Metro Mayor Green Party candidate James Burn talks transport, housing and mental health to an audience of University of Birmingham students

Written by Tobias Sales
Images by James Burn

After Q&A sessions for the West Midlands Combined Authority Metro Mayor candidates began earlier in the week with Labour candidate MEP Sion Simon, on Wednesday 25th January, it was the turn of Green Party candidate James Burn to offer his views and highlight his suitability for the role.

Burn began by outlining the superfluous nature of the role, following the result of Birmingham voting against having a mayor in referenda twice. Burn was also quick to stress the need for a more stringent scrutiny committee which can critically assess the progress of the Metro Mayor, an initiative he would implement should he win.

'Devolution can be a great thing, but it depends what you do with it'

But the implementation of a Metro Mayor could, if handled carefully, lead to great change and propel the West Midlands forward, Burn insisted. ‘Devolution can be a great thing, but it depends what you do with it’, he explained, ‘if we use those powers to set free human potential and let people flourish in their lives, they’re great things”.

As well as answering a number of questions, Burn had the opportunity to assess the Guild’s Manifesto, offering valuable insights as to how he would act on it should he become Metro Mayor in May.

The manifesto was composed of concerns particular to students, featuring transport, mental health and the problem of housing, each striking a chord with the Green Party candidate, who is also the opposition leader for Solihull council.

Passionate about the poor transport links around the city, Burn highlighted his disdain for the imminent HS2 service. Despite accepting the decision to implement the high-speed railway, Burn said that he would prefer instead to re-open existing train tracks and transport links, some of which continue to be utilised, but are closed to passengers. This initiative would be both cheap, he said, and incredibly useful, offering new passages and links for commuters.

Housing was another issue raised as Burn claimed that he also struggled with housing as a student at the University of Birmingham, nearly twenty years ago. One major concern, he said, is landlord’s reluctance to alter their poor service: concerns are raised but are quickly alleviated when the students leave, and the process continues, with the same poor service offered to different students, year after year.

'these are not ‘troubled individuals’, actually, these are a product of a very troubled society'

Burn was ready with solutions: ‘unionise and organise’, he urged. A renters’ union, he said, would be of great benefit, whilst the platform of Metro Mayor would enable Burn to contest the ethics of landlords.

It is evident Burn’s experiences have influenced and shaped his political ideology. Reflecting on his work as a social worker, Burn showed deep concern with the way in which mental health is viewed, not only in the West Midlands, but also by central government.

‘The government attempts to get people who cost them a lot of money to cost less money and they’re called ‘troubled individuals’,’ he said, ‘I find this whole debate fundamentally disturbing, because these are not ‘troubled individuals’, actually, these are a product of a very troubled society.’

For Burn, the key to aiding individuals is not focusing on their economic impact, but focusing on them as individuals. ‘I’m a social worker, I believe in infinite human value; I believe in dignity; I believe in compassion,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to address mental health just because it costs the state a lot of money.’

Finally, Burn addressed the economy of the West Midlands, highlighting the need for rejuvenation which he believes could be easing achieved. Nevertheless, he said that simply pummelling money into thriving areas of the West Midlands and hoping for it to ‘trickle down’ will not achieve the benefits desired.

'there is a lot of aspiration, but if you don’t have the money, it is wasted'

‘Research is very clear: if you want to help communities who are deprived, you have to invest directly into that community. We have to directly invest into those areas left behind,’ he explained.

The stagnating economy, Burn said, is caused by economic incapability, and certainly does not root from indolence. ‘Having worked, lived in, and represented a community which is very deprived, I can say there is a lot of aspiration, but if you don’t have the money, it is wasted.’ According to Burn, with more capital floating into specific communities – and perhaps the inception of a West Midlands bank – their desires would be matched by the economic funds.

Concluding the session, Burn reiterated the reason student concerns are very rarely addressed: ‘you simply don’t get out and vote, to be honest.’ Poor voter turnout amongst students produces terrible consequences, he argued, namely, that students lose their voice.

‘Students are grossly underrepresented in Birmingham; we have a student population who are barely ever mentioned.’ If students vote and show interest, the inception of the role of Metro Mayor is an impressive platform which could be utilised to raise their concerns; far from superfluous, it could act as a gateway for students to have their voices heard, and – most importantly – see their issues addressed.