What does the Police & Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands actually do?

Bobbies on the beat in Foxton Road, Birmingham, in 2007. Image: Getty

At 6pm on Thursday 21 August 2014, I walked to my local polling station, a small primary school, to vote in the West Midlands Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC) by-election. When I entered the school’s hall the two poll clerks looked at me in surprise: one put down their book; the other told me I was the first person to cast their ballot there that day.

This was typical of the election’s low turnout: 10.41 per cent across the West Midlands Conurbation, which has a population of just under 2m. I heard of at least one polling station in Birmingham that received zero visitors all day. However, of those who voted, over half chose to elect Labour’s David Jamieson, who was re-elected in a landslide victory on 5 May 2016.

The 2014 by-election was called shortly after the sudden death of Bob Jones. Once David became the Labour candidate, he pledged to improve road safety by reactivating speed cameras; he promised to increase neighbourhood policing by hiring more police officers. David was previously the MP for Plymouth Devonport for 13 years, then a councillor in Solihull for four. He’s affable on the phone, despite us speaking the evening after the funeral of his friend, Darren Cooper, the former leader of Sandwell Council.

He tells me every PCC’s main responsibilities are threefold: to write a strategic plan for police priorities in the area; to hold the chief constable to account; to engage with the public: translating what they want from the police into the force itself.


Listening to and being accountable to voters are the aspects most similar to being an MP or councillor, as well as needing to utilise all media to keep the public aware of what you’re doing. One significant difference is the West Midlands PCCs being solely responsible for a budget of £540m. Even as a junior minister, David explains, you have very little say in how budgets are spent, but this role requires him to oversee large amounts with relatively few barriers. For this, the West Midlands PCC is paid £100,000 a year, compared to the £74,000 basic salary of an MP.

The PCC role itself is often seen as vague, leading some to mould the job to suit their ideologies. Like any other PCC, David is responsible for dismissing and hiring chief constables, but he also wants the public to judge how well he holds the police to account. To achieve this, he created a cross-party board, which acts like a select committee and cross-examines the chief constable’s reports every month; this is streamed publically via live webcast. As far as David is aware, no other PCC has done this.

It’s also his intention to integrate the work of the police with other aspects of West Midlands politics, like the economic agenda; “High levels of employment and aspiration,” David says, “draw people, particularly young men, away from crime”. He believes in creating a healthy economic environment, which will manifest itself in a healthier social environment.

Looking at the other PCCs, David says, “None have done wildly stupid things”, but concedes, “one or two have made a mess”. The biggest challenge for any of them, he states, is overcoming the huge size of their constituencies and maintaining contact with their electors. This is made harder by the shifting dynamics of such large areas and the variety of communities one person has to represent.

In terms of fighting crime, David believes organised crime and radicalisation are major problems for any PCC, but he says the biggest issue facing us all is that of cyber crime, which requires greater international cooperative, as the criminals are often abroad. As a result of this, he supported remaining in the European Union. He gives the example of a West Midlands chief and a Spanish counterpart leading Europe in tackling gun crime. A vote to leave means that the level of cooperation we currently have, such as European arrest warrants could be lost, and trying to combat these criminals would be, “endlessly more difficult”.

As part of further devolution to city regions, in 2017 there will be an election for a West Midlands metro mayor, who will cover Birmingham, the Black Country, Coventry, and several smaller towns on the outskirts of these cities. There are reports that the metro mayor will absorb the PCC’s role. This would mean that in 2017, some of these cities would have voted four times in five years for the political head of the second largest police force in the country.

However, David says whoever does get elected is more likely to launch a joint bid with the him, transforming the PCC role into that of a deputy mayor, who would retain power over police and perhaps even incorporate the fire service. This will only happen, David stresses, if we elect a strong mayor who can deliver a plan the central government can trust, and even then it won’t be discussed until 2018.

I ask him if he honestly believes anyone other than Labour could win the metro mayor election and he says, tactfully, that anyone who gets complacent about their election tends to lose their seat. He’s applied this thinking to all of his elections; even those to his old safe seat in Plymouth, where he had a 19,000 majority, but says he always fought it like a marginal.

Before interviewing him, I met David on the campaign trail, where he joined with my local Labour candidate for Birmingham City Council in speaking with voters. His brother, a former Labour councillor, ran against Labour in the ward, as the Green Party candidate. “Labour was too successful,” David laughs, “he fights elections to lose”.

Our time is running out, so I ask him about his beginnings in politics. In 1963, at the end of a long period of Tory government, David, aged 16, saw the state of housing in the West Midlands was still suffering after the war, with widespread slums. There were many children around whose parents worked, but didn’t have shoes as they walked to school. David thought there had to be something better. At the same time, a cousin was the first child born in the family after the NHS, which meant that baby was the first in the family not to impoverish them due to doctor, hospital and midwife fees.

Fifty three years later, David says, “We’ve got to refresh ourselves, and start talking about the things the public are talking about again”. He feels the last Labour government did great things in health and education, but didn’t get it right on housing, something that needs to be addressed now. “We started talking in a way that politicians talk with each other, but not in a way most people speak”, which created distance with the public; he criticises himself for this too.

Ultimately, he feels, “We need to find better ways of getting the message out there”. He lives in Solihull, a wealthy suburb of Birmingham where the Tories have a large majority. However, Labour Party membership there has more than tripled. This gives him hope Labour can do better: that the party can speak with more of electorate than it did in 2015. Achieving that will require all factions of the parliamentary Labour Party to put their differences aside – and work together with the membership.

This article is part of our Midlands Engine series. Click here for more

It's an edited version of an article that appeared on our sister site New Statesman in May.

 
 
 
 

Ducks and the City: how birds thrive in urban spaces

A mandarin duck, possibly a distant relative of New York’s Hot Duck. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

New York may be well known one of the most diverse, cosmopolitan places on Earth, but the arrival of one East Asian migrant in October 2018 still managed to surprise and delight the city. One lonely male mandarin duck – a gorgeous rust-red duck streaked with white and blue, native to Japan, Korea and East China – somehow found its way to Central Park and settled down on one of the ponds among the mallards and wood ducks to become the media sensation “Hot Duck”. Although not strictly wild in the birdspotting sense as it likely escaped from someone’s collection, the duck lives as free as, well, a bird among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

A few months later, the mandarin’s native territory was graced by a rare visitor of its own when a European robin ended up in the heart of Beijing. Having shown up just when Britain was falling deeper into political crisis, Chinese birdspotters nicknamed it “Brexit refugee” and raced in from across the country to see what Brits would probably consider an incredibly ordinary bird.

A rash of unusual birds have hit the headlines after landing in cities lately – other recent examples include Melbourne’s “Goth Duck” (a tufted duck, a mainly northern European species never before seen in Australia) and the eagle owl that divebombed bald men in Exeter – but when they do, it’s always their rarity that makes them newsworthy, along with the incongruity of seeing a beautiful wild animal among concrete and litter. Normally cities aren’t home to anything more interesting than a dirty pigeon or a bloodthirsty seagull.

Right?

Moving in

Popular myth says London’s first ring-necked parakeets were released in Carnaby Street by Jimi Hendrix. It’s probably not true, but it’s one hell of a story. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor was any other city. Thousands of years ago, wild birds discovered new opportunities on the edges of the first villages. Today the house sparrow is ubiquitous in just about every urban area in the world, but before the first house was built it lived in the dry grasslands of the Middle East, picking seeds out of the sandy soil. Then humans came along and started farming wheat; and whenever a grain fell from a mill or blew from a market stand, a sparrow was there to pick it up. As the technology of farming spread around the world, sparrows came along, too.

Other birds didn’t come by choice but were dragged in by humans. Thousands of rock doves, plump grey-striped birds that nest on cliffs, were caged up and brought into the new cities for their eggs, meat and uncanny ability to find their way home. Naturally, a few of these escaped, but quickly discovered that the walls of buildings were just as good for nesting as natural cliffs. The familiar pigeon was born.

More recently, many species of ducks and geese found a home in cities for the same reason, as have pets-gone-wild like the Indian ring-necked parakeets that brighten up London’s parks and the Javan mynas that chatter in Singapore’s streets.

Bohemian waxwings mainly live in the forests of Scandinavia, but in cold winters they will fly across the sea to British parks and gardens to feast on garden berries. No prizes for guessing where this one is. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

As cities have changed, so too have the birds that lived there. Back when most meat was butchered in shops and markets, piles of skin and bone attracted huge flocks of scavengers like ravens and red kites. Now city streets are mostly free of scrap meat thanks to bin lorries, supermarkets and industrial meat processing; both species fled into the countryside, where they found themselves persecuted by farmers and gamekeepers, the red kite almost to the point of extinction. Now both birds are making a slow comeback.

On the other hand, parks and gardens have lured new species out of the woods and into the town with their sweet berry bushes and seed-filled bird feeders. Blue tits – tiny birds that in the forest prefer to pick spiders off oak trees – adapted especially well to garden life: in the days of milk rounds, the birds learned how to peck open bottle caps and sip at the cream inside. The birds’ behaviour has recently changed again because of the rise of supermarkets and the fall of dairy delivery, and it certainly won’t be the last time.

What do city birds think of us?

Herring gulls are as happy in a Latvian bus station as they are on a windswept beach. Happier, maybe. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

If you walk in a forest you might well find yourself absolutely surrounded by bird song but unable to see where it’s coming from. Birds are shy and, unless they grew up on a desert island, they will fly away and hide at the slightest hint of a threat. They almost behave like programmed characters from a video game – they draw an imaginary circle around themselves (known as the “flight zone”) and if anyone enters that circle, they flee.

Urban birds consistently have a much smaller flight zone and will tend to let humans get much closer to them; and the longer a species has been urbanised, the more this radius shrinks. In the most extreme instance, urban birds will hop right up to someone who might feed them and even land on their hand. (In one of the best birding moments of my life, a parakeet in Hyde Park snatched a peanut from a tourist then landed right on my shoulder to eat it, staying there long enough to pose for a selfie).

If one bird invades another’s territory, things can get messy. Here, two magpies chase off a buzzard as its partner watches. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Then again, not all birds are that friendly. Many are very territorial, especially in the nesting season. Even medium-sized birds like vicious Australian magpies can cause eye injuries to people passing their nests; really big birds like swans can seriously injure people who get too close. Others, like the larger species of gulls, are just greedy and will attack people to steal their food.

Most birds aren’t quite that bold, but living close to humans has still affected their behaviour. Many species of birds are very intelligent – European magpies might be the cleverest non-mammal on the planet – and they’ve worked out how many of the systems of the city work. Pigeons can hop on-board trains for a lazier way to travel between feeding spots. Seagulls understand how to open automatic doors in order to raid branches of Greggs. Crows use passing cars to crack tough nuts, and will even wait at traffic lights to swoop in when the cars stop.

What do we make of city birds?

The robin was voted Britain’s favourite bird in a recent poll, which just goes to show what being small, cute and surprisingly aggressive can do for you. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although we share our cities with a whole menagerie of wildlife, most of it is either shy and nocturnal, or prefers the dark, dirty places where humans rarely venture. Birds by contrast are inescapable – on any day on any city street you can expect to at least see a few pigeons flying overhead, or hear something singing from a nearby bush. For some people, this constant awareness has morphed into affection; for others, jealousy at sharing urban spaces with other species.


Even setting aside the risk of attack, birds can come into conflict with humans. Their droppings are not only unpleasant, but they can damage buildings and cause nasty lung diseases. Not every bird has a beautiful song either – a great tit squeaking away outside your bedroom window at 5am is bad enough, but spare a thought for the Australians who have kookaburras scream-laughing on their balconies. If waking you up wasn’t antisocial enough, big birds like herring gulls and Australian white ibises (better known as “bin chickens”) will rip open bin bags and fling the rubbish across your garden. The birds guilty of these indiscretions are generally classed as pests and many cities are fighting back – either by killing the birds or by taking eggs from their nests.

Herons eat fish from ponds and occasionally birds of prey will attack small pets. Urban pigeon keepers, angry after having a prize bird attacked by a sparrowhawk, occasionally try to poison or set cruel traps to kill hawks; but in general cities actually provide a safe haven for birds of prey. Scottish sparrowhawks seem to breed significantly better in cities, likely because there are so many other birds there to hunt.

In fact, many city councils are encouraging birds of prey as a natural way to control the population of pigeons and rats. Peregrine falcons – the fastest birds on the planet – are given protected nesting sites on church spires and skyscrapers and their every move is streamed on webcams. Harris hawks – native to American deserts – have been brought across the Atlantic to scare birds away from the tennis courts at Wimbledon.

Smaller, cuter birds don’t have any such image problems, and millions of Brits put bird seed in their gardens or feed the ducks at their local park. (I should add: if you do, please don’t give them bread, which lacks the vitamins birds need and causes a horrible disease called “angel wing”; seeds, vegetable peel or little bits of fruit are better.) Cities are increasingly recognised as places where you can spot interesting birds – right now, the bird tracking portal eBird lists no fewer than 289 species that have been seen in London – and the last couple of years have seen guides such as David Lindo’s How to be an Urban Birder and even scientific journals such as the Journal of Urban Ecology dedicated to the life of the town.

Save the birds

An American robin has a rest in Boston Common. American robins are in a completely different family to European robins, in case you ever wondered why the robin in Mary Poppins looked so messed up. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although cities offer food and shelter, they also contain many threats. Glass windows are invisible death to birds flying at full speed – the exact number killed isn’t clear, but it might be as many as 30 million a year in the UK alone. Vehicles can also kill, especially in suburban areas where dense gardens meet busy streets.

Although city birds are protected from some of the predators that they would encounter in the countryside, there are still plenty of animals looking for a meaty meal – not least pet cats, which the RSPB estimates kill 55 million birds in the UK every year. 


These threats aren’t necessarily having an effect on bird populations as a whole – most birds lay more eggs than needed, and if one young bird is killed by a cat a sibling can take its place. The bigger risks come from changes to the environment itself. Pesticides, patios and over-neat lawns have reduced the number of insects crawling around, and therefore the amount of food available for birds like thrushes, starlings and sparrows.

In spite of how easy they are to observe, urban birds tend to be understudied compared to their rural cousins. The fact pigeons are so widespread means researchers often overlook them, but their ubiquity means that observing the birds can help scientists to track environmental changes and to compare cities that otherwise have little in common. Citizen science can help here – the bird tracking apps Birdtrack and eBird let anyone submit their bird sightings, and actually need more coverage of urban and suburban areas.

Thankfully, the idea of creating urban bird sanctuaries is now being taken seriously. Parks have a role to play, but many birds actually prefer the wild roughness of building sites and industrial land, where bare soil crawls with bugs and wildflowers grow gloriously high – ironically, brownfield sites can be as important to the ecosystem as pristine green belt. Perhaps the most spectacular example is the London Wetland Centre in Barnes. Just across the Thames from Hammersmith, this Victorian waterworks has been converted into marsh land and attracts huge flocks of water birds, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in London. In fact thanks to the reserve, a few birds such as the reed-dwelling bittern – which almost went extinct in the UK – are now easier to spot in London than in the countryside it.

Flying into the future

This blackbird probably doesn’t understand its rural cousins. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

In his book Darwin in the City, the biologist Menno Schilthuizen suggests that we’ve been looking at blackbirds all wrong. European blackbirds were originally forest-dwellers eating berries and bugs from the ground. For this, they needed long, probing beaks and the ability to migrate in the winter when the soil froze hard. However, a few blackbirds – possibly initially those living in the hills around Rome – made their way into cities and found plentiful supplies of food year round.

Since they no longer needed to pry into the earth or the bark of trees, their beaks started to get shorter. Because food was available year round, their migration instinct was switched off. And because they needed to compete with traffic and the other noises of city life, their songs got louder. The city dwelling birds became incompatible with their forest dwelling ancestors; the changes to their beaks meant that their songs changed too, until they were effectively speaking different languages. There is a compelling case to be made that there isn’t just one species of blackbird, but two: the forest blackbird, Turdus merula, and the city blackbird, Turdus urbanicus.

Where the blackbird has led, other birds are sure to follow. British great tits are evolving bigger beaks that help them dig around in garden bird feeders and many urban birds have started singing the dawn chorus earlier to avoid traffic and aircraft noise and to take advantage of artificial streetlighting. City-dwelling pigeons even seem to be evolving darker feathers, probably because the dark pigment captures the toxic elements pigeons accidentally ingest when they peck at paint.

Nesting in coated metal gutters like this exposes pigeons to dangerous chemicals in the paint, and this pigeon’s dark feathers are likely an evolutionary response to that threat. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Birds are no longer just accidental wanderers into cities, nor are they just greedy opportunists: they are an integral part of urban ecosystems. Not only do cities need their birds – Increasingly, birds need their cities.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets at @stejormur. Many of the birds mentioned in this article tweet in a tree near you.