April 2009 Archives
Now that the government has finally found enough money to allow the ÃÂ£600 million refurbishment of New Street Station and the Pallasades shopping centre to proceed it is time to stop pretending that this project will do very much to improve the passenger experience on trains running through Birmingham.
As Lord Adonis, the Transport Minister, has admitted, the hugely expensive makeover for New Street will not actually improve the capacity of the track and tunnels to cope with growing customer demand for more services.
Crucially, it will prove almost impossible to bring the next generation of high speed trains either to New Street or to Moor Street, according to Adonis.
It's the night of the living dead at Westminster, as former Cabinet ministers who served under Tony Blair line up to criticise the government.
Former Transport Secretary Stephen Byers criticised the pips-squeezing 50p tax rate, calling it an exercise in "political positioning and tactical manoeuvring than a principled, strategic approach to taxation and the raising of revenue".
Then David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, came out against ID cards - one of the most controversial issues facing Jacqui Smith, his successor at the Home Office.
Blunkers is calling instead for the introduction of biometric passports, which are effectively the same thing. But that won't stop opponents throwing his comments in the Government's face the next time Ministers try to justify spending ÃÂ£6 billion on ID cards.
And finally, Charles Clarke, another former Foreign Secretary, chimes in with his own criticisms of the Budget, claiming: "I don't think there's a coherent sense of strategy".
It's been said that the Budget has finally killed off New Labour. But the Blairites refuse to go away.
We report that Labour MPs in the West Midlands have rejected Gordon Brown's proposals to reform House of Commons allowances.
One Labour backbencher in Birmingham supported the proposals, with three expressing doubts. A number of Labour MPs in other parts of the West Midlands are also opposed to Mr Brown's plans.
The Prime Minister should be able to count on the support of MPs who are also ministers or whips, who face a choice of voting with the government or resigning. However, this would not be enough for him to win a vote on the issue without support from the Conservatives or Lib Dems.
Here are some of the views voiced by MPs in more detail:
Richard Burden (Lab Northfield) said: "I am uncomfortable with what is being proposed. Sir Christopher Kelly is taking a look at this issue.
"I think the public wants to see an outside view, rather than politicians doing it themselves."
Roger Godsiff (Lab Sparkbrook and Small Heath) said: "I think it is best that these issues are dealt with by an independent committee rather than elected Members."
Birmingham MP Lynne Jones (Lab Selly Oak) rejected proposals for an attendance fee and has set out her own proposals in a House of Commons motion.
Wolverhampton MP Rob Marris (Lab Wolverhampton South West) said: "The difficulty with the proposals now on the table is that they lack clarity. Secondly, Sir Chris Kelly, who is looking at this on behalf of Parliament, thinks that these proposals are premature."
Black Country MP David Winnick (Lab Walsall North) also expressed concern in the House of Commons last week, as he asked Harriet Harman, the leader of the House: "If the new proposal is put forward, does she accept that people are bound to think that Members are being paid extra money just for turning up to do our job?"
Tony Wright, Labour MP for Cannock, also signed an open letter to the Prime Minister last week warning that the Government's plans had "serious practical difficulties which need to be thought through".
As chair of the Public Administration Committee, Dr Wright is considered to be an influential backbencher, particularly on issues of constitutional reform and the operation of Parliament.
Khalid Mahmood (Lab Perry Barr) is one of few Labour backbenchers vocally supporting plans for an attendance allowance.
There can be no doubt that alarm bells are ringing loudly at Birmingham Council House, given the very real possibility that Warwickshire County Cricket Club's application for a ÃÂ£32 million makeover of its Edgbaston stadium will be rejected by the city planning committee.
You know things are serious when council strategic director of regeneration Clive Dutton emerges from the shadows to take control.
Dutton, who is as close to council leader Mike Whitby as it is possible to be, took the unusual step of emailing councillors and MPs to tell them the cricket club had submitted an amended application for Edgbaston scaling down proposals for hotels and leisure-based development.
He's already the Baron of Birmingham, but former CBI Chief Digby Jones is doing such a good job sticking the knife into the Government that the Tories think he deserves even more.
Lord Jones was given a House of Lords post by Gordon Brown when he briefly became a trade minister in the Labour administration.
But he's now a favourite with the Conservatives, as Hansard shows:
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal Con): "Is my hon. Friend aware that the former Labour Minister, Lord Digby Jones, said today that the Budget gave him no hope whatever about the future of British exporters and the British economy, and that it was a Budget without any kind of vision?
"Is that not an interesting comment from somebody who was sitting on the Labour Benches only a few weeks ago?"
[Shadow Chancellor] George Osborne: "It is a telling comment from a person who was appointed just days after the Prime Minister became Prime Minister.
"No doubt the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change [Ed Miliband] and his cronies, such as the Chief Secretary [Yvetter Cooper], plotted the appointment of Digby Jones for months.
"They thought it would be a brilliant appointment. I have to say that some Members, including me, were sceptical about whether he should really be Lord Digby Jones of Birmingham, but given how helpful he is being at the moment I think that he should indeed represent an entire city in the House of Lords."
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): "And Bromsgrove."
Mr Osborne: "Indeed. He can have a dukedom as far as I am concerned."
Class war has never been popular in this country. Despite the current antipathy towards rich and greedy bankers, I don't see that changing.
So Labour shouldn't feel too pleased with itself over the tax changes announced yesterday.
I write in today's Post that Labour hoped to place the Conservatives in a difficult position with the introduction of a 50p top tax rate for people earning more than ÃÂ£150,000.
George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, will inevitably be asked whether he plans to reverse the increase if the Tories gain power.
If he does, then he could be accused of helping the rich while the rest of us are struggling. But if he doesn't, he could face protests from Conservative MPs who oppose punitive tax rates for high earners - or, at least, this is what Labour hopes.
Most of today's papers have taken a similar line, seeing the new tax on high-earners as an attempt to draw up battle lines for the General Election, probably due next year.
It's possible that we've all got it wrong, and political calculations never entered the Chancellor's mind as he looked for ways to raise revenue the Treasury urgently needs.
The top tax rate will bring in ÃÂ£2.4 billion a year, according to Treasury estimates. Another ÃÂ£1.5 billion will come from withdrawing the personal allowance on earnings over ÃÂ£100,000, and ÃÂ£3.1 billion will come from restriction pension tax relief for high earners.
In total, people earning above ÃÂ£100,000 will pay an extra ÃÂ£7 billion a year into the Exchequer, if we accept the Treasury's estimates. It's not small change.
But I'm not convinced the public will be jumping for joy over this either. Hostility towards Fred the Shred hasn't translated into hostility against everyone who owns a Jaguar or a big house.
The trouble with taxing the rich is that it unsettles people who don't earn huge sums - and probably never will - but still fear they might be next.
After all, the median salary in this country (the best guide to what an "average" person earns) is about ÃÂ£19,600. But plenty of people earn significantly more - and are vaguely aware that they are better off than most.
Labour can't win by appealing only to its core vote. It needs the support of the middle classes and "Middle England" - many of whom really do live in the middle of England, making our region such an important electoral battleground.
The danger for Gordon Brown is that someone on 40 grand doesn't despise the people on higher salaries, but identifies with them instead.
Is it 'cos we are Brummies? That was the question raised by Birmingham's business leaders, as they accused the Government of showing bias against the West Midlands following the budget announcement.
But their claims prompted a major row with a leading Birmingham MP, who claimed the city did a lousy job of setting out its case - and needed to improve.
Perhaps it was always too good to be true. West Midlands councils claimed they had found a way finally to pay for the extension to the Black Country Metro, a transport scheme which has been on the drawing board for years.
In fact, they hoped to raise ÃÂ£1 billion for transport schemes, borrowing the cash and then paying off the loans from the extra cash which would pour into their coffers once the transport links helped the local economy expand.
And Mike Whitby, the leader of Birmingham City Council, was on the phone to Hazel Blears, the Local Government Secretary, as late as Tuesday evening - trying to convince her to give the project, known as a city region, the green light.
Alas, it was not to be. Alistair Darling confirmed during his Budget statement that the West Midlands proposal had been rejected - while similar plans drawn up by Leeds and Manchester had been approved.
Initial thoughts - doesn't seem great for the West Midlands.
The city region bid launched by Birmingham and neighbouring authorities has been rejected, although Treasury documents say "further work is also underway with partners in the West Midlands on their proposals."
These are proposals backed by business leaders including the Chamber of Commerce to improve training provision and public transport.
The Government invited councils to bid for city region status and I'm trying to get an explanation as to why proposals from Leeds and Manchester were accepted while the West Midlands scheme was not. Currently the Treasury are trying to claim it is a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government (even though it was announced by the Chancellor), so they're clearly not keen on giving a straight answer.
A second major issue is the scrappage scheme, which gives motorists a subsidy on new cars when they exchange old vehicles.
This has been introduced, but not in the way carmakers wanted - as they will have to pay half the cost themselves.
Few people could give a hoot about the process of local government because its such a boring subject, isn't it?
Well, yes, it is. But that only makes it easier for councils who want to play fast and loose with the democratic process to get away with it.
When the leader and cabinet system replaced the old committee structure, critics said this would put too much power in the hands of a few people.
In order to try to make sure there were some checks and balances, scrutiny committees were born.
Although scrutiny cannot overturn a cabinet decision, it can force the executive to think again.
The committees have powers to require council officials and cabinet members to attend meetings in order to be quizzed about the decisions they have made.
The Prime Minister has said he was "saddened" to hear of the death of Clement Freud.
I was surprised when the e-mail landed in my in-tray. After his words on the death of Jade Goody, I wonder if he's going to comment every time a celebrity pops their clogs.
Colleagues tell me I am too cynical and Sir Clement was a national treasure.
Am I the only person suffering from outrage overload following the latest bout of political sleaze?
We've had the rows over second homes and Jacqui Smith (Lab Redditch) claiming her husband's blue movies on expenses.
Over the past few days we've seen one of Gordon Brown's staff rightly condemned for plotting to spread unpleasant rumours about Conservative MPs.
Today, Ms Smith is in the spotlight again following the announcement that Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green will not be prosecuted for receiving leaks from the Home Office.
London's evening paper is reporting the news with a large picture of Ms Smith, the Home Secretary, and the headline "Shameful: Jacqui Smith slammed for Damian Green fiasco".
It seems to me to be a little over the top. The arrest of Mr Green was a farce for which the Metropolitan Police, the Commons speaker, Home Office officials and perhaps Ms Smith must share some of the blame.
But while I, and the Birmingham Post, have been very critical of her housing arrangements, it seems to me that in this particular case she can't be held responsible.
There's a big difference between approving suggestions that police should be asked to look into leaks from her department - which it seems she did - and deciding how they conduct their inquiries.
It can be tempting, in the current atmosphere, to lay as much blame on politicians as possible, but there's no point slamming them just for the sake of it.
Warwickshire County Cricket club's attempt to get planning permission for a ÃÂ£32 million refurbishment and expansion of the Edgbaston test match ground represents a text book example of how not to go about selling a controversial scheme to the local community.
All too often over the past year club officials have appeared completely removed from the fears of people living close to the ground, intent only on hammering home the message that preserving Birmingham's status as a test match venue, and the money this will trigger for the local economy, trumps all concerns about traffic, noise and the glare from the five huge floodlight towers that are being proposed.
Angry voices at last night's monthly meeting of Birmingham City Council's Tory group, as a backbench rebellion gathers pace.
I hear that pugnacious cabinet housing spokesman John Lines was shouted down over his plan to require firms bidding for a repairs contract to buy vans from ailing Washwood Heath firm LDV.
Birmingham City Council missed a trick by deciding to reveal the long-awaited design for the Centenary Square library on April 2.
If only the previous day had been chosen, we'd have understood it was meant to be an amusing practical joke.
I mean, why on earth lump six glass blocks of varying sizes on top of each other and then encase the bizarre edifice with a cage of steel circles?
You might, just might, get away with it on an isolated larger site, but next to the 1930s splendour of Baskerville House - it's going to be an architectural atrocity, a mistake of monumental proportions which could achieve the seemingly impossible by making us look back fondly at the brutalism of the existing Central Library and conclude that they really knew how to design public buildings in the 1960s.