If I’m honest, the world-weary citizens of Walsall long ago tired of local politics. Voter turnouts are low at local elections, and fed up of never really seeing any improvements in their local areas despite years of multi-whatever committees, LNP’s, area managers and lip-service partnerships, my fellow residents of the borough have largely resigned themselves to the gradual slide into the dereliction, urban chaos and civic neglect that seems to be the fate of our town today.
About the only break we get from the relentless negativity of the Walsall political milieu is to enjoy the latest calming statement from Councillor Mike ‘Blofeld’ Bird, a politician of some resplendent girth, both physically and vocally. Whatever the situation, Mike has an opinion on it, and can be relied upon by local press and radio to squeeze into any vacant slot they have. Our leader is good value for media money, and can be trusted to court controversy and make any audience so angry that they’re prepared to generate the next day’s content free of charge and without prompting. A gift to the local hacks, then, if not the electorate and his fellow Tory party members.
Mike’s reign has been split over more than one tenure at the top, and he’s not, surprisingly enough for a man of such universal charm, without his enemies. Despite his publicity friendly ways, it seems some in his party have become concerned that after somewhat of a drubbing in the last elections, that the magic charm may be slipping away from the member for Pheasey. It all started going a bit Pete Tong when the economic realties of the credit crunch started to bite down at the Civic Centre; the leaders’ confident assertion to the press that he was worth £100,000 per annum of anyone’s money, and that on his meagre allowances of £29,000 per annum he was working 345 hours a week were incomprehensibly met with no small degree of derision, as was his desire for a pay rise. The underlings were clearly not happy.
Since losing a bunch of seats to Labour at the locals last spring, the council has swung to no overall control, and emboldened by the election that Mike Bird lost for them, the local socialists have been goaded into making the odd appearance in public, a turn of events so shocking to a few old Tory hands that they conspired to mount an unsuccessful putsch, failing to overthrow their mouthpiece in chief. The subsequent cold front engulfing some Conservative wards can surely be not a good omen, and I fear Mike knows his days as leader are drawing to a close.
The air of change blowing about the leader’s ankles can only have been responsible for some of his latest pronouncements, which seem rather too focused on his perception of leaving a legacy to the electorate such that they might remember him by. A typical example recently appeared on the Express & Star website, where mike holds forth about the removal of the hated Overstrand restaurant, closed for nigh on 20 years.
This is a remarkable statement. Mike Bird wants – along with his pet pussy, Adrian Andrew – to be remembered for two of the most pitiful failures of the planning system ever to occur in Walsall. The erection of the Overstrand is lost in the mists of time – but the fact that the hated overbridge has been empty and rotting, just like the Mellish Road church for nearly two decades is a symptom of the utter failure of our council and it’s planning policy. That we are expected to celebrate two decades of planning and legal wrangles culminating in the loss of our heritage in the form of a formerly beautiful church would be hilarious were it not so tragic. Like wise, it’s taken nearly the same amount of time to find a developer mad enough to take on the Old Square and it’s attached, airborne eatery. Were I to be remembered for those sequences of events, I’d probably streak down Park Street whilst assaulting a sheep, purely as a distraction.
Meanwhile, Mike also thinks it’s possible to make huge amounts of money from advertising on the council website. £500,000 to a cool £1,000,000 per year, apparently. It seems ads could be slipped onto council webpages advertising related services, at the modest cost of a tenner per advert per week. To make £500,000 in this manner would involve the minor achievement of attracting 962 adverts per week – easy to achieve if Mike’s on the sales team. Whether the creaking, home brew website currently being live developed as our civic flagstaff in cyberspace could cope with any additions at all is an interesting question, but Mike’ll sort it.
One is left wondering whom the relevant advertisers might be on the democracy pages for example – mercenaries, perhaps? Money launderers? Grow lights, even? Demolition services would work well on the listed buildings page, and firelighters would surely sell well advertised alongside. On the council tax page, perhaps loan sharks could dwell, or organ donation services. This is a stunning, revolutionary plan which less commercially focused services would love to share in. If only Google and the like knew.What can possibly go wrong?
Finally in the bizarre proclamation department, also last Friday, we had Blofeld’s utterly unexpected play for Birmingham’s threatened wholesale market. Sensing a whiff of free publicity – sorry, sensing the opportunity to becalm trouble waters in Birmingham, Mike has invited the traders at the threatened Birmingham Wholesale Market to talk to him about moving to the regenerated site of the former IMI copper foundry at James Bridge. After all, it’s handy for the motorway and nowhere near Brum, but it’ll be cheap, right? There’s only one snag. The site is currently undeveloped, unreclaimed, polluted land. Possibly the most contaminated site in Europe, which will need to be cleaned up. A cleanup that will take years, once a plan has been formulated. After funding is decided. Watch this space.
Strangely, the market traders don’t appear to have responded yet to Mike’s invite to join him in a communal flight of fantasy – to move to a site that possibly won’t be ready for a decade or more. Possibly because the rumour has it that their current site will close by 2013. Clearly a less than optimal plan.
Perhaps when the Walsall Conservatives finally grow a set of collective balls and cast the former political behemoth into the wilderness, the new leader will be a keener media manipulator than even Mike. I’m looking at several candidates, and I could easily see the likes of Marco Longhi or Eddie Hughes ending up with the reigns. This would signal an interesting period, as both are aware of the power of the press and online community, a skill still proving somewhat elusive to the Labour group, who despite having returned some promising youthful faces in the last election, still seem to be hoping that the nasty media will go away. When they do engage with it, it’s on very odd terms.
Tim Oliver, Labour group leader unfortunately blessed with a rather low refractive index, made a rare appearance recently in the Birmingham Mail where even the reporter seemed confused as to his identity and featured the wrong photo. Our undercover opposition helmsman unfortunately seemed to be channeling the ghost of Neil Kinnock’s ill fated Sheffield Rally, a salutary lesson in claiming early victory. The discovery of this piece – featured in a paper hardly anyone in Birmingham reads, let alone anyone in Walsall – left me agog. Is Tim preparing a charm offensive? Best of luck with that.
The fact is that if the Tories do dispense with Mike – as they surely will quite soon – whoever they elect is going to have the major bonus of not being him. The shock of a new, possibly less purple face in the leader’s chair may well prove quite attractive to the electorate, particularly if it were attached to a media-savvy head. In which case, Labour really will need to sharpen their game and come out of hiding a bit more often, and do some real opposition for a change. There are several high profile Tory councillors whose faces are well known, yet I doubt many could pick Tim Oliver out of and ID parade.
All I know for sure is that the Conservatives in Walsall can’t go on like this. Every time Mike Bird makes another media proclamation, you can see, to a man, eyebrows raising and hear the collective sharp intake of breath as his troops brace for impact. I’m not entirely sure when he was crowned, although the coronation must surely have happened. Why else would I keep hearing the phrase ‘King Bird so often in civic circles?
We live in interesting times.