Black Country. This has resulted in a total lack of a coherent urban planning framework for a conurbation of nearly 2.5 million people.
Currently city planners are lauded for their exemplary work in bringing forward major development schemes certainly in the city centre. I very firmly support major investment in projects. But what I cannot see is any form of urban strategic and spatial planning. The Birmingham Development Plan which has still not been approved after some 15 years of work at least, is not a strategic document. It is designed to safeguard the Council from developers. At least the Black Country Plan was approved in 2011 and is joint between the four Black Country authorities!
For example major opportunities to have a spatial plan include Northfield where the bypass should have opened up a proper discussion about the economic role of the Northfield shopping centre and its role as an economic centre, but has it? And also to cope with the increased population the plans for the Sutton Coldfield extension have yet to appear, and certainly in my view should have put public transport investment, and sustainable development at its core.
In both cases I am yet to be convinced. That is why I believe it is absolutely vital that the new #BrumLeader should seek outside involvement of urban planners who know what creating and building a sustainable conurbation would do for us.
I would certainly like to see a new form of dialogue and cooperation between Birmingham and the Black Country which embraces not just a transport and mobility vision, but also a very clear urban spatial vision which connects Dudley with Birmingham, Walsall and Wolverhampton, etc. Currently, there is no joint spatial plan.
It is time to do away with separate plans and join them up. Indeed while I hate to say it, that is exactly what Brandon Lewis, the Planning Minister wanted just this last week, when he said that more councils should “share planning services” . While the underlying rationale he might have for this is cost-cutting, in my view it is about time that the planners of Birmingham and Black Country were in full collaboration, under new leadership.
- What is their commitment to driving forward Birmingham’s green low carbon agenda to create jobs and investment for the future?Of course I have a vested interest in this question!
But I do believe that when Birmingham citizens and business are spending somewhere between £1.5 & 2bn each year on their energy then something is not correct.
And also if we look at air quality in the city and conurbation, we are only just keeping within the limits of what is best for us. And the key contributor of poor air quality is transport overall (and that is when some car manufactures – eg Volkswagen – have mislead many over the real emissions data in their vehicles).
Being a green city matters a great deal.
Good investors are interested in the quality of life of the city they invest in. Being a green city is akin to being a city, which has a rich cultural life. It enriches lives for all. And as the world increasingly needs to be more restrained in its use of non-renewable materials and energy, then cities ,which respond and show leadership will be the winner.
That is where the work of the city’s Green Commission and its partners in business, universities and society is so vital. The new #BrumLeader should see that being a leading green city matters.
The need to build efficient energy systems in the city, to build publish transport across the conurbation, to encourage and develop resource efficient business innovators and producers, all matter. That way lies jobs for Birmingham and the Black Country
Communication is vital
It is also clear that a new #BrumLeader will have to improve communications. There is a very interesting piece by @UrbanPivot about the role of social media in political life and it is interesting to see how some of the #BrumLeader candidates are already using social media more actively than any other previous Leader of the Council.
But vitally important in my view is how the new #BrumLeader makes friends with our Black Country friends. Our futures are inextricably linked together, just as our past has been. Breaking down the insularity of Birmingham, not just at political level, but especially amongst some of our senior officers is absolutely essential.
Birmingham and the Black Country are conjoined at the hip and have behaved like fractious twins for far too long. This has to end, and it is in the gift of a new #BrumLeader to turn the Council round and face outward to the west.
The new Leader will have to open up not just to his Black Country friends, but also cajole a number of senior officers within the Council itself to properly engage with the future of our conurbation. For example the total absence of a joint urban spatial planning framework, as I have mentioned several times, is a disgrace. Without that we are left in the realms of half-hearted officer led duties to cooperate discussions. That is not the way for our conurbation to plan for HS2, a transport network, for new economic zones, for housing etc.
My final comment relates to the emergence of a new planning vision. It is interesting to see the proposals put forward by Andrew Mitchell MP for the break up of the Council into 10 “boroughs” – could this provide an impetus for a more open urban spatial plan?
I do hope this is an opportunity at last to have a fresh start!