Interview: UKIP mayoral candidate brands combined authority a ‘mini EU’
“I’ve called it a mini EU. It’s always going to be wanting to grow, grabbing more councils as it goes. It’s always going to want more powers and responsibility. It’s going to be self obsessed.”
Pete Durnell, the IT man from West Bromwich vying to be the first mayor of the West Midlands, is critical of the English devolution project. In line with his party, Durnell is opposed to the legislation that created the very job he’s running for.
However, he defends his candidacy.
“It’s happening and rather than sit in the corner shouting ‘we don’t like it’, we need to get involved in it. Because I have scepticism about it, I can stop it falling into all the traps that I think are there for it.”
Despite his opposition to the post’s creation, Durnell has ruled out running on an anti-devolution ticket. He rejects the idea that successfully campaigning on this basis would help dismantle the new legislative framework.
“I’m not going to run on a ticket of ‘elect me and we won’t have a combined authority’ because that’s not going to happen.”
He also maintains that using the powers that he is openly opposed to isn’t hypocritical. In fact, he sees some opportunities. “I do believe it can do some good in terms of strategic-wide planning”, he said.
However, Durnell is unsure as to how the Combined Authority ought to be structured and hasn’t been campaigning for any specific reforms ahead of the widely anticipated new Devo Deal. “I don’t have a detailed model in mind”, he confessed.
Despite lacking a clear vision, Durnell identifies one of the key problems as being the concentration of power into the mayor’s hands and the lack of involvement from councillors. Paradoxically, in his interview he bemoans the inevitable growth of the institution but also claims that more people need to be brought into the political debate to hold the mayor accountable.
Whilst Durnell offered some thoughts on this, he again doesn’t have a clear plan for how he’d achieve his vision of a streamlined public body that also reflects the multiplicity of opinion across the region. He refused to be drawn on whether he’d formalise the inclusion of councillors’ views into the political process or simply meet to discuss issues with them whilst sacrificing none of his personal power.
Despite being short of policy proposals to back up some of his key pledges, Durnell is upbeat about his chances of being elected as mayor. “The West Midlands is dubbed the Brexit capital”, he notes.
In fact, Durnell reckons that the West Midlands is actually UKIP’s best shot at mayoral success out of all the combined authorities in the country. “Is it four or five?”, he asks.
There will actually be seven, with a further three areas currently considering devolution proposals.
Durnell doesn’t think that UKIP’s record on race-related controversy ought to be an issue in the campaign despite the region’s diversity. “Immigrants have got absolutely nothing to worry about from a UKIP point of view”, he said.
“The economy has actually been kept afloat by pumping in hundreds of thousands of people”, he notes.
However this doesn’t stop him from reeling off the negative contributions he sees “immigrants” as having made.
“Schools are getting full, jails are overflowing, public services in general are absolutely struggling because you’re putting all these extra people in the country”, he said.
“They get ill, they have children, their children get ill”.
He is quick to point out that he doesn’t blame any individuals who have come to Britain for all the problems he identifies.
“If I lived in Poland or Romania I’d come and live here. I’m not a hypocrite – I’d do exactly the same thing! I’d just get on a coach”, he said.
He also points to the impacts on the labour market, blaming low wages and unemployment on immigration despite the current strong employment figures.
“I spoke to a black African descent lady in West Brom who told me she’d walked up and down the high street looking for work. She was offered between £1.50 and £3.50 an hour in shops. They said to her, if you don’t want it there’s a Polish girl we know who’ll take it”, he said.
Durnell refused to comment on whether “immigrants” had made an overall positive or negative impact on the West Midlands. “That’s an impossible question to answer”, he scoffed.
However, he maintains that his view on their contributions to society doesn’t impair his ability to represent the region because he believes that everyone here should be allowed to stay.
Durnell finishes our interview by summing up his suitability for the role of mayor of the UK’s biggest combined authority.
“I’ve worked for a long time in bringing people together to solve problems of all different kinds, largely in the IT world.”
Mayoral elections will take place on 4th May 2017.