Without mayors, residents of Leeds and Birmingham have no say over who leads their city

Stranger danger: a leaflet distributed during Leeds' 2012 referendum. Image: Tom Forth.

Back in 2012, I was trying to convince anyone who’d listen that we should have an elected mayor in Leeds. The proposal was far from perfect but it seemed like an improvement on the status quo. I’d seen Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson representing London’s interests on the national stage, and I wanted some of the same for my city.

Instead of electing a local councillor to collect bins, fix swings, and fill grit boxes, I wanted to elect a mayor to tackle poverty, improve schools, and fix the city’s transport. At the very least I hoped that the position might become important enough to merit a page on Wikipedia (both Leeds’ current and previous council leaders are conspicuous by their absence).

The people of Leeds disagreed. They rejected the proposed elected mayor in 2012 in a referendum. Every other big city except Bristol did the same. Liverpool only got its mayor by not holding a public vote on it.

“Give Clegg a kicking” and “Don’t let London tell us what to do” were sentiments sold hard by the local Labour party. They were decent attack lines, but I don’t think that they were decisive. What actually won the debate for “No” was the line that “the current system is more democratic”. I heard it over and over again from every party in Leeds.


My friends in other cities say it was the same where they lived, and it was a really hard argument to counter. How could electing a distant mayor every five years be more democratic than electing a local councillor to represent your specific local views every year? More votes for more politicians certainly feels like more democracy.

Fast forward to today, and once again the loudest argument I’m hearing against the new type of mayors proposed for English city regions is, “The current system is more democratic”. Yet in the two cities where I spend most of my time, Leeds and Birmingham, it’s now very obvious that this isn’t the case.

Judith Blake is probably an excellent politician and a fine representative of her ward, but she was selected to lead Leeds City Council only after this year’s elections were finished. That makes her even less democratically elected as a leader than Gordon Brown. At least we all knew that he was coming after Blair.

Democracy is similarly absent in Birmingham. The long-serving leader Sir Albert Bore has stepped down, and his replacement will now be selected by the same Labour councillors who are rumoured to have pushed him out. The people of Birmingham will not get a say.

The political system we chose to retain is about to select leaders of two of England’s largest cities without consulting the nearly 2m people who they will lead. I’d love to see the people who argued that “the current system is more democratic” than directly-elected mayors to change their minds. If not, then I hope that they are at least a little embarrassed.

Tom Forth runs a software company called imactivate and is an associate at ODILeeds. He tweets as @thomasforth

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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