February 2009 Archives
An important anniversary in the recent political history of Birmingham occurs this year, but this is a distinctly low key landmark.
It will be 10 years to the day on May 4 that Sir Albert Bore, or plain old Albert as he was then, became leader of the city council Labour group.
And since Labour enjoyed a healthy majority then, Albert automatically became council leader - ending the five-year reign of Theresa Stewart.
Five years later, having miraculously survived annual attempts by ungrateful Labour councillors to topple him, Sir Albert was finally ousted by the one vote he couldn't do anything about - the 2004 city elections.
The West Midlands is to have a new business czar in the form of Sir Roy McNulty, former chair of the Civil Aviation Authority.
He has been appointed chair of Advantage West Midlands, the government quango with a ÃÂ£300 million budget which is responsible for supporting the region's economy.
But for how long will he be in the job? As the Birmingham Post reported earlier this month, Conservatives have announced that a Tory government would abolish bodies like Advantage West Midlands, which are known as regional development agencies.
The report has prompted some dissent - as did a story I wrote last year, during the Conservative conference, which predicted the announcement - from people who dispute that abolish is the right word.
The Tory proposal has two parts. First, they will remove the powers of regional development agency, except those directly related to economic development. The agencies will no longer play a role in housing or planning, for example.
Clearly, this does not mean they will be abolished.
But the second part of the Tory proposal is to invite councils to take over the remaining responsibility - economic development - and transfer it to new organisations they create themselves, called enterprise partnerships.
These will cover boundaries determined by local authorities, instead of huge regions such as the West Midlands. They will be answerable to local councils, not Ministers in London. And they will spend the money currently spent by regional development agencies.
Whatever else comes out of David Cameron's decision to hold referendums on creating elected mayors in Britain's big cities, it has certainly prompted debate about reform of local government.
Mr Cameron, the Conservative leader, Hazel Blears, Labour's Local Government Secretary, and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, have all written articles for the Post on the topic this week.
But in some ways, the Tories are late to the ball. Labour has been talking about creating a mayor for cities like Birmingham for donkey's years.
The difference is that the government proposal has two stages. First, campaigners face the difficult task of convincing thousands of people to sign a petition saying they want a referendum. After that, the actual ballot takes place.
Mr Cameron's policy is to sweep away the first stage, and simply order 12 major cities to hold votes on whether to have a mayor, all on the same day. The referenda will probably coincide with local or European elections.
At least one Labour figure is furious that Mr Cameron has been allowed to steal the spotlight. Philip Collins, who was once Tony Blair's speechwriter, complained that the Tories had "stepped in" to snatch Labour's ideas while the Government stayed silent.
Based on his bad-tempered article in The Times, Mr Collins seems to be one of those Blairites who are still furious that their man isn't in charge any more.
But he does have a point. This was once a Labour policy, which the Conservatives have somehow taken the lead on.
Which group of bigots ought to be allowed in the country?
Loopy anti-gay crusaders the Westboro Baptist Church, the team behind the "god hates fags" and "god hates the world" websites, are set to travel to Basingstoke - of all places - to protest outside the performance of a play.
The group - made infamous through TV programmes with Louis Theroux and Keith Allen, do a good line in frankly unhinged anti-gay bile, and are best known for picking high profile events like funerals in the US to try to get attention for their insane views - often inviting amusing counter-protests.
Almost every Tory of any importance in the West Midlands gathered in Coventry on February 17 to hear party leader David Cameron speak passionately about why the largest English cities should be run by directly-elected mayors.
But there was one rather obvious absentee.
Mike Whitby, the Conservative leader of Birmingham City Council, Britain's largest local authority some 20 miles down the A45, was not there.
David Cameron has always been a big fan of mayors, and at long last the Conservatives have unveiled their plans to encourage big cities like Birmingham and Coventry to develop their own elected leaders.
It's possible to hold a referendum on introducing a directly elected mayor already, but only if you manage to get thousands of people to sign a petition asking for one.
The Tories are planning to scrap the need for a petition. They'll simply order 12 large cities to hold referenda.
They're promoting this as an opportunity to let cities have their own Boris (or, presumably, their own Ken Livingstone). But Birmingham already has one, in the shape of council leader Mike Whitby, and he's always fiercely opposed a mayor.
I don't know how the Conservatives are planning to spin this, but there's no getting away from the fact that their flagship measure to reform local government is opposed by the Tory leader of Britain's largest local council.
However, it's also worth noting that in almost every other respect, Mr Cameron's plans coincide with Coun Whitby's long-running campaign for greater freedom for local authorities.
Whether run by a mayor or a council leader, Birmingham would be free to set its own priorities instead of following orders from London, to borrow cash for investment (such as new transport services), and to keep the extra business rates it collects if it manages to entice employers to the area.
It would also get its hands on a good chunk of the ÃÂ£300 million currently spent by Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency.
This would still be spent on economic development, and probably by a development agency of some kind. But while AWM is accountable to Whitehall, any new body would be created and overseen by local councils.
Just attended a briefing with Tony McNulty, the employment minister, folliwing today's new figures (the number of claimants in the West Midlands is up to 142,600, up by 47,800 in a year).
There is some good news, according to the Government, in that the number of unemployed people who are finding jobs is also holding up. In other words, businesses may be laying staff off but job centres are still sucessfuly finding work for people.
But Ministers are wary of saying anything positive at the moment, for fear they will be portrayed as modern-day Mary Antoinettes. Mr McNulty repeated two or three times "I'm NOT saying green shoots, I'm NOT saying light at the end of the tunnel", to make sure hacks didn't get the wrong idea.
The row over Jacqui Smith's expenses is fading away.
The Home Secretary and Worcestershire MP has been claiming expenses of up to ÃÂ£22,000 for the cost of a "second home" - the one her husband and children live in, in her Redditch constituency - because she lodges in her sister's spare room when she is staying in London.
She's not going to get into trouble for this. Ms Smith was right when she said: "I have abided by the rules. Everything I have done is above board."
Because the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is not going to find her guilty of anything, and isn't likely even to investigate, interest in the Westminster village is fading.
But I wonder if the Westminster elite is out of touch with the rest of the country.
Voters may not think it's okay because it's within the rules. They may conclude instead that the rules are dumb.
John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP for Yardley, has likened British National Party supporters who are planning a protest in Birmingham city centre as the "heirs of Hitler parading in Victoria Square".
In the very next breath, or more likely without even pausing for breath, Mr Hemming said he hoped a counter-demonstration against "racial and religious hatred" planned by a coalition of left-wing supporters would be peaceful.
The MP's views are doubtless sincerely held, and his distaste for the far-right BNP and their thinly disguised policies of repatriation for ethnic minorities, is shared by me and, I suspect, by most people in Birmingham and in this country.
But isn't it likely that Mr Hemming and his supporters, with their casual use of inflammatory language, risk ensuring that when right meets left on the streets of Birmingham the result will be anything other than peaceful? Aren't they simply preparing the ground for a dust-up?
There was no hiding the slightest smirk of self-satisfaction on the face of the ticket inspector as our train thundered through the Swiss Alps.
"You have lots of snow in England, I believe? And nothing works, yes?"
Oh, yes. Nothing works when the snow comes down in England.
I'd become a bit blase about snow by the end of a skiing break in Kandersteg, about 40 miles south-east of Berne in the Berenese Oberland.
One of the coldest winters for years had left the snow pile up six feet high on either side of the roads, but that didn't seem to stop the traffic, or trains, which ran with obsessive Swiss punctuality.