Birmingham at the crossroads

Philip HuntLord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is Labour’s Deputy Leader in the House of Lords

It was no co-incidence that Ed Miliband kicked off Labour’s local election campaign in Birmingham. Always a barometer of national opinion, the elections in Britain’s second city promise to be doubly important as they are being held side by side with a referendum to decide whether the City wants to have an elected Mayor.

The Labour Leader’s strong speech was a huge endorsement for the Labour Party in Birmingham. It is widely hoped that after a long period of dismal control by a Tory/Lib Dem coalition, Labour will come back strongly with an overall majority.

This is certainly needed. The City has taken a big blow over the recession with Birmingham having one of the highest unemployment rates with 51,000 people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. In fact they are the fourth worst figures in the country behind Hull, Wolverhampton and Hartlepool.

Little wonder, then, that West Midlands business leaders have urged the Government to encourage banks to lend to industry and warned they could not create jobs without state support. Tragically, the demise of Advantage West Midlands, the highly effective regional development agency, has robbed the City of much needed leverage.

Ed Miliband reminded his audience that if Labour were in Government, we would conquer long-term youth unemployment and by taxing bank bonuses guarantee 100,000 unemployed young people real jobs.

Labour has produced a highly imaginative vision of how it wants to take Birmingham forward. A key emphasis will be on increasing employment through new economic growth zones and as a hub for advanced motor manufacturing and low carbon engineering.

Labour also wants to promote the Digbeth area of the City for young entrepreneurs in the digital, creative and design industries. Making Birmingham a safer City is another theme. Emphasis is given to encouraging the police to protect neighbourhood policing and creating a Victims Champion to stand up for the rights of those affected by crime.

Housing is at the heart of Labour’s manifesto. Birmingham will need to build about 70,000 homes for rent or buy by the mid twenties to meet projected population growth. Already over 26,000 people are on the Council’s waiting list with homelessness on the rise.

An interesting part of Labour’s offer to the electorate has been to promote health and well being. This very much chimed with Ed Miliband’s promise that Labour Councils would act as the last line of defence against the fragmentation of the NHS.

The local elections will take place alongside the enforced mayoral referendum. In the last decade, the City has been pretty uninterested in elected Mayors. But there are signs of change. Birmingham has taken a big hit in the last few years and dynamic leadership is urgently required.

The announcement that Liam Byrne MP is to stand for election promises to spice up a campaign already graced by Gisela Stuart, the Edgbaston MP.

Whatever the outcome of the mayoralty decision, Birmingham stands at the crossroads.  More years of the Tory led administration promise further stagnation and decline. In contrast Labour offers an exciting vision of a City ready to advance once more.

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