Greater Manchester is now by far the most autonomous and powerful city outside London, it also boasts the biggest airport. Leeds is the biggest provincial hub for finance and professional services. Bristol is a powerhouse of high-tech manufacturing and creative industries.
Birmingham has its problems but it also has bags of potential. It will soon be the first provincial city to receive a high speed rail line, there are aspirations to build a modern rapid transit network in the city centre, and the airport is well placed to grow.
The city has two excellent universities – Aston Uni has the highest graduate employability outside London. It is still the nation’s manufacturing capital.
But potential, in itself, isn’t enough. A quick Google search will leave you knee deep in ‘strategy’ and ‘vision’ documents for the future of the city; some new, some from years gone by. What is required is not more of the above but somebody with the powers, democratic mandate, presence, and sheer force of will to actually secure radical reform.
The current focus on the cities and decentralisation, which even made it into this week’s budget, provides a once in a generation opportunity for Birmingham to radically change the way it does business.
The referendum on May 3 provides Brummies with a stark choice. Opting for a mayor, and then negotiating a strong city deal on the back of the switch, could be a watershed moment for the city. The other option is more of the same.
There is a major debate taking place in Birmingham about elected mayors, and the future of this great city. A new national poll from the Institute for Government shows that a clear lead for those in favour of having elected mayors (38 per cent are for and 25 per cent against) but also that there are still many who are undecided or don’t mind.
Liverpool has already taken the plunge. Their new mayor will have the power to establish “mayoral development corporations” giving them huge power to shape the development of their cities. If the mayor doesn’t deliver, or citizens don’t like what they see, they can boot them out.
Liverpool’s city deal also provides them with additional funding for schools. Given that less than half of children in Birmingham’s schools achieve the target grades and nearly one in five Brummies has no qualification at all, and the city can ill afford to pass up such an opportunity.
Further south, the Mayor of London has been using his profile and influence to persuade and cajole 2,000 high-flying Londoners to mentor young adults, help them make informed choices about qualifications and training and raise their aspirations. This is just the sort of boost Birmingham could use.
Your mayor could be given powers to shut down and reopen failing schools in order to improve the quality of education for the next generation . Switching to a mayor should allow it to secure its very own skills and apprenticeship hub, of the sort Manchester got in its city deal.
Birmingham should grab this opportunity for change with both hands. Michael Heseltine worries that, with Liverpool already committed to having a mayor, and Bristol looking set to vote yes, cities which stick with the status quo will increasingly find their voices drowned out by the demands of their better represented neighbours.
In the 19th century, Birmingham was famously described as the best governed city in the world. Very few would echo that sentiment today.
A Yes vote would guarantee a more powerful Birmingham; better able to invest in the transport and skills that will drive its future success.
A vote for the status quo will leave the city at a permanent disadvantage trying to compete with its more independent and autonomous neighbours.
Why should the second city settle for second best?